A Rolling Stone Pay-to-Write Program Prompts Scrutiny From Media

It's not unlike sponsored content, but it's also slightly different

Rolling Stone on the newsstands
A copy of Rolling Stone magazine is displayed on a shelf at Smoke Signals newsstand on September 18, 2017 in San Francisco, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

When you encounter sponsored content online, it’s usually pretty clear that it’s sponsored content. A new initiative from Rolling Stone, though, seems designed to carve out a slightly different space adjacent to it, sparking concern from media observers. To phrase it a little differently, the origins of an article with “Sponsored” above it are pretty clear. When it comes to something with the words “Culture Council” beside it, however, the lines are a little blurrier — which is where the debate begins.

The Guardian‘s Archie Bland has written an in-depth look at the issue. At the center of this is the Rolling Stone Cultural Council, described on its website as “an Invitation-Only Community for Influencers, Innovators and Creatives.” According to Bland’s article, applicants must go through a vetting process and pay $1,500 annually, as well as $500 up front, to “have the opportunity to publish original content to the Rolling Stone website.”

One such article focuses on the cannabis industry and was written by the founder of a PR firm that works in the cannabis space. A disclaimer atop the article notes its origin via a member of the Culture Council, and goes on to state: “Rolling Stone Culture Council is an invitation-only network of industry professionals who share their insights with our audience.”

It can still feel disconcerting to read, however. As Bland notes in the article, “it is less common for a major journalism brand to offer third parties, including PR professionals, the chance to pay to write pieces for publication.”

A spokesperson for Penske Media Corporation, which owns Rolling Stone, addressed the program in a statement to The Guardian. They noted, “Content created by Culture Council members exists in its own channel separate from editorial content and is clearly labelled as originating from a non-editorial, fee-based member network, which allows industry professionals to share ideas in a paid forum.”

It feels like the beginning of a contentious debate — and one we probably haven’t heard the last of.

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