Anyone Remember Tech Central Station?

by Henry Farrell on March 27, 2014

“Josh Marshall”: tells us that he has wonderful news.

bq. Today I’m really excited to announce that we’ve launched a very cool new section to our popular Idea Lab vertical called Idea Lab: Impact, which is being sponsored by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. I’ve wanted to take Idea Lab in this direction for some time. Ideal Lab focuses science, cutting edge technology, the tech industry and the economics, policy and politics that surrounds those issues and sometimes on the gizmos we all use everyday. Idea Lab: Impact will have a different focus. How is science and applied technology affecting real human lives? How is it impacting people and communities living on the margins of global wealth and on the margins of the technological transformations of the 21st century – whether that’s in subsaharan Africa or Appalachia or in congested great cities of the world. Basically, how is and how can science and technology change the lives of people in their every day lives – not only with their gadgets and not only for people who command great wealth, but real world impacts for everyone.

People who’ve been blogging as long as I have may remember another website with PHrMA funding which set out to tell us about the awesome innovating power of innovative innovation, the unlamented Tech Central Station. TCS “dished out money to Glenn Reynolds”: and other bullshit merchants in the marketplace of ideas to provide cover for a whole variety of “unsalubrious corporate agendas”: Josh Marshall isn’t Glenn Reynolds – the sponsorship is public and I imagine that there’ll be some quality control. But still, PhRMA’s agenda on innovation involves some very, very shitty stuff indeed. There are a whole bunch of big sleazy lobby groups on Capitol Hill, but PhRMA is arguably the sleaziest.

And in that spirit, I’d like to introduce a very cool new non-sponsored section myself, “Bullshit Lab: Impact,” focused on the very cool ways in which PhRMA lobbying is affecting real human lives and impacting people and communities living on the margins of global wealth and on the margins of the technological transformations. Except maybe losing the “impacting,” since it isn’t a verb ever seen outside corporate press releases. How, for example, is PhRMA lobbying advancing the ball on “shovelling”: “insanely demanding”: IP requirements into international trade agreements? What are the impactful ways in which PhRMA is “impacting high drug prices”: What are the “cutting edge techniques”: in which PhRMA is pushing back on patent reform for AIDS drugs in South Africa (with the lobbying help of James Glassman, whose name devoted readers may recognize from previous episodes of sponsored hackery like, well … Tech Central Station). Feel free to treat this post’s comments sections as an opportunity to provide further examples, and unleash the real world impacts of innovative lobbying innovations!!

Update – see the comments below for responses from and debate with Josh Marshall, and “this follow-up post”: for more discussion.



P O'Neill 03.27.14 at 5:34 pm

I know there’s going to be a Dylan goes electric vibe to all the complaining, but aren’t things getting a bit weird with all the bloggers we grew up on? … Ezra Klein now seeming to want his own version of Politico, TPM doing this Impact thing with lobby money and the first article being the developing country toilet thing that’s been done to death already, Nate Silver in whatever (hopefully) teething problems he’s got, and Slate collecting bloggers while simultaneously chasing some of those Daily Mail eyeballs with screaming headlines. Maybe when Josh Marshall gets some reader feedback he’ll see the light.


hardindr 03.27.14 at 5:39 pm

If people would like to make things better in the Pharma industry, they could back the All Trials initiative, an attempt to make all the data from all medical trials (past, present, and future) publicly available to everyone.


PopeRatzo 03.27.14 at 5:56 pm

It is impossible for sponsored content not to influence journalistic integrity. It’s dishonest and it’s corrosive.

TPM has been in a steady state of decline for some time. Sponsored content puts it permanently on my pay-no-mind list.


James Conran 03.27.14 at 7:04 pm

As Henry’s satire nicely picks up, it’s amazing how Marshall’s very language – and he is I think normally a pretty good writer – already seems infected in the quoted post. I actually wondered for a moment whether he’d been hacked by some spam-merchant, so clunky and unreadable is the prose.


John Quiggin 03.27.14 at 7:10 pm

TCS didn’t just publish hacks like Reynolds. They actually ran some quite good, and politically diverse, stuff. It helped to conceal the fact that everything they published on the topics of interest to their sponsors was propaganda.


Henry 03.27.14 at 7:22 pm

I’d bet a significant amount of money that JMM, who I’ve liked from our limited online encounters, didn’t himself write it (although he may have edited it some). It’s a shame to see a reputable left-of-center blog getting into the influence peddling market (which, like it or not, is what you’re doing when you start running ‘sponsored sections’ for lobbyists).

JQ – more or less the point that I made in my old blogpost linked to above.

one may easily imagine why a crowd of flacks might solicit articles from independent outsiders. They provide useful camouflage for the corporate shill-pieces that are written to order. To put it in terms that Glenn [Reynolds] can understand, there’s a better than even chance that he’s been a useful idiot. I wonder how it feels.


shah8 03.27.14 at 8:04 pm

Here’s a better place to get your cutting edge science from:

Been reading that dude for a long time now, especially for the “things I won’t work with” posts… You’ll also get a pretty darn cutting edge sense of what is possible when it comes to pharmaceutical technology and allied sciences.

No need for Idea Lab:Impact, funded by pharm cos.


Anderson 03.27.14 at 8:09 pm

People keep trying to figure out how to make a living from this internet stuff.


Sandwichman 03.27.14 at 8:22 pm

Nothing gets old as fast as “innovation”.


Josh Marshall 03.27.14 at 8:28 pm

Every publication which takes paid advertisements deserves and needs scrutiny. I welcome it. But at the risk of misinformation getting into the mix here, either intentionally or through confusion, I’d like to address what we’re doing with Impact.

