Sirrah podcast: Native Advertising from Franklin to Facebook

podcastlogoFor the 19th episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Nick Hirshon spoke with Ava Sirrah about native advertisements in American news media, from Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette to Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook.

Sirrah is a former creative strategist at the New York Times and a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University.

This episode is sponsored by Donna Harrington-Lueker, author of Books for Idle Hours: Nineteenth-Century Publishing and the Rise of Summer Reading.


Nick Hirshon: [00:00:10] Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told. I’m your host, Nick Hirshon, guiding you through our own drafts of history.

This episode is sponsored by Donna Harrington-Lueker, author of Books for Idle Hours: Nineteenth-Century Publishing and the Rise of Summer Reading. Drawing on newspaper and magazine coverage along with letters, diaries, and archival materials, Books for Idle Hours examines the birth of today’s “beach read” in nineteenth-century print culture. Now available from the University of Massachusetts Press.

[00:00:29] Benjamin Franklin is credited with many inventions. The lightning rod, bifocals, the Franklin stove, and, alongside the rest of the founding fathers, the United States of America. But journalism historians know him best as the publisher of the Pennsylvania Gazette for 20 years starting in 1729. Under Franklin’s stewardship, the Gazette transformed from a struggling paper into the most successful in the 13 colonies, with stories that were well edited, well written, and well printed. Franklin’s Gazette also set the standard for advertising in American news media.

[00:01:31] He supported the expensive operations of putting out a newspaper by running advertisements that played with typeface size and whitespace and even included images for some brands. In many respects, the Gazette marked the beginning of so-called native advertising for generations to come in newspapers, radio, television, and, most recently, on social media. In this episode, we discuss the evolution of advertising and news outlets – from Franklin to Facebook – with Ava Sirrah, a former creative strategist at the New York Times and a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University. Ava studies how native advertisements impact newsroom decision making. We also discuss Ava’s unique transition from the newsroom to the classroom.

Ava, welcome to the Journalism History podcast.

Ava Sirrah: [00:02:21] Thanks so much for having me, Nick.

Nick Hirshon: [00:02:23] Of course. So, before we jump into your research, I want to discuss your background and how that might have influenced the research that you do. I understand that you worked at the New York Times for two years as a creative strategist. So can you tell us a little bit about what that job entailed?

Ava Sirrah: [00:02:38] Yeah, of course. So I actually started my job at the Times because they released an innovation report. And I was reading that at the ad agency that I worked for at the time. And I thought, you know, I work on ads for this company and I’m selling kind of sugared water for Pepsi. Why don’t I apply what I do here for an organization that I really believe in and trust and has an important mission?

[00:03:03] So I moved to the Times, and in this innovation report, and as I saw when I was even interviewing for the position, they all said that, you know, a creative strategist is a brand-new role and we’re looking to hire more people that have advertising backgrounds. We want to hire people from tech companies. We’re really trying to kind of change the staff that we have and the skill set that we have. And so really my role at that organization, while it was to work with advertisers and convince them that the Times could do a superior job telling branded stories, a big part of it too was internally kind of changing how the organization viewed their relationship with advertisers and viewed what services they could provide to various brands.

Nick Hirshon: [00:03:37] So was that around the inception of native advertising at the New York Times when you were coming on board?

Ava Sirrah: [00:03:55] I came on board just about six months after they had launched their studio. Their studio was launched with, I believe, four people. And then right when they hired me was when they were expanding it out to having it be about a 45-plus team. And then by the time I left it was a hundred-plus.

Nick Hirshon: [00:04:17] And obviously you’re working at one of the most historic journalism institutions in the country, in the world. So I imagine that affected your approach to, now, the media history research that you’ve done. Can you talk a little about that transition from being in the industry to going all in on academia?

Ava Sirrah: [00:04:34] Sure, yeah. I mean, I personally feel people who go into academia already kind of have a personality trait where they want to dig deeper or they have questions that kind of nag at them. So, as much as it was a surprise to us from advertising the New York Times to academia, these questions that I had about how advertisers influence culture and influence news were things that I had always thought about. And I just realized that that question was something that I couldn’t avoid. And even if it meant kind of stepping away from a job that I had grown really comfortable with, I just felt like I had a duty to examine that question properly. And one of the ways that you can do that is by pursuing a Ph.D. and I was very, very lucky to get into a school where I didn’t have to move and I could stay in New York and ask these questions and also continue interviewing people who work in publishing in this city.

