MSNBC relaunched on October 30 with a pretty new website, an impressive slate of newly-hired progressive reporters, plus a couple of questionable “launch partners,” corporate sponsors who will write content for the site. General Electric (GE) and America’s Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA) will contribute “native advertisements,” meaning ads branded as MSNBC stories, to the news site in exchange for sponsorship.
ANGA is a natural gas industry group that promotes increased natural gas exploration and drilling and discourages regulation. An ANGA spokesperson recently told the Los Angeles Times that using more natural gas “can substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” which is not true over the long term. Natural gas does burn cleaner than coal and some see it as a bridge fuel to wide renewable energy adoption — though that bridge must be short to meet key climate goals.
It is as yet unclear what America’s Natural Gas Alliance will cover, though it will be featured in sponsored polls housed in a section focused on facts about natural gas. It is unknown whether that entire section will be an advertisement. GE’s will focus on the “Industrial Internet,” the “Brilliant Machines Innovation,” and how they are impacting our world.
A look at ANGA’s previous sponsored stories for other outlets can give a good idea of what they will write. The Huffington Post ran two stories “Presented by America’s Natural Gas Alliance” on September 10, entitled “8 Cities Embracing Natural Gas” (reposted on October 18 at “8 Greenest Cities Embracing Alternative Fuel”) and “The Quiet Revolution Behind Your Light Switch,” the latter authored by Marty Durbin, President and CEO of ANGA.
Durbin repeats a popular defense of natural gas: It “is improving our environment, growing our economy and enhancing our energy security.” The rest of the article is the in the same vein, promoting natural gas as the perfect solution to providing cheap energy while cutting emissions, with zero mention of problems like methane leakage or the countless costs of the fracking used to obtain the gas. The other piece touts 8 cities using more natural gas as especially clean, efficient, and climate-friendly, again without any mention of negatives. These stories are both in “HuffPost Green”.
It would have been simple enough to turn to HuffPost Green’s own coverage to find suitable counterarguments. Similarly, it is hard to tell how natural gas advertisements posing as stories will coexist with MSNBC’s high-quality, critical looks at fracking and natural gas.
Native advertising is an increasingly common part of the digital media world. Buzzfeed alone employs a department of 40 just to take content from advertisers and edit it so that it seems like a real Buzzfeed story, and Gawker Media, The Washington Post, and Hearst have staff with similar roles. For Buzzfeed, it is the only source of revenue.
But “native advertisements” carry potential for embarrassment and conflict of interest as well. The Atlantic ran an “advertorial” in January promoting the Church of Scientology, days before the release of another outlet’s investigative report on the church, and was embarrassed into removing it within hours. Buzzfeed was criticized in May for taking on The Charles Koch Institute as a sponsor of its politics page to promote immigration reform.
As of posting time, MSNBC had not responded to several requests for comment as to the content or branding of these sponsored stories, whether they will be required to adhere to the journalistic standards of the rest of the site, and how they will interact with MSNBC’s more critical coverage of natural gas.
An earlier version of this post indicated that GE owns 49 percent of NBC Universal. This is no longer the case.