Every article that appears in this section of the site will come from our editorial staff with ZERO input or oversight or veto from anyone else. Period. It is being sponsored by Phrma. Just as has long been the case, virtually all our revenue comes from paid advertising, mainly from advertisers from pretty clear industry and political motives. These are the advertisers who want to advertise in political publications. Shoe manufacturers and clothiers are generally not interested. (Entertainment companies, interestingly, are.) As sponsors, they’ll run a lot of ads on that section of the site. About once a month one of their articles will also run. These articles will be very clearly labeled as written by, controlled by, from Phrma. These are, simply, advertisements. Except instead of being a picture or a video they’ll be text.

So, while I get the analogy, the techcentral station comparison is simply inapt. Or to put it more frontally, it’s false, though I understand the suspicion given how much funny business goes on in the advertisement space. Our Polltracker section and app in 2012 was 100% sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute, literally the Oil Lobby. That didn’t make it a ‘sponsored section’. API wanted to associate themselves with the content and run their ads next to it.

I make all the final decisions at TPM. We fund the operation through advertising, though we’re trying to get to about 20% of revenues from subscriptions. At the moment, we’re at about 10%. Advertisers, by definitions have interests and agendas. I think we all know that. This is why we’ve had a clear and publicly stated policy going back more than a decade explaining why we do not accept or reject ads on the basis of political content or message. The acid test for me comes down to this. Is there total clarity about when a message, an article, an image, an infographic, whatever comes from TPM’s editorial staff and when it comes from the advertiser. As long as that’s clear and there’s no room for confusion, I think we’ve delivered on our core responsibility to our readers.

No one writes or influences or vetos anything that runs under a TPM byline.


js. 03.27.14 at 8:29 pm

People keep trying to figure out how to make a living from this internet stuff.

Well…, Josh Marshall was presumably doing pretty well in that department before he decided to take on this project of impacting the world with impactful impacts.


marcel 03.27.14 at 8:33 pm

Kevin Drum call BS.


marcel 03.27.14 at 8:34 pm

We really need a preview button on this site.

Kevin Drum calls BS.


shah8 03.27.14 at 8:40 pm

Actually, one thing I am curious about, given all the discussions about what “money” is and what “currency” is, during the economic crisis and the bitcoin bruhaha, is the nature of the commodification of attention. I have been thinking that internet ads are a currency, but not actually connected to any money-like concept, aside from a river of consumer cash, pushing through (metaphorically) a hydro-electric dam. Even so, Google effectively acts as a central bank that can increase or decrease the amount of currency. Thus, I’ve wondering how I could speculate on the value of internet ads, or if really, I should speculate on the value of the stock of aggregate attention/flow of aggregate attention. If so, should I buy Home Depot stocks (instead of chasing after some silly IPO with a famous and catchy name attached) as a play on the quality and nature of internet ad buys/clicks? Or should I keep in mind that I shouldn’t fight the Google if it thinks there are too many clicks…


shah8 03.27.14 at 8:41 pm

Marcel, isn’t that a “lay down and think of England” sentiment by Drum?


roy belmont 03.27.14 at 8:50 pm

TCS dished out money to Glenn Reynolds and other bullshit merchants in the marketplace of ideas to provide cover for a whole variety of unsalubrious corporate agendas.
Play it, Sam.
Restoring faith in humanity in a single sentence is no small achievement.
You want Daily Mail style sleaze-up how bout that Huffington thing? Gah.

How is science and applied technology affecting real human lives?
Tired of chem-trail ‘noia’s? There’s always the Skynet/drone auto-kill factualities.
Mr. LeCarre’s Constant Gardener went some way toward indicting BigPhRMA’s inhuman metastasizing iniquity as it affected real human, African, lives.
Which hey, contempt as corporate affect. Contempt as signifier.

But that was some time ago. Likelihood of increase, masks off, in vampirical needs-met behaviors: probable shading toward certain.
Healthcare in any of its aspects conducted primarily as a business is a disease.

The question at the periphery is, well people that would engage in that poisonous depravity of marketing health for some on the backs of unrelieved suffering others, they wouldn’t be all compunctilious on muscling wannabe online journos, would they?
To say that someday if not today we may be forced to view the wooden testifying of coerced and intimidated voices putting the fake on as best they can, to survive, or stay intact.


Matt 03.27.14 at 9:13 pm

I’m seconding shah8. It’s been very educational reading In the Pipeline the last several years.

I became interested in the economics and politics of pharmaceuticals after one of the researchers behind Gleevec gave a talk at my university about the coming age of rationally designed drugs, of which Gleevec was just the first example. This was at the turn of the millennium so we didn’t realize that Gleevec was exceptional rather than a general model for the future. It looked like Gleevec and other rationally designed drugs would deliver exceptional treatment for disease at extraordinary prices, raising dire questions about inequality, unconscionable profit margins extracted from the sick, and the commercial exploitation of publicly funded basic research. I came to believe that the best way forward was for large nations or groups of them to fund the translational science to turn basic research into drugs, bypassing the private for-profit system. In spite of subsequent developments I would still support that.

In the 15 years since I heard that lecture Gleevec became a model for extraordinary high prices, but not a model for extraordinary profits or high drug approval rates. Few if any of the large pharma companies have portfolios of drugs under patent that are as large and valuable as they were in 2000 despite the eye-watering prices asked for new therapies. Rational drug design has not yielded higher approval rates than older screening techniques. Stock prices have been kept up by massive waves of consolidation and layoffs. On the one hand the pharma industry needs to project the image of success to keep investors happy, on the other hand that image just makes people angrier when drug companies want tens of thousands of dollars from cancer or hepatitis patients, and on the gripping hand even these extortionate drug prices wouldn’t sustain profitability if not for all the researchers pharma has dumped over the last decade.

