SCPR Update: Setting a Rigorous Ethical Firewall for Native Advertising

Southern California Public Radio wants to bring native advertising to public media by the end of this year. Part of its strategy is setting a rigorous criteria to clearly distinguish sponsored content from editorial news.

The stakes are high at SCPR because it is experimenting on a revenue model that has not yet been tested in public media. At the same time, it is taking calculated steps to not alienate public support, the cornerstone of nonprofit news.

As the recipient of one of eight INNovation Fund grants awarded in April, SCPR highlighted its need to experiment with native advertising. Like the other recipients, it wants to tap into a potential source of revenue to supplement its traditional ones, such as membership and underwriting.

The organization’s revenue woes are not unique to its Pasadena, California, staff that produces content for radio. In the last few years the station has made an ambitious push into the web, producing more content for its website and its iPad app, which launched in 2013.

The rapid growth of SCPR’s digital platform has opened up a new audience and underwriting channel, in addition to the listeners who tune in to its five Southern California radio stations which air messages from its underwriters.

Its website, apps, and newsletters may feature a few digital ads by a number of corporate sponsors. But digital audience growth has outpaced growth in digital underwriting, says SCPR director of digital media Alex Schaffert-Callaghan.

“If you want to sustain a certain operation, then you have to do advertising or underwriting or corporate sponsorship or whatever you want to call it,” Schaffert-Callaghan said, pointing out that only 10 percent of listeners support the station with paid memberships. “This is absolutely vital to our existence.”

So, SCPR has turned to native advertising.

Schaffert-Callaghan says native advertising—also known as sponsored ads or sponsored content—has become a big part of digital promotion, and public media needs to understand it and experiment with it.

Native advertising also raises the stakes for SCPR to do a good job because, she says, there are good implementations, and some bad ones too.


In July, SCPR hired Los Angeles-based marketing agency Sensis to research the landscape, set benchmarks, and ultimately execute the ads. Schaffert-Callaghan says SCPR immediately outlined a set of guidelines for Sensis to follow in creating the sponsored content.

The parameters include the following:

  • The production of the sponsored content will not involve SCPR editors or reporters.
  • Sponsor content will be clearly marked as distinct and apart from SCPR editorial content. Clear sponsorship marks will appear in the URL, header and footer, overall design aesthetic and body copy.
  • Sensis will pitch potential sponsors, and any sponsored content will be subject to approval by its VP of Content, Melanie Sill, and the underwriting department prior to appearing on SCPR’s websites.
  • Any and all sponsored content must not imply advocacy or position on controversial matters, including anything or anyone with a political platform. Where issues may be perceived as controversial to the reasonable listener, or where the juxtaposition of entities may link them provocatively with controversial issues, SCPR says its good faith judgment requires avoidance of such funders and situations.
  • If at any time the sponsor or campaign content becomes a subject of news coverage, SCPR says it will reserve the right to cancel or delay campaigns due to news adjacency.

In its search for a model that could be replicated for SCPR, Schaffert-Callaghan says they looked at 10 examples of major media organizations currently doing native advertising. Presentation is the key, and she says she liked the way tech blog Re/code has done it.

Schaffert-Callaghan pointed out three things she liked about the way Re/code presents its native ads:

Footer of Re/code's homepage.

Footer of Re/code\’s homepage.

She says it clearly distinguishes “sponsored content” from editorial content. Because Re/code is largely composed of three colors: red, black, and white. “Sponsored content” is labeled in purple, as seen above.

An example of Re/code's sponsored content clearly shows the author's byline.

An example of Re/code\’s sponsored content clearly shows the author\’s byline.

Schaffert-Callaghan also liked that Re/code sets a good standard for transparency. In this example, the byline is that of “brand journalist” Laura Fagan, who works for the sponsor. Schaffert-Callaghan argues that this removes any vagueness as to who authored the content.

At the footer of the sponsored content, Re/code includes a disclosure notice.

At the footer of the sponsored content, Re/code includes a disclosure notice.

Lastly, Schaffert-Callaghan pointed that at the foot of the “story” there is a blurb that quickly identifies the content as advertisement.

To succeed, Schaffert-Callaghan and the digital team at SCPR believe it needs to set strict ethical boundaries and avoid ambiguity. The team will measure success for this pilot program based on the number of underwriting/foundation leads generated, and whether it can sell at least one “sponsored content” campaign.

SCPR will also closely look at the total reach generated each month, engagements and impressions, revenue generated, and feedback from the sponsor following the campaign.

Schaffert-Callaghan also stressed public perception as part of its success metrics.

“If the audience reacts negatively to it, we’ll go back to the drawing board, but we don’t want to stay at a standstill,” she said. “The world around us is sending a signal, telling us that this is what advertisers want.”

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