Editors’ note: How we intend to handle ‘sponsored posts’ in the future

by Stephen Tall on February 8, 2014

Last November, LibDemVoice – after some internal debate among the editorial team and with quite a few qualms – published our first (and, to date, last) ‘sponsored post’, an article published in return for payment to the site. Both the principle – publishing an article in return for payment – and the subject matter (support of expansion at Heathrow) made it pretty controversial.

Some readers thought it was quite the wrong thing for the site to do; others thought that, so long as the posts were clearly marked as sponsored, then it was fine. We paused for thought and decided to ask what you thought in our December members’ survey.

Here’s what we asked and what you told us…

LibDemVoice is a volunteer-run website with costs funded primarily by advertising topped-up by donations from readers. In addition to our regular advertising, we have been offered the opportunity to run occasional sponsored posts by a range of organisations, including Heathrow Hub and Oxfam, who would pay to have their content featured on the site. These would be clearly labelled to distinguish them from our normal content authored by the site’s editors and our contributors. Some say this is an acceptable way for the site to pay for itself. Others say it compromises the site’s editorial independence. Do you think LibDemVoice should or should not accept sponsored posts?

    43% – Yes, it should

    27% – Yes, but only from some organisations (see list below)

    23% – No, it should not

    6% – Don’t know

Of the 27% who said “Yes, but..” here’s the breakdown by category:

You answered that Lib DemVoice should be able to run sponsored posts from some but not all organisations. Three categories of organisations are listed below. Please tick those from whom you think it would be acceptable for LibDemVoice to accept sponsored posts (you may choose more than one).

    28% – Commercial organisations

    98% – Charities and other not-for-profit organisations

    42% – Lobbyists and campaigning organisations

If you add the the”Yes, but” votes to the plain “Yes’s”, each category has a majority in favour of accepting sponsored posts. That majority is overwhelming for charities / not-for-profits (70%), and narrower for lobbyists/campaigning organisations (55%) and commercial organisations (51%). 75 of you submitted comments, and I’m pasting these at the foot of this post.

Here’s what we’ve decided…

First, many thanks to the hundreds of readers who took part in our survey for your feedback. Believe me, it has been very carefully considered.

There always have been, and still are, different views on whether we should accept sponsored posts within Lib Dem Voice’s editorial team. It probably seems a minor matter to some readers, but there are important issues of principle at stake – our reputation, independence and integrity – and those are important given how much unpaid time each of our volunteer editors puts into the site. Those concerns have to be balanced against the reality that the site needs to pay its way.

We have reached a collective decision as follows to accept sponsored posts, with the following conditions/caveats:

– Posts will always be clearly labelled as ‘Sponsored posts’ to distinguish them from our standard content.
– We will always allow comments (subject to our normal etiquette).
– There will be a presumption in favour of accepting posts from charities/not-for-profits.
– Posts from any other organisations will be judged on an individual basis and we’re very unlikely to accept them if they conflict with our liberal values.
– We’ll keep this policy under continual review.

Having written all that, of course, it may well be that we don’t get offered another ‘Sponsored post’ and all this consultation and angst has been for nothing! However, we all take seriously the mission that Lib Dem Voice should be ‘Our place to talk’ and we wanted to be both transparent and accountable to you, our readers, about this.

**

Here are the comments we received:

