What is the difference between a paid-for article praising a product and an article praising the exact same product in which no money has changed hands?
The former we might call native advertising, content marketing or perhaps even advertorial. The latter is traditional journalism.
Here's the follow-up question: which of the two scenarios, if any, represent the 'selling' of journalism's soul?
According to America's On The Media host Bob Garfield in a recent article for The Guardian, it's the former. His views echo those of the hugely influential media pundit and editor of Silicon Valley Watcher, Tom Foremski, who fumed recently that the New York Times 'sold its soul for a handful of beans' after it published its first native advertising project, a highly lucrative partnership with Dell.
The puff pieces shamelessly praising Dell's computing products 'poison the well of trust that publishers have worked so hard to build', he shrieked. In other words, writing positive articles about products and getting paid to do so corrupt the ethics of independent media. How could professional journalists stoop so low?
Well, one look at the weekend papers - every single one of them - would tell Bob and Tom that they're at least 40 years too late. Journalism sold it soul - as he rather portentously puts it - when PR companies and marketing agencies realised they could get easy copy by offering a freebie.
Let's not kid ourselves - native advertising, content marketing, call it what you will, is not a new phenomenon but it is one that journalists have excelled at performing and, in my experience anyway, continue to do so. One only has to turn to the travel pages.
What else is a travel article but a perfect form of native advertising? A business has a great product so hires a public relations professional to boost its profile for limited outlay. The PR executive then offers a journalist a free week or so away (perhaps even with flights included) knowing reasonably enough that the resultant article will be as close to editorial eulogy as it's possible to get - without having to pay for it.
The key to it all, of course, is that the words are fabulously constructed. They tell a story, they conjure up aromas, sounds and sights that no advertorial could possibly do - because they're true. They must be true, a journalist wrote them.
When I was an executive on national newspapers, all my banker friends (quite a few, I'm afraid) laughed at the Feller family's surprise half-term holidays to Mauritius (once!) or weekend in a boutique Seville hotel. You pocket your millions, I retorted, this is my bonus. The resultant articles weren't lies but they were the result of a perfectly acceptable 'deal' in which I got a treat and the providers got 1,200 adulatory words.
Some are less shamefaced than others. One editor I worked for used to demand of his travel editor the most extraordinarily lavish two weeks in the sun for his family of four and then ensured his wife used her maiden name to write up the 'review', to protect him from staff freebie-envy. Another extremely high-profile writer appears to enjoy the hospitality of the same luxury company over and over again and places her articles in different publications throughout the year. The most recent came last Saturday.
This isn't journalism, it's native advertising. Or perhaps it is journalism, it's just got a new name now. The boundaries were blurred many decades ago - it's not something the digital age has suddenly created. You see it on the fashion pages, the property sections, anything that's prefaced by 'this week's must-have' or 'hottest new trends'.
What is new is that publishers have finally realised that they 'own' the tools to make money from this you-scratch-my-back method of working.
Storytelling is an incredibly hard skill. Journalists are incredibly good at it. Businesses will pay incredible fees if their stories can be told well and in as positive a way as possible.
So instead of bleating about journalism selling its soul to the dark forces of PR et al, let's instead celebrate how journalists can help increase the profits at the companies that pay their salaries and supplement hard-hitting investigations - by doing what they're doing already. Just without getting sand in their shoes.
Grant Feller is a media consultant and director of GF-Media. He is reluctantly available for native advertising commissions during most half-term holidays.Suggest a correction