We’re All Shilling for Something

Photo of snake oil salesman

Snake oil salesman with a shill from the audience.

One of the most significant trends today in the world of journalism is the shift from writing for a publication that gets its money from advertisers to writing for the advertisers themselves. It’s called “content marketing,” and it’s attracting a great many who used to get their paychecks from “news” organizations. So big is this movement that I think of it as one of the super trends of the cultural shift to postmodernism. Sooner or later, it will impact everybody. In the future, for example, there will be very few “employed” journalists, as we think of that concept today, and every smart writer or video journalist needs to understand that the only thing that will matter to them downstream is their personal brand.

This won’t happen overnight, but the signs are certainly there.

In an excellent piece in the New York Observer, Journalists Take Refuge in the World of Branded Content, Kara Bloomgarden-Smoke writes the story of Melissa Lafsky Wall, who moved from editor of Newsweek to director of content at HowAboutWe, “a startup dating site with a blog about courting, relationships and romance.”

Ms. Lafsky Wall is one of many journalists departing the desert of traditional media for the greener—but also grayer—pastures of branded content. A bad year for journalism, owing to layoffs at Condé Nast, Martha Stewart Living, Reuters and Hearst, and buyouts at The New York Times and Time Inc., has been a boon to this emerging field. While writing gigs at magazines and newspapers continue to dry up, there are abundant opportunities to write or consult for blogs owned directly by brands.

“We have editorial meetings every day; I run it just like a newsroom,” said Michelle Kessler, a former tech writer and editor at USA Today turned director of content for Qualcomm’s Spark blog. “I edit stories for Spark the same way I did at USA Today.”

The new content model represents a shift in the way publishing has usually worked. Rather than pay a media middleman for eyeballs, brands including Tory Burch, Coca-Cola and Gilt Groupe are learning to attract them all on their own. “Instead of paying money to rent an audience, they can own their own audience,” said John Hazard, director of community for Contently, a company closely tethered to the branded content explosion.

I first wrote of this ten years ago in an essay called “The Rise of the Independent Video Journalist.” Here’s an excerpt from that piece. I was pondering a future where several things would have to come together. This is one of them:

Point-of-view journalism becomes an accepted part of information programming. Special interest groups representing specific points of view will get into the VJ business, because it makes economic and political sense for them to do so. Pomos think information should be free, so who’s going to pay for video news in the 21st century? Advertising? Perhaps, but not in the form we know today. The first thing every DVR owner does is remove the commercials from their viewing. One day, an Independent VJ in, say, New York will be paid by the Sierra Club or PETA or Ford to insure their perspective is presented in daily stories about virtually anything. This is not to suggest the VJ will do only stories about Sierra Club or PETA or automotive issues; rather, that their perspective won’t be omitted in the pieces he or she does do. Remember that Pomos embrace the idea of different perspectives as they continuously scan their surroundings in search of comfortable tribes. There is a subliminal honesty to point-of-view journalism that also fits the Postmodernist ideal, along with a realism and practicality that Postmoderns appreciate.

This assumes, of course, that the writers are transparent about their relationships, and that, too, is typically postmodern. “My sponsors are…” has an air of authenticity lacking in the mysterious world of “objectivity.” Frankly, given the foundational shifts in the world of advertising, this idea may be inevitable, and, if so, it’s a potentially workable solution for journalists and journalism downstream.

However, resistance to the mere suggestion is already evident. All it takes is for the professionals to bring out that most pejorative of terms — shilling — and the discussion is over. So let’s talk about shilling and the assumption that it is inherently evil, for that assumption closes, as noted above, a potential source of funding for people in the news business.

Jim Romenesko’s blog published a letter recently from a professional journalist who was complaining about an invitation the reporter had received from Jan Hutchins, a former TV reporter now working in media relations:

I would like to propose engaging in a relationship where once in a while I supply you with fully developed stories (completed articles) that you can publish under your byline, with or without editing, at no fee…I placed a few expert quotes by some of my clients into the piece, so I am not looking for compensation or acknowledgement.

Mr. Hutchins is a new kind of PR person, a crude model, perhaps, of what we might see more of downstream. Mainstream journalists, of course, don’t see it that way, because he’s functioning as a shill in his own writing.

I’m here to help entrepreneurs rethink their publicity process to obtain guaranteed media coverage where traditional PR can’t. I do it bypassing press releases and media pitches – I investigate, come up with a story that is relevant for editorial and develop articles that media is interested to publish. Both win. Media get quality content – visionaries get their dreams told and gain an audience for their idea.

Romenesko’s readers naturally saw the move as further deterioration of the wall of separation between journalism and sales.