There has been a lot of squabbling about who’s to blame for the failure of pharma to keep developing useful drugs on schedule and at reasonable costs. It’s because the researchers pushed rational drug design too fast. It’s because the executives are empty-headed business school types. It’s because regulatory agencies are pushing too hard on new safety standards. These are the common refrains in insider discussion like you see at In the Pipeline.

One less common idea that bears considering: maybe nature is uncooperative and pharma R&D is reaching an enduring slower phase regardless of leadership and cleverness. There is nothing that says every disease must be treatable by drugs. There is nothing that says yesteryear’s treatments can always be improved upon, and to such an extent that it makes sense to pay the patent premium. People have been using the poppy to treat pain since pre-history, and today morphine and closely related compounds are still the go-to drugs for severe pain. Nobody has ever found a drug that can suppress severe pain like morphine but without tendencies to induce tolerance or habituation, despite tremendous efforts spent looking. Maybe we’ve already reached that state of stasis with pharmaceutical intervention against heart disease and diabetes but it will take another 10 years of hindsight to realize it.


Walt 03.27.14 at 10:07 pm

Matt, your “one less common idea” is the explanation I hear about 100 times more often than the others you mention.


marcel 03.27.14 at 10:10 pm

Shah8: I don’t think that Drum was serious. It struck me as humor (or perhaps humour).


Patrick C 03.27.14 at 10:51 pm

There are the innovative ways that they’re creating fake medical journals.

And the innovative ways that they’re cherry picking clinical data to get drugs through FDA trials.


Matt 03.27.14 at 10:57 pm

Walt: it’s good to hear that the idea is more common than I thought! What circles do you hear it in? I am interested in chemistry but don’t have any cohorts actually in pharma, so my impression is based on discussions among insiders and ex-insiders on In the Pipeline and linked blogs, plus the occasional article in publications for the general public like the NY Times.


Dave 03.27.14 at 11:40 pm

Don’t universities take phrma money…?


Henry 03.28.14 at 12:53 am

Josh – I’m entirely willing to accept that you are doing this in good faith and are not skewing your other reporting in any way. You’ve got a track record. But there’s a difference between conventional ads and sponsored content. As you said in your post of ten years ago:

Advertisements and paid spokesman may influence us to some degree. We hear their opinions, see them on TV and such. But because they’re paid, because they’re essentially advertisements, we also tend to tune them out, or at least bracket them off in our minds.

The reason that sponsored content pieces are valuable to advertisers is precisely because readers are much less likely to think of them as ads and tune them out; they’re far harder to distinguish from standard editorial content. This is true even when, as in print publications, fonts and other means are used to distinguish them from editorial product. But the PhRMA post doesn’t provide much in the way of visual clues at all – the “sponsored content” notice is less visible (dull gray rather than bright yellow) than in the Scientology piece that got the Atlantic into such trouble. If I were a casual reader even in a slight hurry, I would have taken this as a standard TPM piece, albeit one that was puzzlingly uncritical. And again, this kind of confusion is endemic to sponsored content, which is why advertisers like it so much.

Additionally, it just seems to me to be a plain bad idea to provide TPM’s implicit endorsement for PhRMA as a worthy partner to work together with when telling people about the exciting ways in which technology can transform poor people’s lives. PhRMA’s record on pushing back against e.g. AIDS drug availability in the developing world is somewhere between unmitigatedly horrible and actively evil. It’s an organization which has blood on its hands. Now, maybe it’s OK to take advertising dollars from horrible and/or evil people. I can at least understand how a magazine or website may want to firewall off these decisions. But the flipside is that when a magazine or website accepts ads from problematic sources, the proprietor doesn’t publish a post saying how excited they are to be working together with the dodgy customer to be providing this new and wonderful stream of information. That seems to me to cross the line from ‘take the money and hold your nose’ to some kind of tacit editorial endorsement.

Obviously, there’s a danger in being too pure. It’s easy for me to say this stuff. I’m a tenured academic, not someone with a business to run, and my own and other people’s livelihoods on the line. We’re in a fallen world where everyone makes compromises. I’m also entirely aware that universities (including my university) are willing to take funding from a whole variety of dubious sources. But TPM has a great and admirable record in investigative journalism that calls the powerful to account. I find it tough to reconcile this honorable record with the publishing of sponsored content that’s part and parcel of astroturfing campaigns that are seeking to undermine information disclosure requirements.


The Raven 03.28.14 at 2:50 am

This is the problem of the advertising-supported web: what is there that cannot be done in someone’s spare time is sponsored.

The libertarians may actually have a point here (oh, noes): someone has to pay for the best content. I suspect only a minority would participate in a micro-pay content exchange system, but it might be worth giving it another look. If Bitcoin’s crazy can gain traction, why not something sane?


QS 03.28.14 at 3:31 am

“How Do You Reinvent The Toilet For The Developing World?”

Wow! We’re doing things for the developing world now?!


KLG 03.28.14 at 3:33 am

I have been a daily reader of Josh Marshall’s work since the very beginning. I recently subscribed to TPM Prime. This deal with PhRMA means that the first $50 will not be followed up with a renewal. Ads I don’t mind. They (help) pay the bills. Sponsored content, which will inevitably muddy the waters, is another matter. Someone else will have to help TPM get to that 20%.


JW Mason 03.28.14 at 3:44 am

Henry’s comment at 23 lays out the issues here very clearly. I especially appreciate the reference to the Atlantic-Scientology business. I think it’s safe to say that Josh Marshall would not create a sponsored section for the church of Scientology, or for climate change denialists, Charles Murray, etc. On one level, this is to his credit. But on another level, it brings out how this is different from advertisement, since he presumably would accept ads from just about anyone. Being selective about your sponsors means, by definition, that accepting sponsorship is a kind of endorsement.


majorajam 03.28.14 at 4:01 am

I hate sponsored content. Is always rank propaganda, as opposed to the flip side of the coin. And even when you know what it is, it’s insinuation into your news puts a stain on the whole enterprise. Like, just in case you didn’t know how powerless you are against The Interests, they’re there to rub your nose in it.

