The Washington Post announced this morning that it is making its website available to "marketers" who will be able "to offer content to Washington Post users and feature it on The Post’s homepage and throughout the site."
Advertisers (which for some reason the announcement insists on calling "marketers") will get "premium placement throughout our site," the Post writes. The first client to buy into the program, called BrandConnect, is CTIA-The Wireless Association, a non-profit trade group representing the wireless communications industry. (It was originally the Cellular Telephone Industry Association, hence the awkward portmanteau.)
A link to the CTIA content appears on the Post's home page, where it is clearly marked, "sponsor generated content." It links to an item that uses a sans-serif font easily distinguishable from the Post's usual font.
Despite the efforts the Post made to differentiate sponsored content from news, this is a disturbing development. I can easily imagine readers (OK, this reader) burrowing into the Post's website and at some point not noticing that they are reading sponsored content when they think they're reading the Post.
Even without mistakes of that sort, this is a very bad idea. CTIA could buy ads on the Post site. Why would it prefer to post its own content rather that run ads that link to it?
Here's where the danger in this scheme becomes clear. CTIA's content gains credibility by appearing on the Post website, whatever font is used. Ads won't do that; but sponsor-created copy will.
With ads, a sponsor buys clicks to its own site. With this scheme, a sponsor buys a bit of the Post's credibility, which the paper has painstakingly built up over decades.
And once a newspaper starts to sell of its credibility–the trust it has earned from its readers–it's only a matter of time before it has no credibility left.
Mark the date: March 5, 2013. Will this be remembered as the beginning of the end of The Washington Post?
I fear the answer is "yes."