* Organisations who advertise would need to be vetted for their suitability.
* It wouldn’t affect existing editorial independence not to print content with which it strongly disagreed (paid for or not)
* Surely there can’t be advertising from campaign groups whose aims directly conflict with our current policies though?
* But only static ads, not animations or videos.
* But less than other contributions
* Very torn on issue, paying bills essential but sponsored posts always bother me, OTOH same orgs could submit Independent View posts and get them published, if they’re prepared to pay—however, essential not linkspam/SEO style stuff and editing-for-style needs to still happen.
* However that needs the explicit right reserved to still maintain total editorial control of all material which is not part of the sponsored posts, even if the post appears on the same “page” as the sponsored one, and totally disagrees with every point made.
* Its really trough question. As long as the editorial team are tough enough to say no to sponsors it will be fine.
* Yes it should, so long as anyone can write a reposte.
* If the finances are that bad. Otherwise i prefer not to see them.
* As long as its 100% transparent that its an “advertorial”
* What list below?
* I cannot find the list, but NOT Heathrow Hub.
* However it must be
a) infrequent
b) clearly labelled, and
c) offer a right of reply
* It can accept any suitable donations but not those that have any form of editorial influence or control
* The site is too-closely identified as being ‘semi-official’ when it is clearly not
* It’s entirely up to LDV. Many of us work on unpaid initiatives and have to bear their cost.
* So long as it is labelled clearly ‘advertisement’ – as is the practice in magazines with advertorials and not with some weasly phrase like ‘sponsored post’.
* I am not concerned about the general impact on editorial independence, but merely about the impact on the existing “The Independent View” slot, which appears to me to cater to the same range of individuals and organisations. My concern is that the adoption of sponsored posts might a) squeeze out this slot or b) might end up simply being a means to get content posted not deemed of a suitable standard for inclusion in the usual way.
* Sponsored posts, clearly labelled, are preferable to the usual adverts.
* I have no problem with adverts but am uncomfortable with sponsored posts
* Ads are ads and content is content. This is fundamental and time proven.
* As long as they don’t have a say on the editorial nature of the site.
* As a society we are used to seeing ads alongside blogs/websites/social media, and we. Should be mature enough to accept that.
* I don’t like website advertising.
* A very sensible way to raise case. As long as readers can debate the issue in the comments section, I have no problem with sponsored posts.
* If it needs to financially, yes, but ideally no.
* This would be no different from potentially controversial organisations having an exhibition stand at Conference. No problem! But do make it abundantly clear that editorial independence is untainted. But FWIW I support Heathrow Hub anyway!
* yes I know the next answer is daft but I am very suspicious of all sponsorship and its up to a very fine judgement by individuals involved in LDV
* Provided clearly indicated and editorial comment allowed
* ~But only from those organisations that share our values – these do not all fit into the catergories below.
* Paid advertorials are okay so long as it is clearly referenced that (i) site is a a paid site (ii) views are not necessarily those of the Magazine. On occasion it would be interesting to have some contentious ‘opinion’ pieces in the magazine to spark debate
* Clearly labelled OK
* I am perfectly comfortable with this. Sponsored posts are a fact of blogging life now and appear regularly on many types of blog. LDV handled it exactly right, making it perfectly clear that it was a sponsored post. As long as the frequency of sponsored posts remains low and transparency remains high, I don’t think anyone has anything to complain about.
* I experience this in a print magazine I read, and I really don’t like it. In print it looks sneaky, I think it’s the same online.
* The LDV editorial team should use their judgement which organisations are acceptable. Tobacco? Surely not. E-cigarettes? Maybe.
* Provided the Comments box is retained
* Comments must be open to site members, Such sponsered post should always be followed by enough other post to get them off the front page in under an hour.
* As long as you keep a right to reject posts which don’t fit the ethos of the site (as defined by the editorial team)
* Lib Dems believe in the free market economny
* When you did it, you said that a differently coloured header amounted to “clear labelling”. It doesn’t!
* To be honest, your editorial independence is put into greater question by the amount LDV toes the leadership’s line
* We are grown up enough to make up our own opinion on the adds and we need the LibDem money for campaigning
* I support this as I believe in free speech as long as it doesn’t affect editorial decisions (which I don’t imagine it would) however they must be very clearly marked as sponsored posts and the ability to debate their content should be as free as it usually is (and the sponsors should be encouraged to engage in that debate)
* I object to Heathrow being involved. It provides very little benefit to the SW and Wales, and its vapour trails and noise drive tourists away from our beautiful countryside.
* Keep your editorial independence and refuse sponsorship if this is to be compromised.
* We can truse the editor(s) not to permit contributions that make propaganda contrary to our philosophy – and to distinguish this from presenting cogent argument that we disagree with. You will soon know if readers don’t approve. Perhaps reders should know what proportion of the cost is being borne by sponsors – and thus whether LDV is becoming too reliant on sponsorship. Long-term contracts are not desirable.
* Yes but the editors must have the right to refuse controversial organisations.
* With clear attribution
* They need to be VERY clearly marked as such – different colour scheme, sponsorship in large type etc. etc.
* So long as it’s transparent and readers are aware that a post is sponsored then I see no problem.
* What list below?
* Advertising is fine. Members paying is fine. Mingling content in such a way is clearly wrong. If The Guardian or The Times did so there would be uproar.
* Every post on LDV should be the expression of sincere and independent opinion.
* Strong ethical guidelines are required. The party as a whole should be invited to contribute to their formulation and Conference should be given the final decision.
* As long as the sponsorship is clear, no problem.
* Generally fine, but should probably stay away from UKIP, taxpayers alliance, migration watch – ie the really illiberal stuff.
* Stuff costs money…
* ADLIB standards can be maintaine AND take sponsorship to defray costs. Even LibDem purists have commonsense (I hope)
* Ensure that sponsored posts are explicitly mentioned – and perhaps introduce them with a paragraph explaining why you think it is of interest to the readers.

