‘Legacy’ Publishers Make Big Move Into Content Marketing

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LMC_logoLocal newspapers and TV broadcasters are making a major innovative leap into the digital space that they hope will bring them big bucks from sponsor-funded content.

The 55 newspaper and broadcast publishers who comprise the Local Media Consortium are partnering with the freelance resource company Ebyline to create paid content where a business sends a message to users in the form of an article that is placed next to a site’s regular editorial content.

LMC Executive Director Rusty Coats said member companies — who represent 1,200 titles in what is called “legacy” publishing — are confident that the funded content will become “a major source of [their] digital revenue. This is one of our biggest opportunities. It’s our No. 1 priority.”

Newspapers especially have been hard hit by the double whammy of plunging print revenues and the weakness of digital display ads that were supposed to be the replacement.

Funded content is already a $44 billion annual business, counting all kinds, according to the Custom Content Council, which did a recent study on this “disruptive” kind of advertising, which is often called “content marketing. It can include placements in social media, articles posted on the Web and in print, e-newsletters, webinars, white papers, podcasts and videos.

Coats said LMC publishers would focus on selling funded content on their mobile platforms because smartphones and tablets are the way most that news consumers now get their information. He said mobile produces more click-throughs than computer platforms because funded content can be streamed to appear at a set place within a regular news article whose display fills the smaller screens. With software algorithms as well as manual placement, funded content can be keyed to appear within a regular news story in the same subject area as well as at in fixed time sequences.

The newsrooms of the LMC publishers will not be involved in producing or otherwise managing the funded content. Those responsibilities will rest with the business and sales departments. This arrangement is designed to protect the newsroom from suspicions that its editorial decisions are shaped by businesses who buy space for their messages.

“The challenge is doing it right so readers know we’re not crossing the line,” Coats said. Toward that end, LMC members have been redesigning their digital pages so that funded content won’t be confused with editorial content.

The funded content is being written by freelancers who are screened by Ebyline. The service has a vetted list of 12,000 freelancers, of whom 2,000 are “Ebyline Approved,” which means, according to company CEO Bill Momary, “they have achieved a higher level of acceptance/endorsement from Ebyline.”

The five-year-old firm has received two rounds of funding from E. W. Scripps — a major owner and a member of LMC — totaling $6.5 million. It also provides freelancers who work directly with newsrooms, and has many clients among local newspapers, which use freelancers as lower-cost replacements for the staff reporters who were let go through a decade of budget cutting in the wake of steadily shrinking revenue from print subscriptions and advertising.

Momary says funded content his freelancers write for businesses is placed next to articles produced by newsrooms because “we want to be adjacent to all the great content they produce.” This adjacency helps to bring user engagement to the funded content, he says.

Funded content is usually not a hard sell of a product or service. Momary says “quality is rewarded with search results” Freelancers assigned to funded content do the same kind of research and other information gathering that newsroom reporters do, he said.

Two LMC members who are “off to the races” on funded content, Coats said, are E. W. Scripps, which has 16 print and digital dailies in mostly mid-size and smaller markets, and the Dallas Morning News, which has an in-house agency, Speakeasy, that works with businesses that want to put their messages in funded content.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of the in-development hyperlocal news network Local America that rates communities on their performance across a broad spectrum of livability — Local America Charleston launched earlier this year.