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A new company is giving away copy. The trouble is, it's full of product plugs, says Mira Katbamna
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The Independent Online

Journalism and public relations are tied together like a bickering couple. It's a healthy, necessary conflict, and one that acknowledges two very different obligations - journalism to its readers, and PR to the company it is promoting. But a new company is getting rid of the journalist.

Journalism and public relations are tied together like a bickering couple. It's a healthy, necessary conflict, and one that acknowledges two very different obligations - journalism to its readers, and PR to the company it is promoting. But a new company is getting rid of the journalist.

Set up last year, Free Features Ltd provides an online database of copy that can be downloaded by any editor in the country, free of charge - provided they include information from a commercial sponsor. Written by Free Features' in-house team, each article comes with a tailored advert, and often a tailored "plug" within the copy for the sponsor. Almost 400 regional newspapers have already signed up.

The managing director of Free Features, Janet Kelly, says that it is not as sinister as it sounds. "Free Features simply takes the idea of branded content, which is already used in TV sponsorship, a bit further," she says. She points out that the copy is independent. "Sponsors do not approve or write the copy. We just offer an opportunity for advertising within an article."

Kelly ran her own PR company for 10 years, and has also worked as a journalist. She sees Free Features as a natural extension of "advertorial", copy written and designed by the newspaper to promote a product, but paid for by the advertiser. But where a newspaper will typically headline an advertorial with the words "This is an advertisement", Free Features' content is presented as an article.

Carol Driver is editor of the Essex Enquirer, a free sheet with a team of seven journalists and a 60,000 circulation. She has used Free Features, and doesn't think there's a problem. "The pieces we've run are definitely not just rewritten press releases," she says. "I'll scout the site and if a piece offers something extra to the readers and is sparky and well-written, I would certainly consider using it. It's definitely not about just grabbing something to fill a page." However, she does admit that Free Features is no substitute for one of her own journalists.

At the heart of the issue are the shrinking editorial budgets of regional newspapers. "I don't want to do journalists out of jobs, but editors have pages they need to fill," Kelly says.

Marc Ollington, the head of UK marketing for the National Geographic Channel, says: "Free Features offers us a way of accessing the regional press in a simple and effective way." He also points out that it is extremely cost-effective, undercutting the cost of placing an advert in the same paper.

Free Features doesn't deal with anything controversial. Of course, problems might arise if the company acquired Monsanto or BNFL as clients, but as long as it sticks to lifestyle and soft-furnishings features, does it really matter that copy is sponsored? Rod Allen, head of City University's journalism department, says it does: "I'm disgusted that editors buy into the idea. Even if you choose articles carefully, it can't be editorially sound if someone else is paying for it."

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