When journalist Dimitar “Mix” Mihov got a LinkedIn message from a person who said she worked for a PR firm that helped clients “get mentioned," he already suspected what she really wanted. A few messages later, she’d confirmed it — by offering to pay him $350 each time he promoted one of the firm’s clients in his articles for The Next Web, a respected tech blog.
“I'm looking to have articles published with positive mentions of my client's clients,” she wrote, “and payment is per published article.”
The woman, who called herself Evi Prokopi, belongs to a class of publicists who blur the line between advertising and public relations, soliciting journalists for the news equivalent of product placement. Prokopi describes her work on her LinkedIn profile as “talent acquisition.”
Mihov, who provided me with his communications with Prokopi and told me he wanted to draw attention to the issue of paid placement in journalism, offered to put Prokopi in touch with the The Next Web department that produces brand-funded stories that are labeled as sponsored content. But Prokopi declined. What she wanted were mentions of her agency’s clients in stories that looked like regular news.
Welcome to the dubious new world of payola journalism, where publicists like Prokopi have carved out a niche arranging undisclosed payments to financially strapped reporters and bloggers in exchange for friendly media coverage of clients. If you want to understand the vulnerable state of the news industry, don’t just consider the thinning newsrooms of national publications — look at the writers who are being paid to plug brands on sites like Forbes and the Huffington Post.
I’ve collected dozens of come-ons like the one Mihov got from Prokopi. That the offers are so widespread suggests that there is a market for such arrangements; I also talked to four writers for a previous story who disclosed that they had accepted similar payments. Those writers described an upside-down version of journalism, in the trenches of the contributor networks at Entrepreneur and the Huffington Post, where shadowy marketing agencies with whom they have standing relationships pay them to promote certain brands. Sometimes the agencies even send fully-written articles that the contributors then publish under their own bylines.
Inc., Entrepreneur, Forbes, and Fast Company told me that taking payment for mentioning or linking a brand in an article is against their editorial guidelines. “We have a zero-tolerance policy for this kind of thing, our writer’s guidelines strictly prohibit it, and we take swift action,” Jason Feifer, editor in chief of Entrepreneur, said in December. “By offering writers money for mentioning a brand, the agencies are cheating both the consumer and sometimes even the company that’s paying for PR; such companies often have no knowledge the coverage they got was paid for, which could land them in trouble at a later point,” Mihov said.
One of the writers I talked to called the pay-for-play a “classic example of payola,” invoking a historical term in the music industry that referred to record labels that paid radio stations in exchange for airplay.
In an email I obtained that was written to an SEO consultant, a person who identified himself as a Scottish “blogger outreach supplier” calling himself Robert Gill even attached a price list: a mention in Forbes cost $1,200, Inc. cost $1,100, Entrepreneur cost $900 and the Huffington Post cost just $500.
In the email, Gill also provided a list of articles into which he said he had placed links. One was by a Huffington Post blogger writing under the name Vicky Law — though some writers I’ve talked to use pseudonymous bylines for their payola writing. Law’s contributor biography describes her as a “freelance writer and content marketer” who’s written about 150 stories for the site since March 2017 about a “variety of topics that catch her fancy.”
When I first started reading Law’s oeuvre for the Huffington Post, I noticed that a number of her articles had been deleted and replaced with a message that read “This post from The Huffington Post Contributor Platform is no longer available on our site.” A few days later, every single one of her posts had disappeared.
The day after I corresponded with the Huffington Post spokesperson in an email thread that included editor-in-chief Lydia Polgreen, Polgreen announced that its unpaid contributor program was shutting down.
The goal of selling a brand mention in a mainstream publication is often simply to secure a top-tier media hit at a low price.
“Open platforms that once seemed radically democratizing now threaten, with the tsunami of false information we all face daily, to undermine democracy,” Polgreen wrote. “When everyone has a megaphone, no one can be heard.”
Since the Huffington Post representative declined to address Law’s vanishing articles, their disappearance is open to interpretation. Huffington Post contributors were able to publish, edit, and delete their own articles, so maybe Law removed the articles herself. Maybe the Huffington Post caught wind of Gill’s email and removed them preemptively, or maybe it received a separate complaint. Law didn’t reply to a request for comment sent through the contact form on her personal website.
Securing links on popular websites can potentially boost a website’s search engine ranking, since Google looks at the number and quality of links that point back to a website when assessing its quality. But even though marketers like Gill advertise the placements as an SEO service, it’s not entirely whether they can deliver those SEO results. Articles on the sites Gill advertised — Forbes, Inc., Entrepreneur and the Huffington Post — as well as The Next Web all use nofollow links, meaning that links in their articles are tagged in such a way that most search engines ignore them when ranking web content.
In reality, said San Diego SEO consultant Rob Bertholf, the goal of selling a brand mention in a mainstream publication is often simply to secure a top-tier media hit at a low price — which the brand can then point to as a sign of legitimacy. Clients may or may not be aware that coverage was paid for.
