Weinberger HBR article overthinks the solutions to paid content challenges by Jon Hansen

Posted on August 13, 2015


In his July 22nd, 2013 Harvard Business Review article “The Ethics of Using Paid Content in Journalism“, David Weinberger talks about a paper that in my opinion unnecessarily complicates the challenges associated with what is or is not acceptable, in terms of paid content or native advertising.

I am not suggesting that his text is in and of itself inaccurate or irrelevant to the discussion at hand. In fact I think that he does a relatively good job at disassembling the conflicting elements of a highly contentious topic.

What I am suggesting is that he overthinks the solutions to the problems. Or to put it another way, sometimes a duck is just a duck.

Take for example an exchange I had with one blogger yesterday afternoon shortly after my post Spend Matters Sells Out, hit the virtual realms of the Internet.

Blogger: It’s making me think – is it wrong that I write an article for the companies that sponsor me as part of their sponsorship? I’ve always seen that is the primary deliverable associated with their sponsorship.

JWH: Believe it or not, the answer is fairly straight forward . . .

Would you cover the sponsor the same if they were not a sponsor?

Let me give you an example . . . 

Elcom was a sponsor when I wrote the following two posts about them – in fact they sponsored both the Procurement Insights and Procurement Insights EU Edition:

  1. The Elcom enigma; A case of unlimited possibilities and unrealized potential and,
  2. A Failure To Launch: Is It Too Late In The Game For Elcom And Companies Like Them?

They did not renew their sponsorship after this but . . . and here is the interesting thing, their senior executives still follow the blog closely and even write to me on occasion applauding my coverage of the industry.

The above is just one of several examples I could reference off the top of my head.

The point relative to today’s post is fairly simple . . . to what degree does sponsorship affect your coverage of the company footing your bill. In the procurement world, the high rate of eProcurement initiative failures over the past 10 years would suggest that it does.

What About Disclaimers?

In terms of native advertising and the purported use of disclaimers, I am inclined to agree with John Oliver’s commentary (refer to the Spend Matters Sells Out post to watch the video).

Especially when said disclaimer is in and of itself misleading, such as with the Spend Matters Beeline Sponsored Article.

Spend Matters Paid Article2A

As you will note from the image above, in the disclaimer Spend Matters indicates that “This sponsored Viewpoint article has been provided by Beeline,” and that The content below does not express the views or opinions of Spend Matters.” It then directs us to Visit https://www.beeline.com/ to learn more.”

The way in which I read this last line is that it suggests that by clicking on the link, I will learn more about the Spend Matters policy or guidelines on native advertising. But when I actually clicked on the link, I was taken to Beeline’s main web page (see image below), extolling the virtues of their product offering.

Spend Matters Paid Article2B

Was this intentional? I would like to think it wasn’t.

But here is the thing, whether intentional or not, it is an example of the razor thin line between what is and is not ethical when you publish paid content.

A Moot Debate?

Ironically, all the fuss regarding the slippery slope that is native advertising may ultimately become moot.


I am seeing more sponsors finding greater value in being associated with a publication that is considered to be a legitimate news source, as opposed to being seen as an infomercial site. Even if it means that the coverage of the sponsoring company is, from time-to-time, negative.

The reason is fairly straight forward . . . sponsorship means very little if no one is reading what you are writing, because they view it as an advertisement.