Thursday, October 03, 2013

USAT | Another cruise story lands on top news list, as FTC investigates growing sponsored content use

As I post this, the last of nine top news stories on USA Today's homepage is "5 things to love about a soft-adventure cruise."

This is only the latest instance of editors' showcasing content related to a big advertiser on the paper's most important real estate. The frequency with which this has been happening lately seems more than coincidental.

In today's example, it's a gallery of photos by cruise news freelancer Fran Golden sponsored exclusively by Norwegian Cruise Line. There's no accompanying story, and certainly nothing to explain what a "soft adventure" cruise might be. Nothing in the gallery hints at why the photos deserve such high-profile treatment. [Updated at 5:04 p.m. ET. More interesting details about Golden's industry work.]

On Tuesday, when I first pointed out that it appeared the industry had quietly bought a spot on USAT's homepage, Anonymous@9:26 a.m. yesterday replied with a worrisome detail:

"One of the potential 'pillars' of an experiment underway at a limited number of locations around the United States (not Butterfly) is 'sponsored content.'"

FTC launches inquiry
Only last month, the Federal Trade Commission said it had begun examining sponsored advertising content online. The Hill says these ads look similar to stories posted on news and social websites and has become increasingly common as media look for new ways to make money.

"The FTC, which has the authority to bring charges against companies that deceive consumers, now has nonbinding guidelines on the use of the sponsored content ads," The Hill says.

Earlier: How American Express got news coverage it wanted.

What do you know about any Gannett experiments with sponsored content? Please post your replies in the comments section, below. To e-mail confidentially, write jimhopkins[at]gmail[]; see Tipsters Anonymous Policy in the green rail, upper right.


  1. Really sickens me to see what USA Today has become. I know its in a struggle to survive, but there needs to be some integrity in journalism, and it needs to come from the biggest papers in the country. USAT seems to be operating like a bad weekly -- from its horrid design to its error-riddled, almost juvenile content -- the nation's newspaper continues to plummet. Guess I shouldn't be surprise. It is part of Gannett, which has never had much integrity. It's a company that looks for cheap labor, gimmicks to sell papers and treats employees like crap. This has been a known fact for years. Now USAT is feeling it.

  2. I love reading USAT. Not sure why you folks are so bitter. I don't remember anyone every comparing the journalism in USAT to the NYT. In fact Big Al took pride that he invented a paper that was the polar opposite of the NYT.

  3. Not nearly as bad, but the Clarion-Ledger is giving away football game tickets and sideline passes, plus the chance to deliver the "game ball" before each home game, through a contest and drawing on its website and in print. This would be OK, I guess, if it was done through the marketing department and with house ads, but it appears the news department is involved. There have been some house ads, but several times there have been quasi news stories about this project in the sports section, including teasers to it across the top of the sports section. If anyone in the news department is involved in this, that's just wrong.

  4. left out the school involved in that last post. It's Mississippi State University, one of the main schools the Clarion-Ledger covers.

  5. Ms. Golden appears to be the queen of the freebies in the Boston area.

    1. Yes, indeed. Golden is chief blogger and contributing editor of Porthole Magazine. That publication is part of a larger enterprise, PPI Group, that describes itself as a "partner" (ahem) with the major cruise ship companies. Those include the USAT advertiser, Norwegian Cruise Line, that I mentioned in this post.

      On its website, PPI says: "We also specialize in catering to individual cruise lines’ promotional, customer service, and revenue needs through our customized shopping programs and onboard revenue promotions."

      And: "PPI Group is conscious of every cruise line revenue center and understands the key to each cruise line’s overall success. Effective cross-promotion is the foundation for overall onboard revenue success and PPI Group is committed to assisting in every area."

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