PhotoSay what you want about the news media, the very definition of news is that it's written and edited by disinterested journalists -- "disinterested" meaning the reporters and editors have no financial stake in the outcome.

The constant persecution of legitimate news outlets by loudmouthed bullies and the sprouting of talking-head channels that do nothing but spout opinion and call it news have helped destroy public confidence in an institution that is essential to democratic government.

But neither of these is anywhere near as dangerous as the latest craze sweeping the media world. It's called "sponsored content" and, very simply, it amounts to commercial interests paying media outlets to run a story supplied by the sponsor. It's generally regarded as reprehensible by Ivory Tower dwellers. Struggling publications counter that, as long as it is clearly labeled, there's nothing wrong with it.

For some reason, advertisers and marketing types have adopted the term "native content" to describe the practice of placing paid stories in media outlets. What's "native" about it is a mystery but it's not the first time advertising has adopted innocuous names for dubious practices.

So far, there hasn't been much of a fuss about this latest form of corporate propagandizing but tomorrow, the Federal Trade Commission is hosting an informal workshop for advertisers, publishers and legal experts. The conference title pretty well says it all: "Blurred Lines: Advertising or Content?"

The commission says the conference isn't a hearing or investigation of sponsored content or its practitioners. But it could serve as a jumping-off point for the FTC, which is charged with preventing unfair or deceptive advertising practices, to eventually establish guidelines governing sponsored-content practices.

The FTC's interest is nothing if not timely. Spending on sponsored content is expected to grow 24% this year to $1.9 billion. That's a lot of articles about superior pest control, flawless lawn manicuring and brilliant software innovation.

A lot of the largesse goes to Facebook, Yahoo and other social and search media, which probably aren't of much interest to purists. But "legitimate" publications are also accepting sponsored content in growing numbers. Critics say they're hastening their own demise by destroying the credibility that sets them apart from social media and the more ludicrous content farms that infest the web.


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