Another thing with noting is, if you read the comments at TPM, you come with the distinct impression that it could be a useful wedge within the left, in particular between left and liberal. The latter is a group with which I have my issues, but I can see the utility of accessing that readership. And how.


Josh Marshall 03.28.14 at 6:59 am


We hear endless bewailings of the fate of journalism, where the money will come from to pay good salaries to journalists, the time to do detailed investigations. But many of the same people turn out to be incredible purists when it to finding inventive, ethical, smart ways to actual pay the salaries of the people who produce the news. Journalism costs a lot of money to produce. You can fund it entirely through subscriptions, through advertisements, from fat cats who subsidize running at a loss (a variant of the nonprofit model).

We might change the color or tint of the disclaimer. But I don’t think this is an issue of hues and type faces. A reader would have to be truly, truly oblivious to miss that this is an article presenting the viewpoint of an advertiser. It’s flagged as such on the front page. It’s formatted with a specific hairline which is different from all TPM editorial content. The same conspicuous disclaimers are on the index page and then on the article page itself. And then the byline is “Phrma”.

At the end of the day, this is what I said in my earlier comment: we’ve set up another section of the site about real world applications of science and technology. It’s being sponsored by phrma. They don’t have any say whatsoever over the content. They run ads against the content. As part of their sponsorship roughly every three weeks (the schedule is a bit more compressed since we launched later in the year than we originally intended) we run one of their articles, very clearly labeled as such. We don’t tell them what to say, they don’t tell us what to say. This is a conventional sponsor relationship. By the most extreme definition, it’s comparable to the ‘advertorial’ sections daily papers have done for decades.

Now, Henry, you may be upset that I said I’m excited to launch the section. I’m not. I am excited to launch the section. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. And the funds from the sponsorship, in addition to providing general revenue we use to run the site will allow us to commission approximately 250 freelance articles on tech and science issues I care about.

Virtually every publication in the country gets its primary revenues from advertisers; they all have interests. There’s no pure option. Each element involves a weighing process. But I note that in your criticisms you’ve felt the need to make what you have to know are wildly inapt and demonstrably inaccurate analogies to attempt to sustain your point. Take your argument about Tech Central Station which Nick Confessore and I worked on a decade ago.

This was a case in which a website posed as an independent publisher writing about tech and science issues. After they were caught, they revised their about page to say that they were published by an astroturf marketing group on contract from the companies they write about. As I wrote then and happily write now, this is a very major revision.

Your point seems to be, look how far Josh has come, becoming part of the astroturfing he criticized a decade ago. Henry, you would not and could not sustain this kind of argument in any peer reviewed venue. The analogy would be if we learned tomorrow that TPM, which purports to be published by TPM Media LLC, an independent publishing company, was actually published by say Hill & Knowlton, the global PR firm, which is under contract to write about Democrats, health care, foreign policy and whatever else we write about.

That would be a pretty dramatic development. And the drama helps sustain your argument. But look at what we’re really talking about here. TPM launches a new section of its own editorial content. It’s finds a sponsor to fund it. We very clearly note their sponsorship. The publisher of the publication announces it. We’re very clear what is our reporting and editorial product and what is their advertising and paid messages.

Is this really comparable even remotely to the Tech Central Station story? It’s clearly not. I similarly accept/grant that you feel deeply about this topic. But with even a basic look at the two different situations, any thought of an analogy or frankly even a comparison just collapses in front of your face. I’d ask you why you feel the need to frame argument around an analogy and suggestion of hypocrisy that is so plainly inaccurate.

One last point. I talk to a lot of advertisers. I run the business. It’s part of what I do. Confusion about who’s writing what really isn’t the main aim in a sponsorship like this. It wouldn’t be very effective. Because again, our readers are not idiots. The repeated disclaimers make it really really clear. What they want is different. Commercial and advocacy advertisers have a certain kind of ad they aim at broad spectrum audiences. They tend to be picture and slogan based. They increasingly try to take a different route with niche or smaller sites that have very engaged, highly educated and influential audiences. They’re looking for venues where people are accustomed to reading at length and on fairly complex topics. Henry, you are what people in the ad world call an ‘influencer’, even more specifically a ‘politics/policy influencer’. They want to convince you of things, message you with arguments that are much more complex than anything they can convey in a box ad. They think they’ll find you in that mode at TPM and other similar publications.

Now, you might say this is just make advertising even more insidious – it’s not just a picture box. It’s narrative and argument, marshaling evidence, trying to persuade, etc. But that’s advertising. Just in a different form.

To me the issue is whether people know what’s what. What’s TPM’s reporting, opinion, writing; what’s phrma’s advocacy, advertising, opinion. I think both are clear.


Colin Danby 03.28.14 at 7:50 am

Wow, other Pipeline readers! It’s one of the great blogs.


yabonn 03.28.14 at 9:09 am

These are the advertisers who want to advertise in political publications. Shoe manufacturers and clothiers are generally not interested.

But why do you think these ones are interested, and not these others?


Alex 03.28.14 at 9:15 am

Do you intend to use robots.txt, rel=nofollow, or similar to keep the advertorial from showing up in search results for people, organisations, or things included in it?

If not, why not? Isn’t the very point of this to inject propaganda into search?


Alex 03.28.14 at 10:09 am

Oh well, so, I maid a bloguepozt for u Josh.