Nick Hirshon: [00:05:38] And I wouldn’t want you to share any proprietary information here, but were there moments at the New York Times where you saw something happening about native advertising, as you’re trying to pitch these companies on advertising, that inspired you to do more of this kind of research?

Ava Sirrah: [00:05:52] Yeah, absolutely. You know, when I was in that role, I never really realized the negotiation that goes on between publishers and advertisers. As a consumer of the news, I just always saw ads on a separate page and maybe I would pay attention to a video some publisher had created for a brand but I never really investigated it too much. Being someone who works in advertising, I have a slight suspicion of certain influencers who maybe aren’t marking their posts as “branded” or “sponsored by” and it looks a little too polished, but when I started working at the Times, I realized that that negotiation was definitely taking on different expressions that I just never read about and I didn’t know existed. And also I joined the company at a time where there were people that were 55-plus and there were people like me that were younger millennials. And when I talked to the people that were older, the people that had been there for, you know, thirty, forty plus years, they were like, ‘Well, we’ve never really offered this before. We’ve never really created a campaign like this.’ And just a lot of those comments made me realize that maybe something new is going on here that, again, deserves investigation.

Nick Hirshon: [00:07:22] And I’ve thrown around this term “native advertising” a few times. I want to explain what that is and of course get your feedback on it. But native advertising essentially matches the look, feel, and function of the media format in which it appears. They’re designed to kind of blend in with organic content kind of seamlessly, so they can be difficult to spot. Can you give us your definition of “native advertising,” maybe some examples for the audience?

Ava Sirrah: [00:07:39] Yeah, absolutely. That’s a great definition that you gave. I would expand upon it in the sense that as an example I would give is outside of publishing and I’ll tell you why that is. So I think the example that’s used a lot is Red Bull.

[00:07:55] Red Bull created this content series for YouTube where they showed people taking on all these great risks and they strapped a GoPro on them and they were just like, ‘Red Bull gives you wings, your crazy stunts, people who drink Red Bull are performing.’ And people consumed that content and they liked it and a few of those videos even went viral, got millions of views, and people both in publishing and in advertising started to think, ‘Wait, there’s a way for us to kind of deliver a commercial message but not be overt with the branch that we’re promoting, in this case, Red Bull.’

Nick Hirshon: [00:08:34] Is there a difference there between advertorials, then, and native advertising in this way or infomercials or some of these other sorts of things that we’re used to that have some of those components? You’re watching a Ron Popeil commercial and he’s showing you his latest cooking device. Is that similar to what’s happening with native advertising?

Ava Sirrah: [00:08:55] Yeah, it has similarities. So, what I’m talking about, right, with Red Bull in branded content is they manage to create videos that fit in seamlessly with the platform, which was YouTube, right? And we would call that “branded content.” But when you start thinking about what native content is, it’s not only that they’re creating videos or editorials or what have you that people want to watch and has a compelling story, but they’re making it look native to the platform on which it appears. And I think that’s why people use the word “native advertising” when they’re talking about publishers creating this type of content versus an infomercial where, yeah, maybe people want to watch it but you also know that they’ve interrupted the program that you’re watching on TV.

Nick Hirshon: [00:09:46] Sure. No, and that’s a good distinction to make and we’re going to talk a little bit later on about how native advertising works and how you make sure you don’t annoy people when you’re in this process of native advertising. But I want to just talk about your ongoing research for your dissertation at Columbia University. Obviously you’re examining this relationship between advertisers and the press. So, we’ve talked about your work at the New York Times. Is there any other inspiration here for tackling this topic and going in this particular direction of how advertisers and the press interact?

Ava Sirrah: [00:10:17] Yeah, absolutely. A lot of it is things that I kind of felt in my gut but as I went back to school I realized there’s actually a rich history here, and what I mean by that is advertising and journalists have always kind of had a unique relationship, not only with each other, but as institutions. And what I mean by that is advertisers, if you talk to practitioners, they’ll say, ‘You know, we want to create work that people enjoy looking at.

[00:10:46] And we are part of a culture and we get to repurpose pop culture.’ And they kind of view themselves as artists who needed to pay their bills. And then if you look at journalists, they too view themselves as someone that’s serving the reader and they get to be part of this greater cultural dialogue as well. So, both these institutions kind of hold a unique place in our society and in our zeitgeist and I think that that’s also kind of what helps blur the lines between them.

