Digital Journalism Call for Papers for a Special Issue

Sponsored editorial content

Digital Journalism

Amid falling display advertising and subscription revenues, sponsored content has offered publishers the potential for increased earnings, and marketers a means to tackle ad-avoidance and boost engagement (Harms et al., 2017). Sponsored content is now the second most important revenue generator (44%), after advertising (70%) and ahead of subscription (31%), according to a worldwide newsroom survey (ICFJ 2017). Sponsored editorial content is material with similar qualities and format to content that is typically published on a platform, but which is paid for by a third party. Advertising that resembles editorial long predates the digital age, but brands are increasingly involved in the production of publisher-hosted branded content, including material described as paid content, sponsored content, native advertising, programmatic native, content recommendation and clickbait.

Sponsored content has been the focus of considerable industry interest over recent years, amid continuing controversy (Wojdynski and Golan, 2016). The inclusion of paid content designed to be ‘native’ to its editorial environment has generated most concerns, ranging from deception and reader awareness (Wojdynski and Evans, 2016) to the impact on editorial integrity, credibility and trust in publishing (Levi, 2015; Piety, 2016; Einstein, 2016). Much research to date has examined regulatory requirements and adherence, forms of labelling and identification and reader awareness and attitudes (Wu et al., 2016; Iversen and Knudsen, 2017; Amazeen and Wojdynski, 2018; Campbell and Evans, 2018). 

Researchers have examined the adoption of sponsored content in newsrooms (Coddington, 2015; Conill, 2016), including work that explores ‘norm entrepreneurship’ amongst professionals adopting more affirmative perspectives of content curation against critical conceptualisations such as erosion of the ‘firewall’ between ‘church’ and ‘state’, editorial and advertising (Carlson, 2014). Others have examined the emergence of ‘hybrid editors’ (Poutanen et al., 2016), alongside the proliferation of sponsored content production arrangements.

Building on such studies, this call invites both conceptual and empirical papers that explore the implications of sponsored content for the practices and study of digital journalism, and for research agendas, across Western and non-Western media systems. Despite the overall growth in scholarship, there has been comparatively little work examining how sponsored content is managed and produced across digital publishing operations, how demarcations between content producers are constructed, and how more liquid identities and affiliations are performed. The merging of editorial and marketing content takes place with increasing levels of automation and with a range of intermediary agencies and processes involved. As practices and formats multiply, there needs to be greater academic convergence to examine sponsored content along a continuum of transactional relationships between media and sources involving payment or other consideration. Research is also needed to integrate considerations of practice and policy-making by exploring the varieties of governance of sponsored content across digital journalism, from the application of formal regulations to rule-making and self-governance at all levels, including non-acceptance. Examining the operation of governance, together with further studies on audience perceptions and responses, can inform wider discussions about regulatory design for digital communications.

This special issue invites contributions on the organisation and practices of digital publishers surrounding sponsored editorial content, on the identities, attitudes and reflexivity of journalists and other content producers, and on the influence of modes of governance on behaviour. Papers are also invited that consider the implications of sponsored content for some of the core themes and debates within journalism studies surrounding power, control, agency, ethics and regulation, and for the study and teaching of converging communications activities. Both empirical and theoretical manuscripts; quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods approaches; single-country and comparative research are welcome. Possible topics include, but are not limited to:

  • history and development of sponsored content in digital journalism,
  • emergent forms and formats across programmatic native advertising, content recommendation, and sponsored editorial content,
  • institutional arrangements, attitudes and practices surrounding sponsored content in digital publishing,
  • media business models and the role, or rejection, of sponsored content,
  • relationships between data, journalism, algorithms, automation and sponsored content,
  • changing relationships, tensions and convergence across journalism, public relations and advertising,
  • reader awareness, attitudes and responses, 
  • modes and effectiveness of governance of sponsored content.

Information about Submissions

Proposals should include the following: an abstract of 500-750 words (not including references) as well as background information on the author(s), including an abbreviated bio that describes previous and current research that relates to the special issue theme. Please submit your proposal as one file (PDF) with your names clearly stated in the file name and the first page. Send your proposal to j.hardy@uel.ac.uk by the date stated in timeline below. Authors of accepted proposals are expected to develop and submit their original article, for full blind ­review, in accordance with the journal's peer-review procedure, by the deadline stated. Articles should be between 6 500 and 7 000 words in length. Guidelines for manuscripts can be found here. 

timeline: 

Abstract submission deadline: April 8, 2019

Notification on submitted abstracts: April 30, 2019

Article submission deadline: November 4, 2019

Editorial information

  • Guest Editor: Jonathan Hardy, University of East London
  • Editor-in-Chief: Oscar Westlund