Sponsored content seems to be everywhere these days; and although more news and media outlets are using it, it hasn’t gotten any less controversial. The news that the Associated Press (AP) is planning to introduce sponsored articles into its stream of stories on hosted sites and mobile apps has marketers and journalists wondering how their futures will affect each other in the digital marketplace.

Set to roll out early next year, AP hopes that a new line of revenue will boost the two percent it currently generates from ads. The bulk of its revenue, 85 percent, currently comes from licensing its content to TV stations, news sites and other subscribers.

But with traditional news outlets shrinking and adapting to the economic realities of the Internet, AP must explore its options. How will pivoting toward sponsored content help or hurt AP—and how do Internet users currently interact with sponsored content? Is there a future for news outlets in sponsored content, or will AP and other outlets experience a backlash?

Walking the line between content and brand

While old school sponsored content involved radio television shows, today’s sponsors must find new ways to engage audiences and potential customers online. Not every online effort is successful, and some have been downright disastrous: for every triumph like BuzzFeed’s native advertising model, there’s The Atlantic’s major misstep with its Scientology article.

What sets AP apart from a media outlet like BuzzFeed—aside from its nearly 170-year history and long list of awards for journalism—is its brand. AP, and by extension its content, is seen as trustworthy. As a result, any outwardly commercial effort is bound to be viewed with skepticism–both from marketers and journalists.

For journalists, the danger of sponsored content is a breakdown of the barrier between advertising and unbiased news. “That wall was there for a reason,” says Shari Finnell, Creative, Director/Editor-in-Chief at DigitalRelevance. Finnell’s career in traditional journalism spans nearly 15 years, with three years at international news agency UPI. “Without it, you lost credibility as a news organization. You ran the risk of your readers thinking that you could be influenced by your advertisers.

“On the flip side, it’s understandable that the news industry, AP included, is trying to survive in the midst of some incredible economic challenges. It’s easy to criticize AP for breaching the line between editorial and advertising, but that may be what it takes to stay viable.”

Same audience, new content

Still, AP has an advantage over newer digital media outlets: its reach. As a multinational organization with thousands of newspapers, TV and radio stations, the agency doesn’t have to create new audiences—instead, its audiences come ready-made. Of course, AP’s sponsored stories are set to appear on its hosted sites and mobile apps, which means that a traditional newspaper reader won’t see them.

But according to a 2012 study by Pew Internet, more than half of Americans who read the news regularly access it on handheld digital devices. That means AP can reach the readers who still get their news from the New York Times or the Boston Globe, but on their smartphones or Kindles. And with sponsored content becoming more pervasive in the digital marketplace, AP could find success where other outlets haven’t. And because AP isn’t using reader data to fuel its content, the agency may not run into the same snags that networks like Facebook have.

The journalism game has become much more difficult to win: the up-to-the-minute news cycle of online media has shortened attention spans and diluted revenue streams. But AP’s plan to harness the power of its readership and vast network of news outlets could be the move that helps the agency survive its metamorphosis from traditional news to digital media powerhouse. The real question may be whether readers are willing to accept this kind of content from AP.

Image credit: AP.org