Nick Hirshon: [00:11:06] And you’ve looked at the media history element here, of course, you trace this trend of native advertising many years back. One thread of your research relates to Benjamin Franklin, and I understand you go all the way back to the Pennsylvania Gazette, which he bought in 1729, that newspaper is by best known by media historians for printing the first political cartoon in America, ‘Join, or Die.’ That depiction of the American colonies as pieces of a snake, they have to stick together or else they won’t be able to survive. And that research was accepted for presentation last month at the Joint Journalism and Communication History Conference at NYU in New York City, co-sponsored by AEJMC History Division and the American Journalism Historians Association. Your presentation was “Advertising in the Press from Franklin to Facebook.” So, can you talk a little bit about Benjamin Franklin and what was the value that he saw in advertising in his newspaper?

Ava Sirrah: [00:12:08] Yeah. Well, it’s so interesting even the way that you describe it, right, in looking at the Pennsylvania Gazette, and it’s famous for so many other things, but actually there was an advertisement in that paper and it wasn’t labeled. And Franklin did receive money to print it and he also decided to give this ad more white space and make it look kind of more prominent and easier for someone to read. And I started investigating this and I realized that Franklin, he wanted independence from Britain. And he realized that to make this paper profitable after he bought it he would need to increase the pages from two to four. And at this point, right, there’s no such thing as journalistic objectivity. He’s one of the first printers, not even everyone knows how to read, right? We’re really placing ourselves back in time.

[00:12:58] And so he increases the pages two to four so he can include two pages of advertisements. None of this is marked, which is a huge conversation that we have right now with native ads, which is, you have to properly distinguish editorial content from commercial content.

[00:13:14] And anyway, so people get this paper and then they start to question, ‘Is this trustworthy? Can I rely on it?’ And I wanted to see how he would respond to that because again there aren’t really there isn’t professionalization of journalism at this time. And I came across his apology to printers.

[00:13:35] And here he states that it’s unreasonable to imagine printers approve of everything they print and they can’t censor everything accordingly because they’re getting such a great variety of things that if they have to kind of fact-check it, there’s no way I could print anything because I’d be stuck approving everything. And I’m reading this and I’m thinking, this sounds very similar to what Zuckerberg says when people ask him, ‘Aren’t you a publisher?’ and he says, ‘no, I’m a tech company. I’m not responsible for what I print. I’m just the mechanism. I’m just the platform.’ And so, you know, it became fairly obvious to me that both Franklin and Zuckerberg view these platforms, whether it’s print, or whether it’s a website, as just a way to spread information but they’re not the ones that are responsible for what it says or how it’s targeted at people or anything else. And this just got me to think about how with any technology, you know, people are really responsible for defining what they expect of the platforms and of their owners.

Nick Hirshon: [00:14:48] So at that time, what sort of advertisements were Benjamin Franklin, the other folks at the Pennsylvania Gazette, running? Were there any controversial ads? It sounds like some people were reacting in ways that maybe Franklin didn’t expect to those ads.

Ava Sirrah: [00:15:02] Yeah, it’s funny. I don’t have it in front of me right now, so I can’t recall exactly what the ads were for. I know at that time there were many, many papers that were bought for political purposes, or they were bought by political parties. And there’s also a fine line between advertising and propaganda, which might be a separate conversation, but I think that not only was Franklin maybe surprised that he was getting that response, I think that he just might not have realized that he had any responsibility. And so I think that as much as he may or may not have been surprised, he was also kind of defining what exactly it was he was doing, just as any profession has to kind of establish those lines.

Nick Hirshon: [00:15:46] So at this point, what was your sense of the expectations from readers ’cause you’re saying journalism maybe had not developed into this objective neutral reporting device. It was maybe viewed much more as a partisan kind of a device where people would hear the political opinions and take their stands, and some of the things that we hear as criticisms of the news media today. But was it people looking for a polarizing kind of content in a sense or just conforming to their own views, or did they expect anything neutral in the reporting and therefore that placed higher?

