Can you be sure the piece you’re reading online these days is totally unbiased? Does it matter?
Increasingly web-only publishers don’t seem to care. At all. Forbes.com is a really interesting example. They’ve developed a whole new program called Brand Voice. It allows brands to publish their own content right there on the Forbes.com website with – as far as I can tell - no intervention at all. (There is a selection process to begin with, but then they can just publish with no oversight.)
More than this… if people are reading these pieces and liking them, they get shown alongside ‘normal’ editorial in the ‘Most Read on Forbes’ trending box. According to this really interesting post on Forbes.com
Their content rises and falls on merit, just as it does for staffers and contributors.
I honestly don’t know how I feel about this, both as a journalist and as a reader. All I can say is I ‘think’ this piece is an example of the Brand Voice content… and I struggle tell the difference. It looks identical. It is signposted at the top of the piece. And… at the moment the link to the explanatory page about the Brand Voice concept is um, broken. (click 'What is this?' to see what I mean)
Forbes Brand Voice: Connecting marketers to the Forbes audience. What is this?
Buzzfeed is another oft quoted example of a publisher going down this route. But perhaps a little surprisingly the signposting with this example in partnership with the Economist is much more explicit (ie better?) And then there’s Quartz. I can’t for the life of me find a story written by a brand on there. But it’s certainly happening. Does that mean I didn’t find any… or is the distinction so blurred it’s impossible to tell?
In a business to business environment this kind of thing feels totally fine and is pretty common. You get the CEO of say a major travel company writing his weekly column for Travel Weekly - and it has been like this for years. (But it does tend to be a column). How about Tyler Brule writing his regular column for the FT when he also happens to be the driving force behind Monocle magazine? So what? No big deal.
But these examples above feel more out there. I’m convinced that the Forbes model in particular is blurring the line between editorial content written by journalists in the employ of the publisher and content written on behalf of sponsors so much people will very quickly forget all about it and read one piece just like any other. Except it isn't. One piece has been paid for by a company that wants ultimately to influence you to buy their stuff, not by an impartial journalist who will try and show both sides of a story.
I think it’s particularly concerning that there’s apparently little or no editorial control. The crowd just decides whether they ‘like’ a piece enough for it to trend and thus get read by more people. It 'rises and falls on merit'. (What the heck does that mean?) And, how easy could it be to influence that little algorithm if you wanted to - vote it up by getting a bunch of people to rate it?
People often bemoan the death of the writer in the wild world of web, but for me it’s the death of the editor that’s perhaps even more concerning. Editorial oversight – to ensure quality, accuracy, lack of bias and appropriateness for an audience. It's all being totally cast off.
What do you think?
Pic by Photojohnny