Start Up | Podcast Review | December 28, 2015 | By

Start Up #17: Words about Words from Our Sponsors

On navigating the increasingly murky business of advertising.


We’ve circled back to the starting point of this mini-season: Nazanin’s decision to join Alex at Gimlet Media. Working on the creative content of Gimlet’s advertising, Nazanin is pioneering this set of responsibilities at the company and venturing into a somewhat controversial area of digital media: sponsored content.

Sponsored content—content that is produced by the editorial team of a media company but paid for by advertisers, who sometimes also have editorial input—has grown in digital media, particularly as studies have demonstrated low effectiveness of banner advertising. Matt Lieber (cofounder and President of Gimlet Media) emphasizes that the high revenue potential of sponsored content could create opportunities for new and improved podcast production at Gimlet—so this is an important discussion.

Gimlet begins with a set of firm ground rules: that they are willing to produce sponsored content but will not distribute it on Gimlet channels, instead turning it over to the advertiser who will build their own audience. These ground rules encounter resistance in Gimlet’s discussions with Zillow, an online real estate database company to whom Gimlet has sent a proposal. Zillow expresses a desire for less heavily-branded content and more editorial collaboration than Gimlet’s ground rules implied.

Nazanin’s sense of responsibility to Gimlet’s listeners is heartening, if not a little idealistic. The food and lifestyle blogs I’ve followed since college have begun to rely heavily on sponsored content, and I have to admit I feel a little betrayed when I see an advertiser hyperlinked in a post. On the other hand, I’m well aware that without opportunities like these, creators of websites that I visit almost daily would be unable to sustain the level of content they’re producing. A lot of content which used to cost money via newspaper or magazine subscriptions has become free through digital media—if it’s still up to a certain standard, should it really matter to me who paid for it, as long as I know it’s paid for?

I think some of our qualms are rooted in an idealism about art in general. We’ve romanticized the archetype of the starving artist who sacrifices financial well-being in the pursuit of his or her passions or wholly divorces moneymaking from creative endeavors (i.e. the budding actor waiting tables). Something about the idea of art having a monetary agenda feels inorganic and unauthentic—imagine finding out the Mona Lisa was painted to advertise skincare products. We like to believe people will still suffer for their art—and making money off of it seems to preclude real suffering.

In some ways, the characters we’ve met at Gimlet Media still embody some of these “starving artist” ideals. Based on what Start Up has disclosed to us, Alex Blumberg, Nazanin Rafsanjani, and Matt Lieber left positions with higher salaries to pursue a project that would afford them more creative autonomy. It’s no Moulin Rouge, but their stories still conjure some of that Bohemian glamour—that the work you’re doing can be important or interesting enough to outweigh a pay cut.

Start-ups have begun to join the ranks of artists in providing us with the rags-to-riches narratives that we love. Unlike an artist, however, a start-up founder’s main goal is to make money; they’re starting a business, after all. This episode examines the intersection of art and money in an unexpected way. It doesn’t provide us with all the answers, but the questions that remain—how to maintain journalistic integrity as media evolves, what determines authenticity in art, and to whom the media is ultimately responsible—are well worth pondering.

About the Author

Meghana Kaloji is a writer at Audiologue where she covers StartUp. You can find her on Twitter @meghavolt or by email at mkaloji@audiologue.xyz.

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