This article is part of a series of interviews that NAI has conducted with the directors of publishers’ Native Ad Studios around the world.
Please reach out if you want to add your Native Ad Studio to the series.
Today we speak with Gary Quinn, Editor of The Irish Times Content Studio, which was founded in 2016. The Irish Times is daily broadsheet newspaper launched in 1859 that has a target group of ABC1 readers, which in the UK refers to a consumer from one of the three higher social and economic groups. In 1994, The Irish Times established a website called Irish-times.ie as the first newspaper in Ireland and one of the first 30 newspapers in the world to do so.
Interview with Gary Quinn as told to NAI.
Though we are owned by a trust, like all media companies, we have to find new revenue streams. We have previously run sponsored content in print, but now we approach it more strategically and in digital as well. In Ireland, we were last to market with our content studio. It was a big step for us as a 160-year-old quality newspaper and we wanted to get it right. Since then the demand has been really strong.
Personally, I accepted the position because I like the challenge of new strategic projects – shaping workflows, identifying new ways to work and create. My previous role with the paper was as Features Digital Editor, working on the transition from print-first to digital-first operations.
All journalists that I use are freelancers. Within the paper, we have a clear distinction between who works on native advertising and who works on normal editorial content. Freelance writers that are already known for writing about a subject such as food in our newspaper can’t be used for producing native advertising content. I can’t use our internal team for video either.
Though it makes my job more challenging, this distinction works very well for us because we can be upfront with the brands and our readers about who produces what and we don’t risk fooling readers. It also means we can go out and find new talent. This has worked really well for us. We have a great team of writers and videographers working with us now.
We are not tied solely to chasing money.
The company allows us to make a decision on whether a brand story is suitable for The Irish Times. We are not tied solely to chasing money. I have turned down projects in the past. Usually, it is because they want to tell brand stories in a way that we don’t feel match our values and the way we want to tell stories, but we usually tend to talk them into doing it in a way that fits our way of working.
We have a clear set of guidelines about how we label, brand and communicate native advertising to our readers. It’s very strong and clear about what we can and can’t do and how we should label content. Previously there was concern that if we brand it too heavily with the label sponsored, readers wouldn’t engage with it, but this hasn’t been the case. The guidelines have proven to be extremely important.
We use a different colour for native advertising content. We label it as ‘sponsored content’ and we make it clear which sponsor is involved. We make distinctions between native content where the sponsor is heavily involved, and therefore very clearly marked, and a more editorial style of native content, where the brand is less prominent.
Normally, we only publish one native advertising story a day.
Mostly we don’t use bylines for our sponsored content. It’s another way to communicate that it’s different content. Normally, we only publish one native advertising story a day which has a position on our homepage breaking news section for 24 hours then it moves on to the appropriate content section for 72 hours. Behind this we have social media support, site-wide seeding and other digital distribution methods.
The idea of a content studio was met with a lot of resistance in the beginning. The Irish Times has an editorial committee of an elected group of journalists that is responsible for questions regarding professional standards and ethics. Apart from the guidelines, they put in place they that had two additional requirements for the content studio; a journalist should be in charge and we should clearly label the content as sponsored content.
I work closely with the commercial side when a request from a brand comes in. Traditionally, the salesperson would approach a brand and then come to the editorial team afterwards. I prefer to be part of the process from the beginning. That way I can influence how many articles we will do, the angles etc. This means that I’m involved much earlier and for much longer than before because I have a relationship with the client for as long as the campaign is running. It shows in the results, I believe.
We offer more strategic work for customers rather than just native advertising campaigns.
We don’t guarantee page views because we try to target our content to reach the exact people the advertiser wants to reach rather than simply any large number of people. We are fortunate to have a majority of ABC1 readers that are valuable to brands.
We are also trying to help advertisers understand that the engagement and the dwell time of users are much more valuable to them than just looking at page views – though they also still matter. Our content traffics well and we have experienced a number of our sponsored content articles appearing in the most read article section on our website.
We offer more strategic work for customers rather than just native advertising campaigns. We look to Guardian Labs and T Brand Studio for inspiration. Events have become a big part of what we do and we are constantly reinventing how we work with brands and how closely.
Learnings: In one of our first projects, we experimented with a partnership model in covering coffee production in disadvantaged areas of Honduras, which was a subject area very close to what we could have done journalistically anyway. But we got a lot of criticism — mostly from other journalists — because though it was labelled, it wasn’t labelled clearly enough. This informs our work a lot. We’ve learned how important it is to have strict guidelines about what and how we publish and also to have the support of the entire organisation behind us.