Ava Sirrah: [00:16:21] I wouldn’t even go that far. I think that people, sometimes they don’t even realize that they have certain expectations of a medium. But it’s like if someone sent you an email tomorrow and they’re telling you X, Y, and Z might be true about your profession or here’s some information that might help you. You would want to know is this true, where are your facts coming from? Why should I trust you? And I think that question of trust is something that we have of anyone that claims to be giving us some kind of information. But I also realized I should back up a little bit because a lot of what we’re talking about has to do with the rise of objectivity and that in great part was started by when Ochs bought the Times and he realized people would want an objective press and that they would pay for it and that there was space in this landscape that was filled with yellow journalism and political advertisements and political parties buying advertisements, buying papers, rather, that there was space for an honest news publisher. And that is really an economic model, right, because everyone else is offering a different type of newspaper and he could kind of stand out and have this unique selling proposition.

Nick Hirshon: [00:17:38] Sure. And then when we’re looking at Franklin all the way to Facebook as you say in your proposal, obviously there’s a lot that happened in between there. So, can you maybe guide us to, were there certain figures or certain moments in this history of native advertising that you find being most significant?

Ava Sirrah: [00:17:54] I think that – “native advertisements,” it’s just a new word for something that’s always existed. So, as early as Franklin where he is acting as a copywriter, writing these ads and printing them in the Pennsylvania Gazette, that’s a form of native advertising. Then when you think about the early ads that we had for drug companies and saying, selling snake oil before the FDA was even developed, there was no way for people to know if this was commercial content or if it was real news and it all looked native.

[00:18:33] It all looked like the platform in which it was placed in. And then even soaps that aired on TV, they were called “soaps” because soap companies would advertise their products within the span of that thirty-minute show. And so now we would call that product placement. These words, they’ve taken on different meanings throughout history, but are we always kind of describing the same process? And I think that what I was trying to uncover from Franklin to Facebook in my presentation last month was that these terms and these ideas have kind of been around in some expression or another for a very long time.

Nick Hirshon: [00:19:32] Sure. And as you explain in your proposal, this was a new communication channel of newsprint, people didn’t really know what value it would bring to their lives, so maybe I’m getting a little bit ahead of it because I’m doing it from the modern way of the expectations that readers place on journalistic content. But maybe back then, as you described earlier, it’s really he’s writing this for the first time so he is kind of setting the standard for what would be the expectation of advertising in America.

Ava Sirrah: [00:19:43] Yeah, exactly. And I mean, even if we think about the early days of Facebook people thought this is great. I can stay in touch with my family and friends and this is a way that I can share pictures and video, and as time went on people realized, Wait, I can use these platforms for other things. The platform was promoting and creating new utilities and new affordances. So, I think that it’s a learning process of both from a publisher’s and a platform’s perspective as much as it is from a user’s perspective.

Nick Hirshon: [00:20:14] And so now we’ve seen certainly this rise in so-called “fake news” and misinformation. I’m wondering, do you see any of that traced back to this period? Were there are accusations that some of the advertisement was really misleading and that was maybe the birth of what has now manifested so much in our modern social media climate?

Ava Sirrah: [00:20:35] Absolutely. Yeah, I think that’s another trend that I’m definitely seeing out of this work. A question that I have been asking myself a lot lately is, is advertising kind of the original form of disinformation or misinformation, right? Because ads don’t always have to be 100 percent honest. And our government and our society has had to deal with, how do I test the veracity of claims, for quite some time, only it hasn’t happened from the perspective of a news outlet. It’s happened from the perspective of, can I trust this advertiser? And so actually a lot of that work has taken me to look at the law and how does the law recognize an ad that is blatantly false and shouldn’t there be repercussions if a brand is lying to us. And that took me to a test that they developed, the FTC developed, which is called the Reasonable Person Test. And essentially if a third of people who view an advertisement think that it is misleading, the ad is categorized as misleading and can no longer air or run in whatever medium. And that test, and this challenge of how do you know what information is true and which information is disingenuous, got me to think about, well, can you implement a reasonable person test on a platform like Facebook?

[00:22:11] What I mean by that is Facebook targets specific news stories and specific ads to people. And of the people that are seeing a specific news story, if a third of them say, ‘Hey, something about this doesn’t check out.’ They can give it a thumbs down or flag it if that device was implemented on that platform. Could that fit into legal precedent that already exists because it’s matching the same requirements that the Reasonable Person Test has in advertising?