Henry 03.28.14 at 1:03 pm

We might change the color or tint of the disclaimer. But I don’t think this is an issue of hues and type faces. A reader would have to be truly, truly oblivious to miss that this is an article presenting the viewpoint of an advertiser. It’s flagged as such on the front page. It’s formatted with a specific hairline which is different from all TPM editorial content. The same conspicuous disclaimers are on the index page and then on the article page itself. And then the byline is “Phrma”

Josh – we will have to disagree on this. Again, the reason why advertisers like “sponsored content” is precisely because they think it’s likely to slip through people’s filters in a way that standard advertisements don’t. I don’t think that there is any real controversy about this. This is why the Atlantic got into trouble for its Scientology sponsored content, which looks to me to be if anything somewhat easier to detect as sponsored content. Nor does your previous acceptance of sponsorship of a section by the American Petroleum Institute look to me to be the same thing (although it’s in a grayer territory than I would like). At least, I am presuming that the API wasn’t able to slip ‘sponsored polls’ in among the regular polling content, in which people were asked loaded questions designed to produce findings that 98% of Americans supported fracking or somesuch.

As I acknowledged in both posts, there are some real differences between what you are doing and what Tech Central Station did. You are upfront about the sponsorship. They weren’t. But there are similarities that you ought to find uncomfortable. They commissioned lots of straight pieces from people who had no idea what was going on, in order to provide cover for the straight flackwork. The latter plausibly helped lend credibility to the former and made it difficult to distinguish the flacking from pieces written in good faith.

More broadly, accepting posts from PhRMA, and publishing them in a format which really makes them tough to distinguish from standard TPM content looks to me to be not only blurring a line, but crossing it. And as a couple of people have noted there are differences between the ‘accept all comers’ approach to advertising, and engaging in relationships over sponsored content.

Put bluntly – would you be willing to run a sponsored content channel with Grover Norquist on the running of government, where you were able to commission a lot of pieces on policy, with the occasional piece bylined ‘ATR’ that used misleading arguments to suggest why government would be drowned in the bathtub? Would you be willing to run a channel on the biological sciences with The New Century Foundation that had the odd piece bylined ‘TNCF’ arguing for the scientific basis of differences between the races? Both looking to shape the views of ‘influencers’ like myself?

Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m guessing that you would at the least be highly uncomfortable with the former, and would outright refuse the latter. And if I’m right, then this isn’t simple advertising. It’s also lending some of your good name to the sponsor and entering into a more intimate business relationship than you suggest. If I am wrong – and you would do a channel with The New Century Foundation on biology because it’s just another form of advertising – it would be good to clear that up.

Again, I recognize that journalism needs financial support, and that there is a perpetual tension between what advertisers want and what publishers, especially publishers of investigative reporting are prepared to give. But this looks to me to be unambiguously over the line, and to be something that will damage TPM’s hard-earned reputation.


Layman 03.28.14 at 1:48 pm

Josh Marshall @ 29

“Commercial and advocacy advertisers have a certain kind of ad they aim at broad spectrum audiences. They tend to be picture and slogan based. They increasingly try to take a different route with niche or smaller sites that have very engaged, highly educated and influential audiences. They’re looking for venues where people are accustomed to reading at length and on fairly complex topics. Henry, you are what people in the ad world call an ‘influencer’, even more specifically a ‘politics/policy influencer’. They want to convince you of things, message you with arguments that are much more complex than anything they can convey in a box ad. They think they’ll find you in that mode at TPM and other similar publications.”

Of course they do; and you want to help them do it, in return for revenue. Isn’t that what Henry’s saying?


keithw 03.28.14 at 2:06 pm

If sponsored content was the same as ads, then PhRMA would buy the ads and save some money. It’s not though. They don’t just want eyeballs. They’re paying extra to leech off your good name, Josh. Good work.


JG 03.28.14 at 2:13 pm

The basic fact is, Pharmas are desperate. When was the last significant innovation that came from big pharma — the Hep C cure came from university research, then a smaller company bought for over $11B by Gilead. Innovation in drugs and health care begins with NIH funding serious research (disappearing), then pharma buying and funding the huge costs of trials and approval. Take antibiotic resistance: no new antibiotics of significance in 20 years. Duh. So Pharma focuses on extending IP coverage for bad costly drugs, advertising puppies and children in flower fields and talking fast through the side effects, and phony data and adverts, and making money via aging men pissing too slow. The opportunities are there for real research and so are the smartest people. And it’s never been harder for them to get funding for real innovation. JG


Josh Marshall 03.28.14 at 2:44 pm

Henry, With respect, the differences between TCS and TPM is so qualitative, so massive, that it’s just flat wrong. Do you think TCS when it commissioned outside pieces was run by an independent editorial staff in choosing, editing, commissioning pieces?

Of course, not.

That’s the whole point. This is something I know a little about since I’m the one who found out what they were doing. Nick and I worked at the Monthly then at the same time. It’s the difference between publishing by an actual editorial organization and being totally clear about what’s advertising and running a phony publication where all decisions, editorial, advertising, publishing etc are not only dictated by the advertiser but run directly by the advertiser. Because the publication is literally owned by the advertiser. It’s troubling to me that you see this as some difference of degree.

Let’s take your hypothetical, a more realistic example. Let’s say the Chamber of Commerce wanted to sponsor a section of IdeaLab on industrial innovation. That’s not Norquist but same difference essentially. Yes, I would. Because our reporters would write what they want to write about and we’d run their advertising. Would I like it. Not particularly. But I would do it because if I didn’t then my decision to have a sponsorship from Phrma or API would become a de facto endorsement.

Let me give you a real world example. Most of our ads come in through Google Ads. We don’t even see them because they’re geo-targeted. We can kill them after we hear about it but only after we hear about them from readers. In 2008, the anti marriage forces supporting Prop 8 started running tons of ads on TPM in California.

