Who Can Save Journalism? Big Oil, Apparently

Sponsored content produced by the L.A. Times
Sponsored content produced by the L.A. Times
via Powering California

Earlier this month, the L.A. Times and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism rolled out an investigation into Exxon's research on climate change. The report, which followed a similar series from Inside Climate News, found that Exxon campaigned against emissions controls by casting doubt on climate science, even though its own researchers had done pioneering work in the field.

Even as the Times was publishing this hard-hitting story, the business side of the paper was presenting a much rosier view of the oil industry through a sponsored-content campaign. The Times was hired by California Resources Corporation, formerly Occidental Petroleum, to create a website called Powering California, which features videos and articles supporting the oil and gas industry.

The site asks visitors to "imagine a day without oil," and runs through the products and activities that would be impossible without the petroleum industry. It comes as the oil and gas industry faces increasing pressure in Sacramento on climate change. Last month, the industry defeated a measure that would cut oil and gas consumption in half by 2030.

The Times editorial board denounced legislators for succumbing to "oil industry propaganda." 

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It is thus a little awkward, or at least ironic, that the Times is simultaneously getting paid to create promotional material for the oil industry.

The Times ramped up its "Content Solutions" program under former publisher Austin Beutner, following the successful efforts of many other publications. The pitch to advertisers is that the paper's campaigns can "combine strategic thinking with the highest level of editorial talent to inspire emotional engagement, grow trust, deliver action and yield results..."

Hillary Manning, a Times spokeswoman, said that sponsored content is independently researched and edited by the Times' Content Solutions team.

"CRC asked us to research and write factual information about oil and gas production in California to contribute to the public discussion of energy policy in the state," Manning said via email. "[T]he L.A. Times applies the same standards of accuracy and completeness it uses to create its own content."

Margita Thompson, a CRC spokeswoman, issued her own statement, saying the company is "excited to provide articles and features that distill the value to the Golden State from local oil and natural gas production. Oil and natural gas are a critical part of our lives, modern society and daily life in California whether we realize it or not."

The campaign reaches the Times' audience through banner ads and through Essential California, the paper's daily newsletter. The ads link to the Powering California website, which includes a disclaimer stating that the editorial staff is not involved in producing sponsored content.

In that respect, it's not that different from traditional newspaper advertising. And, of course, newspapers are under tremendous pressure to find revenue wherever they can. If the oil industry is helping to fund journalism, a portion of which is aimed at exposing the oil industry, then perhaps it's all to the good.

Still, some in the environmental community see this as a troubling sign.

"I understand the concept behind sponsored content, but when it’s being used to defeat climate action by Big Oil, it goes way beyond Zappos," said Jonathan Parfrey, executive director of Climate Resolve. "To see the most prestigious paper in the western U.S. cozying up to these well-heeled interests is deeply disturbing."

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