Nick Hirshon: [00:22:43] And I think you mention in your proposal, though, that question of what defines a reasonable person? We have a lot of issues today with our news media content where it is so misleading or blends in so much with what we’re used to that sometimes the advertisements are hard to discern and the misinformation is hard to make out. So, is there some challenge there in defining what is “reasonable?”

Ava Sirrah: [00:23:07] Yes, I would argue that it was more difficult to define a reasonable person when this test was developed for print ads and why I say that is because print ads are targeted towards a wide variety of people, right? That’s part of the appeal of what used to be running an ad in a newspaper. However, today I don’t know that we would define a reasonable person in a way that you would see in the dictionary, would just be a third of the people that a news story has been targeted towards. So, you’re kind of implementing the same principle but you’re not checking someone’s logic or if they’re intellectually sound. You’re just saying that if a third of the people that you are targeting this content to think that it is suspicious, we need to remove it.

Nick Hirshon: [00:24:02] And you referenced earlier the FTC, the Federal Trade Commission, that’s responsible for regulating advertising claims and looks for unfair methods of competition in advertising and so on. Can you go a little bit into what exactly their role is and maybe how that has grown over time? For example, in Benjamin Franklin’s period, I imagine there wasn’t really much regulation and it was still a new industry, up until today where now it’s become such a dominant part of our culture. So, how has the regulation of advertising changed over time?

Ava Sirrah: [00:24:34] Yeah, that’s a great question. So, of course when Franklin was opening up the Pennsylvania Gazette, there was no regulation. It was a new medium. But in 1914, the government created the Federal Trade Commission, the FTC, and they said, ‘It’s your role to kind of regulate this industry and make sure that we’re getting claims that are honest.’

[00:24:56] But unfortunately, the FTC, as I’ve outlined in the paper, is very reactionary and they’re really only going to address concerns and false ads and disinformation in the commercial sphere if they’re getting enough complaints about it. So, they’re very reactionary in the sense that a lot of people have complained to them that influence or content where brands are paying them to promote certain products, they’re not always labeled, ‘Can you look into this,’ and they got a bunch of consumer complaints about this, right? And then they decided to look into it and what they found is that actually the majority of influencers are not properly marking the content that they’ve been paid to promote. And I use it as a case study because at this point, a lot of people have heard about influencers. A lot of people can kind of imagine why that would be problematic.

[00:25:53] So, it’s not surprising that many consumers have put in letters to the FTC. However, there are a lot of problems that people don’t know about and we can’t really put the onus on them to be emailing the FTC. I think everybody’s workload is already pretty high and there’s a fight for attention. So, it’s not really fair to have an FTC that is as reactionary as they are now.

Nick Hirshon: [00:26:22] And obviously, we have again, gone into your background.

But why do you think the study of native ads and the history of advertising is so important to media history?

Ava Sirrah: [00:26:30] I think it’s extremely important to media history in also contextualizing our current state. Because again, the relationship that advertising has to society in the legal sense and even on these platforms that we get information has always been very lenient. Advertising is also protected under the First Amendment, under the right of free speech, and that is why it is not as heavily regulated – outside of drug ads – as other industries. And I think that when you start to see an institution that is getting kind of the same leniencies that journalists get – journalists are protected under the Fourth Estate in the Constitution – it’s hard not to imagine that there is a tension there that is going to help shed light on how people come to understand not only information and what’s right and wrong but also the world around them.

Nick Hirshon: [00:27:36] And this rise of branded content then in recent years especially can present new challenges for journalists. So, what are some of those that you think the news media is facing and maybe some of the emerging things that we just don’t know how to handle yet?

Ava Sirrah: [00:27:53] Yeah. I think those are two kind of separate questions and very important questions. I think for journalists, branded content is kind of the cure and the poison, because they know that the more branded content and native advertising deals they close with advertisers it only helps to secure their future. However, if you start engaging in native content that maybe isn’t properly marked or is confusing readers even when it is properly marked, does it start to diminish the work that you do, the honest work that you do, the brand of journalism, the authority that you have to deliver honest information? And I think those questions are even more important today when news publishers are asking people to pay for news and saying the mission of what we do is very important. And I think there’s very much an internal tension where they’re starting to create more ways to work with advertisers and they’re starting to sell storytelling much like an ad agency would sell it to a client. So, that’s going on in one side of a publisher and with the other side they’re saying, ‘We’re in pursuit of truth and we’re in pursuit of protecting democracy.’ At some point if a deal or a partnership isn’t properly labeled, I think readers could be rightfully angry.

