Over the last four or five years of a decade I have spent working in the media in Turkey, UK and Nigeria, I have noticed a growing and, quite frankly, worrying trend amongst the new generation of publications and journalists – sponsored stories, aka what has always been known in Nigerian publishing world as ‘brown envelope.’
Don’t get me wrong, having written for numerous African publications which have had their ups and downs – one publication I used to write for, Colures, a supreme quality Afro-Caribbean bi-monthly published in the UK went bust after just over a year, another paid me my contributor’s fee a whopping nine months after publication – and having run not only the editorial side of FAB since its inception in 2010 but been privy to financial decisions, I am much aware of the struggles many of us, especially niche print publications, face in the age of booming digital content that comes free, fast and easy.
As print advertising budgets which were, a mere two or three years back, the lion’s share of companies plummet and more and more resources are thrown into digital advertising, and traditional print media is fast on the slippery slope to oblivion, I am also aware that we traditional journalists will have to be creative to come up with ways to feed ourselves. Hence with reliance on print advertising at an all-time low, more and more publications and journalists turn to sponsored stories to earn their keep. While advertorial and sponsored stories have long existed in global publishing, it starts to rattle when it becomes the norm rather than the exception to ask for a neat sum of cash for encouragement.
Perhaps you will understand why I find this a worrying trend if I let you in on a few incidents I have encountered over the years which may go a long way in illustrating the dangers of the above trend – so many to choose from I don’t even know which one to start with.
Shall I tell you about the designer who called the advertising team asking for a fee to get their designs on to the cover model and refused to let go when they were told this was not our practice at FAB until they were put through to the editor to discuss? Having been told this was not our ethos but we could give them a prime advertising spot in the magazine, the designer repeatedly asked if we would make an exception given the right price.
Shall I tell you about the magazine editor who requested a number of images from a friend and conducted an interview with him for the cover of an upcoming issue, got the cover and the pages designed and emailed over to my friend with an invoice that could bring tears to your eyes, questioning whether you should have opted for a career in journalism?
Or shall I tell you about a phone call I got some years ago from a PR asking me how much we charged to publish interviews and when they were told we did not charge for editorial content, asked if I was sure (I am the co-founder and the editor-in-chief so what other title do I need to prove the level of my involvement in editorial decisions?) this was the case as they had been told otherwise?
Or shall I tell you about the strange encounter I have had with my PR cap on? One of my all time favourites, from a blogger demanding a partnership with an event I was promoting last year and stating in no uncertain terms they would not attend or report the event if they were not made a partner?
Or perhaps I can tell you about the latest one which prompted me to address this growing trend. Having sent a press release to a publication in its infancy about a story which the editor mentioned they may be interested in, I got back a response asking me how much we were willing to sponsor the pages. Upon responding to the editor that as a principle I was not interested in a sponsored story and voicing my disappointment that the publication had gone down the ‘sponsored’ route so early on in its publishing life, the response I got was, that they paid heavily for every page of their magazine and their time was not for free as they had other responsibilities and that if I was “going to be sounding that way”, they were sorry, I could “as well keep the story.”
All the person had to do before blowing hot and cold and hit the keyboard was to google my name and find out I have had my fair share of publication costs before going down the route of justifying their ‘brown envelope’ with other responsibilities.
When did journalism become about balancing other responsibilities with the invoices you write out for stories you want to cover? In an age of dwindling advertising budgets and diverse publications – online and print – keen to dip their hands into precious advertising pots, whatever happened to honest, professional journalism? Whatever happened to covering stories that inspire us rather than those that neatly line our pockets?
My main fear is, in this new age, where every Tom, Dick and Harriet with a functional internet connection and a basic knowledge of WordPress can become a publisher, most of us are not motivated by the passion of sharing interesting, intriguing, inspiring stories but by the greed of making a quick buck. Along with this comes the sad truth that absolutely any story, however pointless, and any individual, however unworthy, can make it into the pages or on the cover of a publication as long as they have got their brown envelope ready – keep paying and watch the column inches expand.
My advice to young journalists, bloggers and editors would be – keep producing intriguing, interesting, inspiring content; whether it is the print publication that is eating away at you bank balance and making you your bank manager’s least favourite person, or it is the blog you run from your bedroom keeping you up all night. In a world where cash is queen, content will always prove king, and along with consistent good content, advertisers will come knocking. Yes it will never be enough, but it will do. Yes, you will more often than not seek partnerships that pay and sponsored posts, but make sure you do not see it as your God-given right. Then you will always be able to keep your head up high and consider yourself a real journalist rather than a mere mercenary.by