A Note on Sponsors

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As you can see, over there to the right we have what’s labeled a “Sponsored Message” from PhRMA. As I mentioned yesterday, they’re sponsoring a new section of IdeaLab we launched this week. In the ad industry and journalism there’s been a lot discussion lately of what’s variously called “sponsored content,” “native advertising,” “integrated advertising,” etc. It all comes down to the same basic proposition: advertising that isn’t just your normal picture boxes and videos but text – at length writing that makes arguments and arguments that in the nature of things advocate for the advertiser or organization who bought the ad. But buzzwords tend to confuse things. So let me explain exactly what we’re doing.

You probably think of us as big innovators on the editorial side. We’re also big innovators on the business and publishing side. The two things are inextricably tied together. There’s a reason TPM’s been around for 13 years. There’s no such thing as a strong, innovative publication that doesn’t have an innovative and evolving business model that can keep the editorial side funded and thriving.

I’ve always thought that if you care about journalism, if you’re idealistic about it and ambitious about it, then you’ve got to be just as creative and obsessive about the business side of the equation. Over time, I realized that not only did I think this was essential but that I enjoyed the challenge because without a thriving business side the journalism disappears.

This is what I believe and it’s rooted in organization that all of us at TPM have built, on the editorial side, publishing, business, tech, across the board. This is who we are.

For some time we’ve wanted to launch a new subsection of IdeaLab, our tech vertical, focused on how technology and scientific research impact everyday life. PhRMA, who’s advertised with TPM in the past, agreed to sponsor the new section. The sponsorship means that they’ll run a lot of conventional ads around the new section – the sort of banner ads you’re accustomed to from around the web. In addition, a small number of their ads will be these “Sponsored Message” items like the one to the right with an explanation of precisely what that means.

Here’s the exact disclaimer message included in every case: “Sponsored messages are provided by our paid advertisers and sponsors who are solely responsible for their content. TPM editorial staff plays no role in their creation or production.

In every iteration they are clearly and repeatedly flagged as being sponsored messages, which is to say, advertising. Except instead of being a picture or a video they’ll be text.

Every article we publish in this new section of the site will come from our editorial staff with ZERO input or oversight or veto from anyone else. Period. And that applies to any other similar project we do.

We fund TPM through advertising. (We’re currently trying to get to about 20% of revenues from subscriptions. At the moment, we’re at about 10%. Advertisers, by definition have interests and agendas. We know that. And the bulk of our advertisers have clear policy agendas and arguments to make about the role they play in Washington and the country at large. This is why we’ve had a clear and publicly stated policy going back more than a decade explaining why we do not accept or reject ads on the basis of political content or message. Doing otherwise means the ads we do accept carry some tacit level of endorsement.

The acid test for me comes down to this: Do you know clearly what’s a TPM article, photo, infographic etc and what’s an ad? As long as that’s clear and there’s no room for confusion, I think we’ve delivered on our core responsibility to our readers.

Why are these “Sponsored Messages” attractive to advertisers, particularly our advertisers? Because our advertisers are policy focused and thus tend to have more complex arguments. They’re not just selling soap or peanut butter. There’s only so much of those arguments you can fit into a picture box or a video. They want room to make fuller arguments, lengthier descriptions of who they are and what they do, as you would if you were writing an editorial – in text, going into detail. The opportunity to do that to an audience like TPM’s is of particular value because you’re people who care about policy and you read stuff. That’s an advantage we have as a publication, something that allows us to stay ahead of the curve and the downward ad price pressures that are affecting much of the rest of the publishing industry.

I respect your intelligence. If you see something on TPM with distinct formatting and all sorts of disclaimers saying its a message from one of our sponsors, assume it’s a message from our sponsors and is advocating their positions.

To be clear, this isn’t a concept we’ve come up with on our own. If anything we’re late to the game. Similar “sponsored content” programs are currently running at the Times, the Post, the Guardian, Slate, National Journal, the Economist and a slew of other publications.

But this is about us. So what I can promise now and forever is that no advertiser has any influence, say or veto over any article or anything else we publish under our byline. That applies to photos, infographics, text, anything. We don’t play that way. Never have; never will.

No one writes or influences or vetos anything that runs under a TPM byline.

Because of all that, this isn’t just something I’m comfortable doing or willing to do. I’m glad to do it. Because it allows me to continue funding what I believe is a great news organization, keeping it growing and expanding. And as long as I can do that while keeping our editorial side free of outside interference or influence and making it crystal clear what’s an ad message and what’s not, I think it’s a good thing.

Having said all this, I know some of you may still find it jarring. Some of you may disagree. I totally respect that. What’s important to me is to let you know what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and why it’s good for the news we bring you every day.

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