Google defines the word “shill” as “An accomplice of a hawker, gambler, or swindler who acts as an enthusiastic customer to entice or encourage others.” Yeesh! As is often the case, the Urban Dictionary defines the term in more colloquial verbiage: “A person engaged in covert advertising. The shill attempts to spread buzz by personally endorsing the product in public forums with the pretense of sincerity, when in fact he is being paid for his services.”

Regardless of whose definition you use, the idea is pretty nasty. Slate even used the term in a relevant headline: Want to Get Paid For TV Criticism? Shill for DISH., which tells of a Slate investigation into its own commenters and the discovery that some were actually employees of DISH (Titanius, SamB098), who were paid to comment about TV shows while promoting DISH. Slate has since banned the practice.

DISH isn’t only targeting Slate. A quick search around the web showed that over the last several months, Titanius has left at least 71 comments at sites including Entertainment Weekly, Splitsider, Bloomberg, Business Week, Rolling Stone, Yahoo, Cinema Blend, and the A.V. Club. (Louie appears to be his favorite show, followed closely by Wilfred, which has aired back-to-back with Louie on FX.) Such comments are not limited to TV recaps, either: SamB098 also likes video games, superhero movies, and celebrity fashions (though not as much, it seems, as SamB098 likes SamB098’s DISH Remote Access App).

Before we all run out as an angry mob and lynch the people at DISH, let me ask a simple question. Isn’t the basic flaw of objectivity the reality that we’re all shilling for something or somebody, and that the public increasingly sees through it?

I remember a story awhile back about a fresh-out-of-school reporter in Fargo, North Dakota, who jumped the airport fence in order to do a story about “testing” airport security. He was caught and arrested, because, well, it’s a crime (a felony, actually) to hop the airport fence. The episode cost him his job, because he pulled the stunt on his own. Folks, self-promotion is a particularly untoward form of shilling, and it finds its way into news coverage in small markets all the time. Reporters looking for better paying jobs in bigger markets are eager to foist big city (metropolitan) coverage on small markets. They need those kinds of sensational stories on their reels. In the news business, however, just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Photo of William Hurt in Broadcast NewsWe are all shilling for something. In James L. Brooks’ 1987 classic film, Broadcast News, William Hurt’s anchor character said, “What I don’t know, I can learn; what I do know, they can’t teach,” implying a natural gift for being on TV. When he was directed to help coach Albert Brooks’ character on how to anchor the news. “Here’s the trick,” he said. “You’ve got to sell it.” This is a brilliant representation of how a lifted eyebrow — or a well-placed adjective — can subtly hide bias in the presentation of objectivity. Consider the hegemony that Fox News presents. While denial is its constant refrain, it would be hard to find a viewer unaware of its position to “include” the point-of-view of the right. I practiced the same thing in my days at The 700 Club, prompting a CBS Sunday Morning commentary that our news work was “so slanted that it’s vertical.”

But through our human biases, we shill without even knowing it. It’s a part of human nature. Then, there’s the worst form of all, shilling in the name of objectivity. It often presents itself as not shilling, when in fact it shills for a minority position by giving it equal or better positioning than the majority views. In some ways, professional journalism is a license to shill, protected by the ethics of objectivity. I don’t think we’ve even begun to understand what this has done to our culture, but those who participate as readers, listeners and viewers know something is wrong. It’s a topic that demands further exploration.

Gallup’s shockingly low media trust numbers — just 40% of Americans have any trust in the press — reveal what professional journalism doesn’t want to admit: the news has become the wall-to-wall selling of something, and consumers are recoiling from it, because they’re worn out trying to defend themselves from it. I first wrote of this in 1998 in The Lizard on America’s Shoulder, so nothing surprises me about what I see, read or hear anymore. What does surprise me is the lengths to which garden variety human beings — that’s what we are, if you didn’t know — will go to insist they are capable of an objective reality. It’s old and tired, and it doesn’t work anymore. Moreover, as Chris Lasch so beautifully put it years ago, it was created to provide a sterile environment in which to place advertising. Now that advertisers can recruit their own audiences through content marketing, maybe that sterility isn’t necessary anymore, or perhaps it won’t be in the near future.

I began this essay with a visual reference to the snake oil salesmen of our past, those who often worked with a shill in the audience in order to “prove” to their “customers” that their products really worked. Protecting the public from people who prey on the innocent in this manner has been a part of the high calling of journalism. In a hierarchical, modernist view of life, this is a necessary task of the haves (Noblesse Oblige), and the press served us well in this capacity. However, in the participatory age of Google, where a linkable reference is but a click away, the power to determine whether one is being hoodwinked shifts from the protection of the haves to those who spent the past only as passive “audiences.” This is the way of the postmodern culture — Jay Rosen’s “Great Horizontal” — and the real problem is that we’re in transition. We want and need to think for ourselves, regardless of the outcome.

This is the great revolution of the 21st Century.