Some prefer sponsored stories to actual ones

Meredith Levien, the executive vice president of advertising for The Times, dropped a mini-bombshell yesterday at the American Association of Advertising Agencies’ public relations forum.

She said that in some cases, ad-sponsored posts have done better than traditional news stories. Ouch!

It’s yet another nail in the coffin we all suspected we were already buried in: quality does not always equate with popularity. Sometimes people don’t really care about serious reporting all that much.

People say they want quality content, but what they say is often different to what they actually do. Before the broadcasting industry implemented an electronic metering technology in the 1940s, they compiled ratings based on telephone surveys (link is a Word document). Afraid of getting judged, those telephoned said they watched serious shows like the evening news; but what they actually watched were the comedies, game shows and other light programming.

Newspapers, radio and TV cover both serious and more light stories. In most forms of broadcasting, it is the light-hearted programming that subsidizes and makes possible the serious stuff; it’s the cheap-to-produce game shows make it possible to send reporters to Iraq. But the Internet has unbundled all this to a large degree, and so publications like Newsweek struggle while websites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy rocket in popularity.

What we are simply seeing with sponsored content is a new kind of bundling — a way to subsidize serious reporting that may or may not always have an interested audience.

Even Facebook struggles with this. They tweaked the news feed algorithm in December last year to minimize “bad” posts like quotes, memes, link-bait viral stories, etc. — but are they really that bad if that’s what people want to see? To determine “quality,” Facebook has resorted to surveys just like broadcasters did back in the 1940s. We’ve come full circle.

It may seem like a sad indicator of where we are as a human race. But I argue it’s simply a reflection of the prosperous, peaceful period that we are going through as a species. When there’s nothing to worry about, what else is there to do but entertain ourselves.

If a giant lizard and flying monster appeared tomorrow to threaten our existence, I’m sure we’d be a lot less interested in viewing pictures of cute cats. Or not.

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