In late October, TechCrunch editor-at-large John Biggs noticed a Facebook Messenger request from someone he didn’t know, a man named Varun Satyam. When Biggs accepted the request, Satyam introduced himself as a marketer for technology startups. He was looking for coverage of some clients, he said, and he was willing to pay Biggs to write about them.
It was a bold opening move, and an unethical proposition for any journalist who wants to retain their credibility. But Biggs wasn’t surprised. He estimates that he receives two or three similar offers each month, and he doesn’t take them seriously.
“They’re stupid,” said Biggs. “Organic press is far more effective and anyone with a brain can see through them.”
But solicitations like Satyam’s may be more successful than Biggs is aware. Interviews with more than two dozen marketers, journalists, and others familiar with similar pay-for-play offers revealed a dubious corner of online publishing in which publicists, ranging from individuals like Satyam to medium-sized “digital marketing firms” that blur traditional lines between advertising and public relations, quietly pay off journalists to promote their clients in articles that make no mention of the financial arrangement.
People involved with the payoffs are extremely reluctant to discuss them, but four contributing writers to prominent publications including Mashable, Inc, Business Insider, and Entrepreneur told me they have personally accepted payments in exchange for weaving promotional references to brands into their work on those sites. Two of the writers acknowledged they have taken part in the scheme for years, on behalf of many brands. Mario Ruiz, a spokesperson for Business Insider, said in an email that “Business Insider has a strict policy that prohibits any of our writers, whether full-time staffers or contributors, from accepting payment of any kind in exchange for coverage.” Jason Feifer, editor in chief of Entrepreneur, said in an email, “I often tell entrepreneurs that if they want to get the ear of an editor, there’s no better way than to do this: Find someone who’s selling coverage on a reputable site, and rat them out. I encourage people to do this right now—my inbox is always open, as our my colleagues'. We have a zero-tolerance policy for this kind of thing, our writer’s guidelines strictly prohibit it, and we take swift action. In the past, when alerted to people selling access on our site, I’ve even gone the extra step of alerting editors at other publications where that person writes, so that these bad actors have nowhere else to go. We value our readers’ trust above all, and will always work to ensure that they’re getting unbiased information from people who have their best interests in mind.”
One of them, a contributor to Fast Company and other outlets who asked not to be identified by name, described how he had inserted references to a well-known startup that offers email marketing software into multiple online articles, in Fast Company and elsewhere, on behalf of a marketing agency he declined to name. To make the references seem natural, he said, he often links to case studies and how-to guides published by the startup on its own site. Other times, he’ll just praise a certain aspect of the company’s business to support a point in an otherwise unrelated story.
Robert Safian, editor of Fast Company, sent a statement: “No editors or other leadership at Fast Company were ever contacted in regard to this story. We were unaware of this practice happening at Fast Company, and no proof has been provided by The Outline of specific instances of paid mentions in our editorial content.” The Outline reached out to Fast Company’s PR email address the day before publication with a detailed email inquiry. After publication, The Outline described to Safian specific examples of brand placements that appeared on Fast Company’s website between 2013 and 2016, which we are not publishing in order to protect the identity of sources. Safian’s statement continued, “It is a violation of our editorial policy and our rigorous journalistic standards. If we found any writer or contributor engaging in this practice, they would be terminated and their stories taken down. Any editor who might condone this practice would be fired.”
Four contributing writers to prominent publications told me they have accepted payments in exchange for promotional references to brands.
The Fast Company writer also defended the practice by arguing that it’s enabled by editors who are hungry for cheap or unpaid blog content. Many high-volume sites, including the Huffington Post, Entrepreneur, and Forbes, maintain networks of unpaid contributors who publish large amounts of material. Forbes, for instance, marks articles by contributors with a small disclaimer, but the Columbia Journalism Review has pointed out that those dubiously sourced articles are often cited as though they were normal stories written by Forbes staff. In reality, the editorial process that leads to those articles being published is opaque — a Forbes spokesperson declined to answer questions about how many contributors the site has, whether they’re ever paid, or whether an editor reviews their work before publication. One former Forbes contributor, Josh Steimle, has even offered a “masterclass” on how to get published on the site, an accomplishment he described as “rewarding for both my personal brand and my digital marketing agency.”
For writers willing to accept payments in exchange for coverage, that’s an opportunity.
“They're getting tons of free content from guys like us,” said the Fast Company writer of his editors, though he declined to say whether he was paid by Fast Company for his work or if he’d ever explicitly discussed the arrangement with any of his editors. “I would be shocked to find out that this was any sort of secret.”
The Huffington Post writer also described specific brands he’d written about on behalf of one of the agencies, which ranged from a popular ride-hailing app, to a publicly-traded site for booking flights and hotels, to a large American cell phone service provider.