Needless to say, this is something I feel very strongly about in the opposite direction. And our readers do too. Our readers were extremely angry. Many threatened to never read the site again. It was deeply uncomfortable because the criticism stung and I knew it was coming from a place of deep hurt and sincere belief. And simply Justice. We could have taken down the ads. But we didn’t. Because the overall policy is the right one. We deal in politics reporting and opinion. If we start rejecting ads we disagree with then we inevitably are endorsing the ones we do. We stuck with the policy. I think it was the right thing to do.

Now, this clearly is a closer relationship than that. We never knew the people running the ads; the money came via Google etc. It’s difficult to imagine a comparable example on a sponsorship model because in practice it just wouldn’t happen for lot of reasons. They wouldn’t want to do it. And it’s possible we wouldn’t do it because the relationship is closer. I’m not sure. Judgment calls do come into this. But judgment calls at the margins don’t negate the importance of the rules and guidelines and separations between editorial and business we follow.

The arguments you are making are inherent to all ad supported publications where the nature of most of the advertising has some relationship with what the publication writes about. And it’s something publishers always have to be mindful of. This is precisely why we do take all comers so readers know they should not read anything into an ad or any clearly ad sponsored material on site as to whether we endorse it, disagree with it, etc. That is unquestionably the only policy that can safeguard a publications editorial independence and integrity. In terms of what advertisers are looking for, candidly, I’m a little more familiar with this than you are. You’re an academic. I assume you have not recently met with any major corporate advertisers or ad agencies or ad creative agencies. I do. This is what I do. I’m a publisher.

I respect your feelings about this. And an outsider’s perspective is just as valid as an insider’s one in this case because people on the inside can be in a bubble. And perceptions of our readership is critical. But just as publishers may be in a bubble, you should also recognize that there are factual issue tied to the mechanics, strategies and goal of advertisers that you are simply not well-versed in because it’s not a profession you work in.

For Layman @35, yes, this is what we’re selling. That is called advertising. It’s the model that virtually the entire publishing industry runs by.


Josh Marshall 03.28.14 at 2:48 pm

Yabonn @31,
You present this is some shock to the system question that’s going to be hard to answer. It’s not. Advertisers in policy and poltiical advocacy go to publications where there are people who are interested in politics and policy. When they want to sell peanut butter, they go to places with high concentrations of peanut butter eaters. This is not complicated and it is not surprising.


Layman 03.28.14 at 3:17 pm

Josh Marshall @ 37

“For Layman @35, yes, this is what we’re selling. That is called advertising. It’s the model that virtually the entire publishing industry runs by.”

You’ve just written several long pieces about how this is different than normal advertising, so it hardly makes sense to fall back on the “it’s just advertising, everybody does it” defense. I like TPM, have been reading it for a long time, and generally respect you & what you do; but I’ve noticed you’re relatively impervious to criticism. If people you respect (I don’t mean me) think you’re wrong, and make cogent arguments to that effect, you should probably reconsider the question.


Anders Widebrant 03.28.14 at 3:30 pm

The Prop 8 ads situation is a good benchmark, I think. I’m not a regular TPM reader, but I imagine that no argument against gay marriage could have been made in those ads that would not have been vigorously countered in TPM’s editorial content.

The question is whether or not the same will be true for the kind of arguments PhRMA will want to present in the articles they get to publish on TPM. Can we expect TPM to provide fact checks of and opposing perspectives to what PhRMA will be selling on the site?


Josh Marshall 03.28.14 at 3:58 pm

Layman @39,

I don’t think I’m impervious to criticism. How dare you say I’m impervious to criticism!!! (just kidding). I think what you’re seeing is that these are not issues that are occurring to us right now. We’ve already given them a lot of thought, ruled out some things, accepted others. A more typical corporate response would be just to ignore criticism. I’m clearly not doing it. There are some points I’m that I’m hearing that are simply factually incorrect or highly misleading. And I’m vigorously pushing back against those. But I welcome the scrutiny.

You shouldn’t assume that everyone who is smart and I respect is saying there’s something wrong here. Quite the contrary actually. But people who are smart and who I respect can be wrong, just as I can.

Already from the feedback we’ve gotten a few points have made me think of revisions we’ll likely make. We’ll probably change the color of the disclaimer to some sharper hue than the current gray. Another issue is that because of scheduling issues, we ended up ‘leading’ as it were with the first sponsored piece, rather than a bunch of really cool pieces we’ve commissioned on self-driving cars and how they reduce carbon emissions, virtual currencies etc. That’s put us in the position of, to put it less generously, of leading with the ad and say hey, we’ve got all this great editorial content and that’s coming tomorrow, etc.

There was one reader who thought that the article – rather than the site section – was a “TPM project presented by Phrma” because the site section logo is up at the top and near the article. It wasn’t clear to us that it would look that way. So we’re going to change that.

Now, neither of these go to the basic concept and approach. And the reality is I’m comfortable with the basic concept and approach. But the reason I’m engaging here is because 1) I care what people think 2) I want people to hear directly from me what we’re doing and 3) I wanted to have people point out my blind spots.

That’s what I’m trying to do. People who I respect have made argument; I’ve made my arguments. I’m not at all above reconsidering decisions I’ve made. I’ve done it many times. But if I think it’s still the right thing to do even after hearing criticisms, I don’t think I should shift course just because smart people disagree with me.


