This week's reminder that journalism isn't in Kansas anymore comes via a funky advertising concept showcased at nytimes.com/magazine — where, as you'd expect, the contents of the New York Times Magazine are available for Web readers.
I'm currently looking at a box titled "Starbucks Mini News," which sits on the right side of the page toward the top. The box contains links to Times stories on technology (a 2008 David Pogue piece on a pocket projector), travel (Michael Finkel's 1999 item on Japan's extra-small hotel rooms), and arts (the Whitney's tiny, Alexander Calder–designed circus, as described by Kathryn Shattuck last year). A few minutes ago, three different Times pieces were on offer. The fourth option, though, has remained constant: it's a plug for Starbucks's new Mini Card — "makes coffee more convenient"! — that promptly redirects to starbucks.com/card when clicked.
The implications here are worth pondering. The aforementioned Times pieces weren't written for Starbucks, obviously; instead, they were incorporated because — at the risk of stating the obvious — they deal with things which, like the Starbucks card, are really little. Still, a case can be made that the new context in which these stories are now being presented fundamentally alters their character: they've been transformed, retroactively, into advertorial content. (Did I mention that, when the aforementioned stories get pulled up, they're accompanied by still more ads for the Mini Card?)
For now, it seems, neither the general public nor journalism ethicists need be too concerned. After all, it's unlikely that Starbucks's crafty pitchmanship is going to make the Times' journalists (or anyone else's) prioritize subjects that could be useful to big advertisers down the road. For one thing, that would cause a huge scandal if it actually happened; for another, it's hard to say what, exactly, those hypothetical subjects would be.
That said, the ad campaign does represent a significant conceptual shift. As a colleague of mine put it, journalists have traditionally agonized about advertising encroaching on the news. Here, that dynamic has been reversed: news content is now invading advertising space — or, more accurately, being conscripted into it.
If you work in a newsroom, or just want the boundary between news and advertising to remain sacrosanct, that's an uncomfortable conceptual shift. And with the news industry struggling to survive — and publishers scrambling for new sources of revenue — chances are that it won't be the last one we see.