This week, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, my alma mater, graduated its latest class of students.
The graduation had me thinking about journalism and media ethics, and that led me to call for a public outcry over the ever-increasing “pay to play” media in fintech.
You may not know this (or maybe you do), but some of what you read about fintech depends on who is paying. That’s OK, as long as the reader knows that the content is biased. The problem is, it is often impossible to tell.
The most glaring example of this is PYMTS.com. Take a look at the PYMTS homepage today. Can you tell whether any of the content appears because some corporation paid for it to be there? I certainly can’t. Yet, fundamental to PYMTS’s business model is getting paid to produce content that looks like legitimate editorial.
Again, this would be fine, if PYMTS was upfront about it. But it is not. Here is how PYMTS describes itself:
PYMNTS.com is reinventing the way in which companies in payments share relevant information about the initiatives that shape the future of commerce and makes news. This powerful B2B platform is the #1 site for the payments industry by traffic and the premier source of information about “what’s next” in payments. C-suite and VP level executives turn to it daily for these insights, making the PYMNTS.com audience the most valuable in the industry. It provides an interactive platform for companies to demonstrate thought leadership, popularize products and, most importantly, capture the mindshare of global decision-makers. It’s where the best minds and best content meet on the web.
Now, whether the “best minds and best content on the web” are at PYMTS.com is debatable, but what is not is that the site offers no disclosure whatsoever that some or all of its “best content” is little more than shill for corporate marketers. It doesn’t have to be this way. Finextra, another fintech news site, offers its own content, marked as “Latest News,” and sponsored content, delineated as “Announcements.” The content appears in two disparate sections of the site.
The distinction between paid and editorial content matters. Once an invoice is involved, it is safe to presume that facts are, if not twisted, massaged, perhaps in the form of omission or commission. I look at PYMNTS content and I simply cannot tell what is “real” and what is “paid.” This is important specifically in payments because security is so crucial in this industry. Consider one of today’s headline stories on the site: “Artificial Intelligence, Real Data Breach Solutions.” Here’s how the story starts:
What if someone told you that you could save your organization nearly half a billion dollars and the reputational cost associated with suffering a data breach? And that all you had to do was just recognize, in real time, the abnormal activity that is a cybercriminal at work – and then act on that knowledge using a variety of tools and techniques that could shut down the fraudster much sooner?
The story then offers comments from a company called Brighterion. I’ve never heard of the company before. I have no idea whether Brighterion actually “offers the world’s deepest and broadest portfolio of artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies” or whether “all you have to do” is use Brighterion to “save your organization nearly half a billion dollars.” But I have to wonder whether the only reason why Brighterion is featured on PYMNTS is because it paid PYMNTS.
“Pay to play” can be found at other media ventures and a wide breadth of consulting firm content. PYMNTS, however, deserves particular mention. This obscured truth about its content is so compelling — to marketers — that the mighty Warren Buffett has bought a stake in it through his Business Wire press release unit. Yes, that same “good ol’ America, I just love my Cherry Coke” Warren Buffett is a partner in this charade.
Maybe I am naive, and I apologize for that. Maybe everyone knows that PYMNTS, its events, its “Data & Research” are “in play,” but I certainly find it wrong that “marketing copy” is portrayed as legitimate journalism. And, in particular, I find it so for the more than 230 new graduates of Columbia Journalism this week. They deserve better.