Henry 03.28.14 at 4:13 pm

Josh – I disagree. First of all, I think that your changing of the example (from a foundation that espouses racist theories to the US Chamber of Commerce) suggests that you would find a sponsorship relationship with the first so problematic that you wouldn’t want to do it. If I am wrong, and you would agree to a relationship with a racist foundation (so as to demonstrate as emphatically as possible that sponsorship doesn’t equal endorsement), then you should say so directly. If I’m right (and you would find such a sponsorship so problematic as to want to refuse it), it suggests you are engaging in editorial judgments when you make decisions about sponsored content relations, and the bright line isn’t nearly so bright. Perhaps there’s an implicit distinction that political journalists make between ‘respectable’ bad actors (who are part of conventional politics) and ‘unrespectable’ ones who are way outside the mainstream – but this judgment would still be an editorial judgment rather than an ‘accept all comers regardless of how much we find ’em distasteful’ model of accepting advertising.

I respectfully disagree with your suggestion that my position on this stems from ignorance. I talk to a lot of journalists, and I’ve heard a lot of discomfort with sponsored content; at the very least, a recognition that it is blurring lines between edited content and advertising that many journalists would prefer to remain clear. This is clear from the Scientology-sponsored content debacle at the Atlantic, which led, as I’m sure you remember, to a lot of anger and unhappiness among journalists who felt that the Atlantic was tarnishing its brand and theirs. It’s not just inexperienced outsiders who think that there is a real problem here. As the Atlantic described it in the aftermath, “we screwed up.” The very broad felt anger expressed by a wide variety of journalists (including very experienced ones like Jim Fallows) makes it clear that sponsored content is very controversial among many insiders in the journalistic profession, who believe that association with it hurts their credibility in a way that traditional advertising does not. The difference between traditional advertising and sponsored content is real. It isn’t the result of mistaken understanding by naive outsiders.

Frankly, I think that you guys have screwed up here too. I can understand why you made the decision that you did – the business model for investigative journalism is uncertain and complicated (I’m working on a project with Nick Lemann that touches on a lot of these questions). But that doesn’t change the fact that it was a decision that goes substantially beyond the passive acceptance of advertising, into an implicit endorsement of content that is imo harmful and actively mendacious.


P O'Neill 03.28.14 at 4:39 pm

The banner area at TPM for Idealab has a slogan at the top: You can’t argue with science. Not a bad place for a lobbyist to be.

In general, tech and business journalism are good places for messaging, because people perceive the subject matter as non-ideological — how much harm can a little gee-whizzery be? But the temptations become clear looking at television business “journalism” — who amongst us remembers the achievements of FactBased Communications?


yabonn 03.28.14 at 6:16 pm

Josh @ 39

So are my feeble attempts at shocking the system thwarted, chasing shadows.

I’d need better information than this to make a difference. Maybe a site explaining to me the difference between the peanut butter industry (which, by and large, seems to be all about peanut butter), and the medical industry (interested – actually positively fascinated by policies of all kinds)?

More seriously : they spend money because they want influence (that’s where I speak about my total trust in your personal integrity etc). Put a graph somewhere (I hear it’s all the rage) with the big sponsors, their percentage of the site’s income, mark the sponsored articles clearly, and you’ll have one more happy reader.


B. Chandrasekaran 03.28.14 at 6:45 pm

Here’s a voice in support of Josh. The financial side of journalism is so dire that experimentsvlike what Josh Marshall is doing are to be encouraged and judged by the results. There will be plenty of time to declare this a failure, if it turns out to be that. Sponsored Content is advertising. It’s true that the advertisers think that the messages in the former are more likely to make it past the filters people have erected against ordinary advertising. However, pretty quickly people will catch on, especially if Josh is religious in marking such advertising as what it is, so that readers are not confused. I hope Josh Marshall is able to demonstrate how to do sponsored content with integrity.


The Raven 03.28.14 at 9:37 pm

Kraw… Let me tell you how it was with the new 538. I thought it was a really cool idea, and subscribed. And then I read a piece of junk science on global climate change (I didn’t even know the author was well-know denialist), went “Whoa! Wtf?” and unsubscribed.

I think I will do the same with TPM unless it abandons sponsored content; I don’t want to be wondering, “Who paid for this? How does it affect the publications editorial stance?” when I read a news site.


milk 03.29.14 at 3:21 am

I’ve definitely heard the verb “impacting” coming from the vet, describing my poor, now-deceased cat’s colon.


x.trapnel 03.29.14 at 5:38 am

Alex’s question at 32-33 seems to me to be quite important, and I’d love to hear an answer to it.


roy belmont 03.29.14 at 8:52 pm

“… a bunch of really cool pieces we’ve commissioned on self-driving cars and how they reduce carbon emissions, virtual currencies etc…”

Because if there’s two subjects the forward-looking public wants to keep informed about…it’s them two. Plus the nice person’s carbon reduction anxiety reduction. But there are you know a few other venues on those stories, like, I mean, all over them double-plus.
Hey so how about self-driving killer-drone cars? Anybody on that yet? Because synthesis is probably the new paradigm here.
So how about a story on racially-programmed virtual currencies? Getting some serious rumor heat buzz on that.
DNA passwords that can’t be hacked. And exclusivity’s built right in. Got a RFID strip in your sub-dermal, and a card with a matching profile.
The Ethnic Gold PlatinumTitanium Molybdenum Ytterbium Card. Welcome at discerning venues world-wide.

Because you know, self-driving cars/virtual currency, we kind of heard of that already.


Josh Marshall 03.30.14 at 4:38 am

Roy Belmont @ 50

This was sort of stream of consciousness, wasn’t it?


hidflect 03.30.14 at 8:44 am

The nastiest person I ever met in my life was the chief lobbyist for PhRMA when I worked for their Japan PR department. An unabashed pedophile with the power to arrange meetings with the Prime Minister of Japan at will, he had me removed from my post when it became clear from backchatter that I demurred at the ethics of his sex life. He had the power of Lucifer with the demeanor to match.


mattski 03.30.14 at 11:44 am

@ 51

That’s the way roy rolls, Josh. :^)

But, yeah, my vote is, “Let’s wait and see how this works out.” Better not to judge it too hard straight away.


