Remember Yahoo?  You know, that search engine that for some reason was the default on your elementary school computers but which you haven’t used since before Bing existed?  Believe it or not, the company is still hanging on and looking to expand its market in a somewhat unexpected direction: news.

Well, I use the term lightly.  Yahoo recently rolled out a series of special interest magazines, on topics ranging from Food to Automobiles to Sex, in an effort to bolster steadily falling profits by increasing the amount of time users spend on the site.  It’s a well-tested play from the search engine/homepage book.  Banner ads promoting stories about artisan apple pies and forties dating advice seem to have worked rather well for MSN, not to mention Buzzfeed.

All this is fine and good, and if News Lite is Yahoo’s best strategy for maintaining a share in its market, more power to them.  But the new magazines, as the pages are called, present one deeply unsettling problem.

The magazines utilize so-called “native ads,” a now all-too-commonplace ploy in which advertisements are hidden by being formatted like magazine content.  The trick is familiar to anyone with a Facebook account (which is probably anyone reading this post). The FB advertisements with colorful pictures on the right side of the screen are demarcated as such only by a faint grey “SPONSORED” midway down on the banner.  The New York Times article where I first read of Yahoo’s expansion included an advertisement for the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, identified more clearly by a blue header and a different font and format.  Yahoo’s articles are organized as tiles on the web browser (think news apps on tablet devices), and the sponsored promotions are mixed up with the native content with only a similarly understated “sponsored” where the article’s category would usually go.

Now I recognize the need of online news providers (both those for whom the news is the primary business and those, like Yahoo, for whom it is simply a lucrative side project) to generate revenue.  I also recognize the need to garner a readership in an age where practically all news is available within a few clicks.  Thus news providers cannot afford to charge subscription fees, or at the very least they must provide a handful of free articles to hook the reader.  Given these economic realities, advertising is the only feasible source of revenue.

But we must not, in light of our modern hyper-connected world, forget the purpose news outlets serve.  Newswriting is not stenography.  It is not as simple as reading the ticker tape.  The reporter’s job is to research, to seek out answers, to lend interpretation, context, and humanity to the story while remaining level-headed but never robotic.  Reporters, then, must deliver news with a conscience, “to enhance society,” in the words of the NYT mission statement.

This is the very reason why there has historically been a sharp divide between the business and content ends of all reputable news providers.  The freedom of writers to report the news as they deem appropriate (constrained by the legal and ethical concerns of the company, yes, but never by the economic) cannot be violated.

Okay, maybe I’m over-reacting a little.  No major news outlets (that I know of) are writing articles for directly for compensation.  But if camouflaging sponsored content as native advertising is not a black-and-white violation of the trust between reader and reporter, it is a very dark shade of gray.

Jacob Neis has not been compensated by Yahoo, MSN, or the New York Times in any way.  If he was, he would have told you.

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