Who will advocate for THE AUDIENCE? | As traditional arts journalism craters, paid sponsorship creeps into editorial content

If you’re like me, you look forward to that weekly “On The Town” email from Portland Monthly every Thursday. It’s an indispensable source of picks and color on what’s happening as Portland heads into a weekend. Plus it looks great.

But scanning today’s email, you may have seen something a little different – something I don’t think I have ever seen before there: sponsored content (read: an ad) trying to look like an independent PoMo pick. I’m talking about that off key plug for Dreamgirls at PCS: “You’re gonna love Dreamgirls!”

When I first read it, I thought, “That seems a little forward and enthusiastic for PoMo.” Then I noticed the section was grayed to make it stand out. And then there it was above the section in small print: Advertisement. Pretty clever. Perfectly (almost) camouflaged to look like an editorial opinion, it’s simply an ad. I guess we should be grateful they they still bother to label it “advertisement”!

The takeaway: In an era of cratering journalism, expect to see the influence of paid sponsorship creeping more and more into editorial opinion. And if this is any indicator, you may need to look pretty darn closely to see it.

Remember that Sesame Street song?  "One of these things is not like the others."  What at first appears to be an editorial pick for Dreamgirls turns out to be a paid ad.
Remember that Sesame Street song? “One of these things is not like the others.” What at first appears to be an editorial pick for Dreamgirls turns out to be a paid ad.

If you click the Dreamgirls plug you arrive at a page of “sponsored content” on PoMo. Cleverly, the page looks exactly like one of PoMo’s normal stories – except there’s no byline. It’s basically a PCS press release.

It looks like a normal PoMo story.  But it's a paid ad.
It looks like a normal PoMo story. But it’s a paid ad.

There is a built in conflict of interest between theatres and the audience. Theatres want you to come. Audiences want to know what’s worth their time and money. In the middle are critics, media, and advertisers. Can the gray area of working for both the audience and paid advertisers be navigated? Sometimes.

But you have to really be on your game to tell the difference between critical, independent opinion on the one hand, and sponsored ads and boosterism on the other – especially in a small arts market like Portland.

The audience craves independent, accurate opinions they can trust. Advertisers know that – so the gold is getting their paid message to look like an independent opinion.

Media advocate for paid advertisers. But who will advocate for the audience?  In an ideal world – critics and editorial opinion.

caveat emptor