Barry 03.30.14 at 12:10 pm

Josh Marshall 03.30.14 at 4:38 am

” Roy Belmont @ 50

This was sort of stream of consciousness, wasn’t it?”

If ‘consciousness’ is the word; perhaps ‘mental static’ is a better term.


JW Mason 03.30.14 at 1:40 pm

But, yeah, my vote is, “Let’s wait and see how this works out.” Better not to judge it too hard straight away.

How will you decide how it’s worked out? And, would you feel the same way if there were no disclosure of the Phrma-written content at all?


Layman 03.30.14 at 2:40 pm

I do think it’s telling that, days after Henry’s post exposing the inaugural Pharma TPM advertorial as cover for Pharma’s efforts to fight legislation requiring disclosure of clinical trial data, there is no rebuttal to the Pharma piece anywhere on TPM. Isn’t this what you would expect investigative journalism to do – expose propaganda from lobby groups trying to distract you from the real issue at hand? Instead, Josh Marshall pens an explanation of this new relationship where he doubles down: He’s not taking Pharma money to give them a platform just out of necessity; he’s proud to do it!


Main Street Muse 03.30.14 at 3:44 pm

Henry @43 “This is clear from the Scientology-sponsored content debacle at the Atlantic, which led, as I’m sure you remember, to a lot of anger and unhappiness among journalists who felt that the Atlantic was tarnishing its brand and theirs.”

Atlantic readers weren’t happy either. And that’s what matters – those who pay for the product.

What the TPM sponsored content shows – and what Henry’s post dances around – the business model of journalism – particularly print journalism – is in the midst of a sea change. The advent of the web and social media has created financial turmoil for news media. Quite simply, we are in uncharted territory right now.

In Chicago, both daily newspapers (Trib and Sun-Times) were recently in bankruptcy. NY Times continues to lose income. TV news anchors (like Brian Williams) provide entertainment along with the news.

In TV news media, narrowcasting means news programs can benefit from targeted ad sales. Not all Fox News advertisers want to reach MSNBC news viewers. So they can pick and choose the content they want to support.

Sadly, we probably know more about Gyneth Paltrow’s conscious uncoupling than we do about Crimea.

Craig’s List, Facebook and Google seize a lion’s share of ad revenue now – ad revenues which have been essential to the operations of news outlets are going elsewhere.

What this means is that the business model of journalism has been destroyed. If we feel as a nation that journalism is essential to the preservation of democracy, how do we pay for it?

TPM is exploring a very unpopular way of generating revenue – but really, is this really much different than ad-supported journalism we all grew up with? You don’t think GM had sway over content of Detroit papers? You don’t think Bank of America has had pull with the Charlotte media? You don’t think Rupert Murdoch – who owns much of the news media now available to us – doesn’t let ad revenue impact news coverage?

We don’t have to click on sponsored content. But all editors, everywhere, for a very long time now, have had to take a very serious, hard look at how content can possible change the revenue stream.


mattski 03.30.14 at 5:23 pm

How will you decide how it’s worked out? And, would you feel the same way if there were no disclosure of the Phrma-written content at all?

Would I feel the same way if there were no disclosure of sponsored content? Of course not. That would be a different scenario. How will we know if it has worked out? I guess the answer needs time. It isn’t necessarily possible to know now what my criteria will be later.

I think Main Street Muse above said it quite well. We’re in uncharted territory. I can tell you this, if the NYT goes bankrupt I will be crying in my beer.

JW, will you suffer a little anecdote? I was in my 30’s during Bill Clinton’s presidency. I spent MOST of his presidency in a state of extreme disappointment with him. I thought he caved in to the GOP more often than not and in general sold out the Left. But… In the fullness of time Clinton seems to me a hugely admirable figure. I mean, his speech at the 2012 convention was like gold. He is one smart motherfucker with the know how and cojones to gain political power in this country, and best of all his heart is in the right place. So, the importance of keeping the JUDGEMENT reflex in check, especially regarding ones allies. Not easy, I know.

I’m navigating by two stars here. One is that we live in an imperfect world and though we’d often prefer not to, sometimes compromise we must. The other is that I’ve read enough of Josh Marshall’s writing to have a pretty decent measure of confidence in his character. It would be folly of me to judge rashly even though at first blush, it’s not what I would choose.


roy belmont 03.30.14 at 10:19 pm

More formally,then, in an odd and threatening cultural moment, when the weight of economic disparity is crushing lives at a rate that makes the France of Louis XVI look quaint and almost socialist, one of the most viewed public fora on the net sucks appendage off the PHRMA shogunate, and is consequently under discussion for possibly not being all that ethical while doing so.
In response to timid to the point of tepid near-criticism chief spokesman of said forum says “We’ll have cars, that drive themselves! Stories about that! And helping the environment and stuff. How to increase battery life in your iphone. And next month – maybe a hard hitting article on Google Glass, who knows.”
No cause for irony there. No reason to be rejectful.
Chance must be given.
Look at all the heat they took at TPM for their support of the Palestinian cause, back when that was a seriously dangerous position for prominent voices to take.
Risk-takers have to eat too.
And because Snowden and Ukraine and gravity waves….oh wait, different thread.


Politian 04.02.14 at 3:05 am

Barr-y @54:

You dither here, speaking of high matters, conferring on consequential things with others purporting to both care and understand things at the nexus of tech, economics, journo-ism, and civil conversation, yet you dismiss someone who happens to speak of things not already dumbed down into the stock-photo cliches of your conventional consciousness. And so goes the world of “news.” The thing Mr. Belmont was trying to say is the thing you cannot hear.

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