“This is a classic example of payola,” he said of the brand mentions, invoking a term that’s been used to describe radio DJs who accept payments from record companies in order to play certain artists on the air.
Sometimes, this writer said, the agency provides him with a pre-written article, complete with brand mentions, which he then publishes under his byline as though he wrote it himself. Other times, he uses alternate bylines on the same publications — including the Huffington Post — to push out even more content.
After being propositioned through Facebook Messenger, Biggs goaded Satyam by quoting improbably high sums in exchange for coverage: $8,000, then $9,000, then $9,500. But that was too much, according to Satyam. A guy at Forbes, he told Biggs, took payments of just $1,100, though he didn’t specify for how long or involved a piece.
Biggs asked Satyam who the Forbes writer was. Satyam — who responded to my questions about the exchange with Biggs by calling the offer a “social experiment” — told him it was a contributor named Chris Chong.
It turns out that there is a Chris Chong who has written for Forbes. When I looked him up, his Forbes author biography told of an illustrious professional life: he sold his first company for $24 million in 2010, later worked for Groupon Singapore and as a social media editor for the South China Morning Post, and now runs a PR firm called SumoStory.
When I first opened Chong’s author page on Forbes, it listed about a half dozen articles he’d contributed on the topics of PR, cryptocurrencies, and gaming. The next day, when I reloaded the page, all but two had disappeared.
I emailed Chong to ask what had happened to the missing articles. His response was surprisingly candid: the articles had been removed, he said, because someone — he declined to say who — had notified Forbes that he had been promoting his own PR clients in his published work.
ArticleHub’s price list for brand mentions in various publications.
“To be fair I was in the wrong, but it really hurt to see that relationship come undone from an outside attack,” he said. “It was a huge setback and I've learnt my lesson.”
Maybe the lesson was still setting in, though, because Chong then appeared to offer me a bribe of his own.
“Is there any way we can set up a partnership together to distribute content?” he asked, in the same email. “Happy to explore remuneration.”
When I told Chong that such an arrangement sounded unethical, he again became contrite.
“Forbes did the right thing,” he lamented. “I am lucky that I got to learn my lesson early on in my career as a writer and as a PR practitioner.”
Forbes senior vice president of global corporate communications Mia Carbonell declined to answer questions about why two of Chong’s articles remained online after he was reported, to disclose whether he had been paid by Forbes for his articles on the site, to provide information about the editorial process that led to him contributing to the site in the first place, or to say how many Forbes articles have been removed overall after being flagged for a conflict of interest. Around the time I first made contact with Carbonell in late October, Chong’s last two articles disappeared. His author page now returns a 404 error.
There’s no question that Forbes is aware of the payoffs, at least in isolated incidents. Last year, it pledged to investigate after a British PR firm called out one of its writers for soliciting a £300 payment in exchange for coverage. In a followup statement, Forbes said it had identified the contributor and would not publish their work in the future, though neither it nor the PR firm identified them by name.
Carbonell played down concerns about bribery among the site’s writers. Before contributors can write for Forbes, she said, they “sign a contract requiring them to disclose any potential conflicts of interest.” (Carbonell no longer works for Forbes, and another company spokesperson declined to provide further comment.)
“Just to be clear, these would be subtle brand mentions in larger-form articles.”
But Forbes seems to be a prime target for offers like Satyam’s, perhaps because of the high volume of stories it runs by members of its “contributor network.” The site publishes dozens of stories per day, many of them by contributors who, like Chong, are themselves publicists. A program called CommunityVoice, described in an editors’ note on certain articles, invites “senior-level technology executives” to pay an annual fee in exchange for being allowed to publish to the site.
Yael Grauer, a freelancer who’s written for Forbes and many other outlets, says she’s gotten as many as 12 offers like Satyam’s in a single month, which she always rejects. Some are surprisingly straightforward, like a marketer who simply asked how much she charged for an article in Slate or Wired. Others are coy, like a representative of a firm called Co-Creative Marketing, who heaped praise on her writing before asking whether she could get content published in Forbes or Wired on behalf of a client. Another marketer offered Erik Sherman, a business journalist, $315 per article to mention her client’s landscaping products in Forbes, the Huffington Post, or the Wall Street Journal — though she cautioned that the mentions would need to “not look blatant.” Sherman declined, telling the marketer that the offer was “completely unethical.”
Some of the would-be bribers proffer substantial sums of money. An agency called Profit Marketing said it would pay reporter Michelle Goodman $2 per word — about four times the upper bound on what online journalists usually make — in exchange for inserting its clients into articles for Forbes and Entrepreneur. The would-be bribe made Goodman angry. “I'd love to expose these dirtbags,” she told me.
A number of nearly identical emails, sent between 2015 and 2016 to different reporters by representatives of a publicity firm called BlogDash, asked if the recipients could write articles that featured or quoted its clients and “get them published on top-tier online publications” like Forbes and the Huffington Post. Some of the writers working with BlogDash, the emails said, earned more than $10,000 per week.
