What happened to Longform.org? (part 2): Sponsored content

LongformBack in December I asked “What happened to Longform.org?”, a longish complaint about the changing course of my favorite curator of long-form journalism. Although I concluded that post with the tepid threat that “maybe it’s time for me to find a new curator,” I confess I never actually turned my back on Longform, the premier aggregate of long digital content on the Web. A few other long-form journalism aggregators have sprung up in Longform’s jostling wake (most notably, Longreads), but none have approached the ubiquitous or success of Longform. My hunch is that for an online magazine to get one of its articles listed by Longform is like hitting the daily trifecta at the track—a fat guarantee of tens of thousands of additional pairs of eyeballs being driven to the magazine’s site.

Today I noticed on Longform’s front page something new, that scourge of journalism, the advertisement masquerading as a hard-news essay, the puff piece known colloquially as “sponsored content”. Lodged between a New Yorker essay on euthanasia and Sarah Wambold’s reportage on natural burials in a Texas grove—make of that what you will—Longform dropped into their feed sponsored content from Hewlett-Packard, “Five Huge Industries That Never Saw Disruption Coming”. While the advertorial doesn’t shill HP’s hardware or services directly to the reader, any company established in the data services industry—or any company worried about being thrown aside by upstarts on their heels—is a bread-and-butter client for Hewlett-Packard, and so it’s in HP’s interest to appear as a high-tech sage, the rare Silicon Valley company with eyes on the horizon and not next quarter’s bottom line. “Five Huge Industries” paints HP as sitting in just such a tantric pose. Longform marked the link to “Five Huge Industries” as sponsored (and thankfully didn’t include it in its RSS feed), but the fact remains that the aggregation site is now using its linking power to send their readers off to corporations that have paid for that privilege rather than earned it through great timely writing.

I’m unsure if this is the first instance of sponsored content appearing under Longform’s lighthouse banner, as I’ve not followed the site terribly closely since I posted that first complaint six months ago. Linking to sponsored content is not an egregious sin or some tainting of hallowed journalist ground. I do know that sponsored content is not a good sign for anyone (including myself) who would like to see more diversity and greater breadth in Longform’s selections.

In 2013, gimlet-eyed media critic Jack Shafer wrote a great piece on sponsored content (known as “native advertising” in the business) and how it inevitably infects the reputation of even the most sterile news source:

If, as George Orwell once put it, “The public are swine; advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill-bucket,” then sponsored content is the meal so wretched that even pigs will reject unless sugar-frosted. The average sponsored-content page pits the advertiser against the publisher; the former attempts to make his copy and art look as much like conventional news or feature copy as powerfully as the latter pushes back as hard as he can to preserve “editorial integrity” without forfeiting the maximum fee. It’s common for both sides to come away from the transaction feeling soiled and swindled, but, hey, that’s the nature of most advertising.

I’d say this applies as much to a digital aggregator like Longform, which drives readers to other web sites via links and clicks, as much as it does for a traditional news site, where the advertiser’s content is integrated alongside actual content.