Basically, if you want to accept £££ for a piece by (e.g.) a tobacco company, then explain why you think it is useful and have the courage of your convictions to list the persons who made that decision. And accept the consequences in the comments.
* I can imagine skipping past the sponsored posts, making LDV less readable. On the other hand no reason such groups can’t express a relevant campaign view via a post and pay for it. I think I would support if the posts were relevant, in keeping with nature of site, and with comments on. If they are simply 300 word adverts with only favourable comments allowed then this would be very different.
* As long as it is clearly identified as advertising/promotion. However, you should have a clearly published policy for who you will or will not accept
* As long as they’re clearly marked as such!
* The problem is readers will disagree which organisations are the right ones. Leave it to the editors.
* I think it is inevitable that you get this sort of sponsorship, but I would expect that you would be very selective in who you allow to do this. e.g no racists, sexists or homophobes
* as long as we have the right to comment freely on all posts and nothing from illiberal organisation obviously
* Need to make clear the ‘sponsors / advertisers’ not allow sponsors which oppose key party policies / principles.
* You’re either independent, or you’re not.
* I don’t see how it can do this without compromising independence. I don’t object to paid adverts though.
* It is not enough to be editorially independent, LibDemVoice must be seen to be.
* I don’t see why not, provided the number is very limited (one a week?) and the charge is commensurate with what they are getting, especially to big business. But don’t sell yourselves short. Ask for a LOT. We are opinion formers and crucial in the current system – make them pay through the nose! The price could be made known to members through the forum :-) A lower charge to registered charities of good repute, perhaps.
* As long as they are not regular – no more than once a week, and a limit per organisation of 2/3 a year. And this shouldn’t stop allowing other ‘independent view’ pieces if they are interesting but don’t want to pay!
* It is exactly the same as in other media who accept advertising
* I’m fine with some sponsored content, as long as it really is very clearly labelled and if there’s not too much of it. By which I mean one or two articles a week. We can always comment or argue about articles, and they might even be interesting and thought-provoking!
* Providing NO compromise of Edotorial andr perhaps limit to a % of running costs so that no one advertiser (if they pulled out) may influence Lib Dem voice
* If it keeps the thing in existence, then fine. Readers can always comment if they disagree with the views.
* As long as everyone can see it is advertising then yes let’s take the money!
* Fully support the site in wading through the never-ending stream of self-important, hypocritical and utterly un-self-aware whinges about moderation and bias I see in comments and the forum. But, simply not comfortable with sponsored posts.
* So long as it is clear they are sponsored and why.
* We should be careful about which organisations/companies are allowed to post. How much does it cost to run LDVoice? Could the costs be partly or wholly met by the party funds? Could funding be met by people who are party members AND subscribers to LDV?

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.