BlogDash, according to its website, is a company that “integrates a mention of your business and a link to your website in top media publications.” It can place these “brand mentions,” it says, into publications including Forbes, Entrepreneur, and Fast Company.
The CEO of BlogDash, Marc Duquette, is also the CEO of a similar company called ArticleHub. An ArticleHub price list quotes charges for “brand mentions” in more than a hundred publications ranging from obscure tech blogs to BuzzFeed, the Denver Post, and even The New York Times.
There’s a distinct financial hierarchy at play in the ArticleHub price list. A brand mention in The New York Times costs $5,000. TechCrunch costs $4,500, Business Insider costs $3,000, and Forbes costs $1,950. A mention in the Huffington Post costs $1,700, and brand mentions in lesser-known blogs like CafeMom cost as little as $500.
An ArticleHub brochure touts the benefits of the brand mentions. After a publication writes about a brand, it says, the brand can add “the publisher logo to a ‘Featured on’ section of your site to boost credibility with consumers and help bring in sales.”
Another document lists prices for “feature articles” in some of the same publications. A feature story in Forbes, according to the list, costs $4,000. More prominent publications like The New York Times are absent from the feature price list.
It’s not clear whether ArticleHub and BlogDash can actually place brand mentions into articles in all the publications their marketing materials name, and both sites fall just short of stating outright that writers are paid for coverage.
“This is a classic example of payola.”
But when I reached out to BlogDash, I got an email response from Duquette, the CEO of both BlogDash and ArticleHub, who seemed to have mistaken me for a writer looking to sell brand mentions in my own work.
“How much would you charge for a brand mention?” he asked in the email. “Just to be clear, these would be subtle brand mentions in larger-form articles. For example, I'd like you to mention Miller's newest beer in a larger article about beer and not to write an article about Miller's newest beer.”
Duquette did not respond to follow up questions after I clarified that I was working on a story about the payoffs rather than soliciting them. BlogDash didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story.
According to Eric Ebert, the communications manager at a German startup called Zenkit, the come-ons to journalists are well known in the industry, and a source of embarrassment. The prices in the ArticleHub brochure — around $2,000 for a brand mention in Forbes or Entrepreneur, for instance — sounded similar to quotes Ebert had heard from other companies offering similar services.
The payola “muddies the water between earned press and advertising,” Ebert said. “Press coverage should never be paid for unless it’s tagged as a sponsored post. These practices really diminish the work that PRs and journalists are doing everyday.”
Ebert is correct that a brand paying a journalist — or hiring a PR firm which then pays journalists on its behalf — represents a total breakdown of journalistic independence. It abuses the trust the public holds in the media. It violates the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics. It’s a bribe, and it’s mortifying to talk with contributors who see it as the new normal.
”When I write for somebody like Fast Company, I gotta make that thing top notch,” said one of the writers who disclosed that he has accepted payments in exchange for coverage. “It really has to be legit. The links have to work, and the studies have to be there, and the insights need to be actually, you know, valuable. That is, hands down, what I care about.”
In that journalistic netherworld, where business leaders can pay to write about their own industries and publicists are trusted to write about topics related to their own clients, it can feel as though a dark new media zeitgeist has swept away old norms of integrity and independence and replaced them with a racket that, depending on your perspective, is either very funny or very sad.
Maybe it was that sense of shifting norms that led Steve Ollington, the head of content for a British marketing agency called agenda21 Digital, to message BuzzFeed senior editor Katie Notopoulos on Twitter with an offer much like Satyam’s. Ollington said that he could pay Notopoulos to write a BuzzFeed story about a product launch by Vodafone, a British telecom that operates mobile networks across the world.
“So, you can’t pay me to write something for BuzzFeed,” Notopoulos wrote back, before screenshotting the exchange in a snarky tweet.
Neither Ollington nor agenda21 Digital replied to requests for comment, but Vodafone spokesperson Matt Peacock expressed dismay at the offer, and said that the company had opened a formal investigation into the incident. He said that Vodafone believed that Notopoulos was the only journalist who had received an improper offer on its behalf, and repeatedly stressed the company’s commitment to anti-corruption measures.
This is how journalism works FYI pic.twitter.com/HNbyrg5wp2— Katie Notopoulos (@katienotopoulos) November 7, 2017
However, Peacock declined to say whether Vodafone had severed its relationship with agenda21 Digital, or to comment on specific journalists the company may have had contact with.
“One of the challenges in this area is that lines are being blurred everywhere,” Peacock said in an email. “The difficulty arises if the wrongdoing becomes normalised by bloggers and journalists as well as agency intermediaries.”
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Update: This story has been updated with statements from Business Insider, Fast Company, Huffington Post, and Entrepreneur.