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There Is No ‘Free Media’ – Just ‘Paid’ & ‘Earned’

Posted on July 10th, 2017 in Journalism, Marketing, Public Relations, Publishing, Small Business, Social Media with 0 Comments

Last year, I arranged for a client to write a monthly financial column for a local chain of community newspapers. It was a good column, offering plain-English explanations of common topics such as traditional vs. Roth IRAs, active vs. passive investing and even how financial advisers are compensated.

The column lasted for about six months, until one of the newspapers’ regular advertisers complained that my client was receiving “free media.” That’s not true, but I don’t blame the publisher for canceling the column to appease the advertiser. Community newspapers run on very thin margins. That’s one of the reasons it’s so easy to place content – they can’t afford staff to produce more than the bare minimum.

This could be a teaching moment, though.

There is no such thing as free media. There is “paid media” and “earned media.”

Paid media are advertisements. The advertiser buys the space and fills it however he or she wants, as long as it meets the publication’s accuracy and decency standards. The advertiser calls the shots.

Earned media is barter deal. Rather than paying for space, the contributor agrees to provide information that the publisher believes would be of value to readers or viewers, subject to editing and packaging by the publisher. Basically, the editors call the shots – which makes this content editorial rather than advertising.

Put another way, the advertiser pays for space while the contributor earns it by creating material worthy of publication.

So, my client wasn’t actually receiving space for free. He and I were identifying issues of interest to readers and then writing and editing columns that explained them in plain English according to the newspapers’ rules and deadlines. Trust me, it’s a lot easier to write a check.

A Gray Area

News consumers should be aware of a media Frankenstein hiding in the gap between paid and earned. It’s called “native” or “content” media. Essentially, it’s advertising disguised as editorial, and it’s been popular in marketing circles recently.

When I was a kid, it was called “advertorial” and appeared on the inside and back pages of certain newspaper sections. The features looked sort of like news stories – with headlines, photos and columns of text – but they used different fonts than the news copy and often had the word “advertisement” on top in tiny type. There is nothing inherently wrong with that but, even as a kid, I found it hokey.

The key issue with native or content marketing is disclosure – making clear what is a paid ad. Even in the most ethical scenario, the advertiser is faced with circling a square: designing content that blends in with adjacent editorial while at the same time making clear to the consumer that it’s not.

Sadly, the ethical scenario isn’t doing too well these days; internet publishing offers such an array of fonts and layout options that it’s easy to obscure the difference between paid and editorial. Labeling of ads is inconsistent and often in undefined terms such as “present” or “sponsored.”

Consumers don’t like to be fooled. Once they discover a deception, it’s unlikely that sales will follow.


Stu Robinson does writing, editing, media relations and social media through his business, Phoenix-based Lightbulb Communications.

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