Back in the last century E.B. White was well-known for his superb writing, from the children’s book “Stuart Little” to his essays in The New Yorker to that lifesaver for late-night college term paper marathons, “The Elements of Style”. White wrote with grace and fought for integrity, particularly editorial integrity. He abhorred mixing a publication’s editorial content with what is known today as “sponsored” (paid) editorial. In the early 1970s he famously denounced Esquire magazine for planning to publish a short story sponsored by a corporation; protests were so vehement that Esquire killed the piece.

How quaint! Today, thanks to the vastly changed media landscape sponsored content is everywhere. In Philadelphia a recent graduate of a major university’s journalism department tried to find a job in the field, with predictably poor results. Undaunted, he created his own job by starting a free electronic publication that also fostered a community beyond the screen, including both sponsored editorial and sponsored events. His former professors were aghast that he would violate journalistic canons of mixing sponsored content with editorial; he countered that he wanted to eat, live indoors, provide information to his readership, work on exciting projects, and retire his onerous education loans. E.B. White didn’t contend with Sallie Mae’s repayment schedule.

I don’t blame this young publisher in the least. If the publication is free, such as his or Facebook’s, I have no financial investment in the material, so sponsored content is part of the implied agreement that I pay with my attention. When I pay with money, it’s a different matter-I’m buying an editor’s taste and control over articles. This weekend I landed on (more like stepped in) some sponsored content on the New York Times website. From the home page it looked like a Times article; when I clicked through, it was obviously sponsored. I was nabbed by an editorial speed trap, designed to mimic the introduction to a Times piece.   Browse with care!

Happy reading!
Jim Shulman