A Publisher Joins an Industry It Covers, Blurring Lines

Professor Mark Vamos, the William O'Neil Chair of Business Journalism at SMU, is interviewed about a magazine story where the lines between advertising and reporting were blurred.


When Judy Balint, the chief marketing officer at SmartBiz Loans, read a freelance article that her company’s president contributed to Entrepreneur.com last month, she was startled to see that a promotion for a rival lender had been added to the beginning — a lender with a partnership with Entrepreneur.

“Get the working capital your business needs from Entrepreneur Lending, powered by CAN Capital,” it read, with a link to more information.

To Ms. Balint, it looked as though SmartBiz was endorsing Entrepreneur Lending in the article, which was titled “How Silicon Valley Is Changing the Fintech Space.”

“It looks like it’s part of our content,” Ms. Balint said in an interview. “It’s not disclosed to the reader that it’s an advertisement, either, and that’s a real concern.” . . .

Mark Vamos, a professor of business journalism at Southern Methodist University, in Dallas, and a former editor of Fast Company magazine, said the potential for conflicts of interest was obvious. “How can you continue to be neutral when you’ve got skin in the game?” he said.

Before the original text was deleted from the stories, he said its placement was troubling for readers because it was not clearly distinguishable from the editorial content.

“It’s positioned at the top of the article in a way that makes it look very important and integral to the article in some way,” he said. “There are certainly visual things they could do to make it clearer that this is an e-commerce link.”

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