CNN’s ‘Courageous’ — recycling an idea that was bad decades ago

Move along, now. There’s nothing new here. Really.

From the Wall Street Journal’s Steven Perlberg:

CNN is creating an in-house studio that will produce news-like content on behalf of advertisers, a move that reflects marketers’ growing desire for articles and videos that feel like editorial work.

CNN calls its foray into “news-like content on behalf of advertisers” by the name “Courageous.” But it’s nothing we haven’t seen before.

Marketers know their ads generally compete with other content. In newspapers, ads share the page with news stories. But marketers want that page to be a friendly environment, one conducive to creating a mood leaving the reader receptive, or at least attentive, to the ads. For several years, native advertising — ads that closely resemble in design and tone other content on the page or website — has been big business, projected to hit more than $20 billion in 2018. (Or, as John Olver says, it’s “repurposed bovine waste.”)

This shit has many names: branded content, advertorial, content marketing, and so on. As pointed out earlier at Scholars and Rogues, companies are now producing their own branded news sites, hiring staffs of journalists to produce content aligned with the corporations’ products.

CNN, ever desirous of more revenue, will now provide advertisers with an in-house staff. It will produce [insert appropriate adjective] content that aligns closely with CNN’s purportedly nonpartisan, objective, carefully reported “news” product. CNN’s not alone, either.

CNN’s new endeavor comes as more media companies invest in creating these types of in-house shops to help bolster revenue. Music companies like iHeartMedia and Pandora offer branded content studios, and news companies from the New York Times to BuzzFeed to The Wall Street Journal have units that create advertiser content. Condé Nast recently launched a program where magazine editors work directly with brands.

But if you’ve been alive for several decades, this is nothing but old ad craft with digital coloring. Awake at 3 a.m.? Watching TV? Then you’ve seen those 30-minute or hour-long ads with someone imitating a TV network anchor, introducing “reporters” who tout a product. Trying to make the ads look like news is an old dog’s trick.

Any newspaper had (presumably, I hope, still has) an ad department that designs ads for local companies to be placed in the paper. Those folks tried hard to have these ads not look like ads. They fought, too, for good placement. “Good” was defined as getting the supermarket ads in the soft-news food section, not the national or world news pages filled with wars, conflicts, political upheavals, hurricanes, other disasters, etc.

Even the national advertisers had rules. If there was an airline ad on a page, and the editors put a story detailing a fatal air crash, all hell would break loose if that airline ad wasn’t pulled.

In the ’80s, I used to work weekends at my newspaper a dozen times a year, designing pages for special sections. These were solely designed to increase ad revenue. You’ve seen them: the Christmas issue (which ran months before Christmas), the Back to School issue, the Bridal issue (which ran in January), Valentine’s Day, Presidents Day, and others. We didn’t produce the stories; we bought them from a news service — all soft news, all designed to provide that “friendly” environment for the advertisers.

What CNN and so many others are doing just isn’t new. It’s certainly not innovative. These “revenue enhancement” gimmicks have only one goal: Make the ads appear sufficiently similar to the surrounding content as to induce credibility in the reader or viewer. But make them sufficiently different so someone like Dan Riess, executive vice president of integrated marketing and branded content at Turner Broadcasting (CNN’s parent) can say:

This isn’t about confusing editorial with advertising. This is about telling advertisers’ stories — telling similar stories but clearly labeling that and differentiating that. … This is CNN. We’re not here to blur the lines.”

News operations — those with journalists telling stories that readers and viewers need to know as well as want to know — have been struggling for more than 15 years to develop functional revenue models that replace the defunct classified and display ad business that paid for good journalism. But so much of what I see is recycling history, dressing it in video and digital clothing.

None of these is the best answer to what ails the revenue side of the news business. But don’t blame just CNN — everyone’s doing it.

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