“Being on Inc., Forbes, Entrepreneur — having that ‘as seen on’ — is definitely a nice little kudo,” he said. “For businesses where they just say ‘we need to do earned media, and my SEO guy can get me on Forbes,’ why hire a PR firm? They don’t really care how it happens. They don’t think about it. They just say, ‘Wow, you can get me on there for X amount of dollars?’”
Prokopi’s message to Mihov wasn’t a one-time lapse in judgment: she also reached out to two of his colleagues at The Next Web or TNW, as well as Hillel Fuld, a blogger for TechCrunch, VentureBeat, and Entrepreneur who posted the note to Twitter. VentureBeat and TechCrunch did not respond to a request for comment.
Mihov told me he wanted to learn which firm Prokopi worked for and perhaps even the identities of some of its clients, so he implied that he might be willing to accept the payment. “I'm starting to think I could use the money,” Mihov wrote to Prokopi.
Prokopi then started an email thread introducing Mihov to a woman named Kelley Jones, who she said was the business manager of a marketing firm called Influence Express. Mihov, Prokopi told Jones by way of introduction, “can get articles published on TNW.”
On-Chain Media also makes an unusual guarantee: “Pay ONLY for press mentions we get you.”
On its website, which lists Jones as its sole employee, Influence Express calls itself a “link building service” — a term SEO consultants use to describe the practice of placing links to their clients onto articles and pages around the web.
Another PR company, On-Chain Media, lists as staff both Prokopi and a woman named Kelley Van Boxmeer, whose staff photo appears to show the same person as Kelley Jones, who lists her name on LinkedIn as “Kelley (Jones) Van Boxmeer.” According to its website, On-Chain Media secures media placements for startups in the cryptocurrency market in publications including Inc, Forbes, Entrepreneur and the Huffington Post. On-Chain Media also makes an unusual guarantee: “Pay ONLY for press mentions we get you.”
Three days after Prokopi introduced Jones and Mihov, Jones sent an email to Mihov with what appeared to be a job offer — though unlike Prokopi, she didn’t explicitly mention payment. The request was to mention Taklimakan Network, a cryptocurrency startup that’s currently promoting an “initial coin offering.” Mihov demurred, saying that The Next Web didn’t usually cover that topic. Jones didn’t respond to a request for comment from The Outline.
Taklimakan, which also didn’t reply to a request for comment, has not received much media attention. The only article I could find that mentioned it outside of the cryptocurrency press was a since-deleted piece on the Huffington Post that, according to its byline, was co-written by a tech blogger named Terry Aziz and a “highly accomplished senior executive” named Gene Swank, both writers for the site’s “contributor platform.” The Huffington Post has described its contributor platform, which before it was canceled had already been closed to new writers, as a “forum for ideas, discussion and diverse viewpoints.”
Aziz and Swank’s contributions to the Huffington Post, all of which bear both their names, are puzzling. The majority of their work is comprised of either glowing profiles of specific businesses, like the one about Taklimakan, or articles that tackle vague topics and contain a single hyperlink that often leads to a business that’s only tangentially related to the subject at hand.
An article they wrote about web design in Atlanta, for instance, contains a single link that leads from the words “Atlanta web design” to a specific web design firm called Beardo, which is not mentioned in the article. An article the duo published about the power of smartphones also contains a single link, which leads from the word “blackjack” to a site called Slots Play Casinos, which reviews online gambling resources. The casino didn’t reply to a request for comment, and Beardo declined to answer questions about the reference.
There are other curious patterns in the work of Aziz and Swank. Three articles published by the pair on the same day this past November, for example, each contain a single link to a different service that writes essays for students, one of which promised a “Plagiarism Free Guarantee.” According to the Huffington Post’s timestamps on the three articles, they were published at 9:26 a.m., 9:27 a.m., and 9:56 a.m. In addition to those three stories, eight more articles appeared under the duo’s co-byline on the same day.
The Huffington Post representative declined to address questions about specific contributors, but articles by Aziz and Swank also started to disappear while I was working on this story, replaced with messages that read “This post from The Huffington Post Contributor Platform is no longer available on our site.”
When I emailed Swank to ask about these peculiar patterns in his work with Aziz, he said that Aziz had added his name to the account, but continued to post new articles under the joint byline. The two, he implied, had recently had a falling out.
“I am no longer working with Terry for this exact reason,” wrote Swank, who has also written for Forbes. “Those articles are ones that he published (my articles always have my name at the top and the bottom and I only published 3 with him before leaving). I am not aware if he had taken money or not (I have never accepted any money) but I was not happy with the way he was doing things and called him out on hyperlinks.”
Aziz, who seems to have little presence on the internet beyond his articles with Swank, didn’t respond to emailed questions about this story.
Prokopi also declined to answer questions about her offers to Mihov and other writers.
“Please refrain from spamming me,” she said.
We need your help to learn more about “payola” in journalism. Tips: email@example.com.