Nick Hirshon: [00:29:29] And is this a concerning trend then, you think? I mean you were involved in actually selling native advertising for the New York Times as you described. But should people be concerned about this direction and why?

Ava Sirrah: [00:29:44] I think people should definitely be concerned about it, and I think the reason is twofold. Number one, they’re just not getting information that maybe an editor would have come up with organically. Maybe they took on a new column because an advertiser said that they were interested in funding a new travel section. And also that trend isn’t entirely new. I’ve conducted a series of interviews with people that have worked in publishing for 40-plus years and many of them have said, ‘Well, you know we only have a style section because advertisers wanted to be associated with fashion content,’ and so they hired a lot of fashion and style reporters. Now that’s not really dangerous, right? They are providing new information and they’re not taking away from investigative reporting and they’re kind of creating more jobs for journalists. However, today, if editors are taking on specific columns because specific brands want to fund them and then they’re telling that brand, ‘We’re going to promote this column on Facebook,’ that becomes very dangerous because then when consumers and readers go on Facebook, it is more likely that they’re going to see a piece of editorial content that a brand has placed in front of them versus a hard news story that maybe the New York Times has on the front page.

Nick Hirshon: [00:31:14] It seems that some people don’t really mind native advertising, though, right? It is interesting that you’ve pointed out some of the concerns that people, you’d think they would have, but especially maybe younger generation who didn’t really know the world before the Internet is kind of alright with some of these trends. Have you gotten a sense of the reaction to advertising in our modern era compared to some of the periods you’ve studied throughout history?

Ava Sirrah: [00:31:39] Yeah, absolutely. And that’s a great question, and I think it’s a question that is concerning people who study more than advertising. I think it’s concerning people who are talking about how are people discerning between a good news publisher and a bad news publisher and do they think, you know, Breitbart has the same number of fact checkers as the New York Times or what have you.

[00:32:03] And really I think these questions about do people mind advertising, do they think native is okay? It has a lot to do with educating people on how these platforms operate, the relationship that they have with the economic side of the business. And I know media literacy is often talked about as something that platforms like Facebook and Twitter are really like because it kind of takes the onus off them and it says, ‘Well, readers need to be more educated, it’s not our problem,’ which again, is very reminiscent of Benjamin Franklin’s apology. ‘This isn’t my problem, you make of it what you will.’ But I really think actually this challenge has a lot to do with getting people themselves to engage with platforms, and what I mean by that is how I arrived to thinking that native advertisements are important and dangerous is because I was a practitioner and I realized what was going on was something that was making me feel uncomfortable and maybe I wasn’t delivering the quality of information that I wanted to. And so beyond just teaching media literacy, how do we get young people involved in the process of creating and disseminating their own content and then making value judgments on why certain stories that they’re making are being promoted maybe ahead of stories that are well researched that they’ve also created. I think it’s a lot of, you have to teach by doing and you also have to invite people into this world.

Nick Hirshon: [00:33:34] I think that’s a nice kind of a segue we can make when you’re talking about teaching media literacy and some of the lessons you learned through your study of media history. Since you come from the industry and there aren’t a lot of academics who have that background – I myself was a reporter at the New York Daily News for six years, 2005 to 2011, before I went into a doctoral program at Ohio University, so I have some of that similarity there – I’m wondering if you can shed some light for some listeners who may be considering the transition that you made. They’re journalists right now, they’re working at a news organization, in PR, wherever, and they’re thinking about going into a Master’s or a Ph.D. program. Can you just talk a little bit about what that transition was like for you? Unexpected challenges, or some of the decisions you had to make about that change in a career path?

Ava Sirrah: [00:34:34] Absolutely, yeah. I’m very much still grappling with some of those issues and what I mean by that is the wonderful thing about being in the corporate world or in industries that maybe you think you would like to change or you would like to examine closely and influence some kind of new policy is that you can immediately see the impact of your work. And you can kind of get people who are in the decision-making position to hear you out and negotiate with them on what ethics you think need to be put in place or how you think campaigns need to be launched or what you think ethical PR looks like, et cetera. And that’s very valuable.

[00:35:25] However, for me it has been an unbelievable gift to be in a Ph.D. program where I can dig into the issues that made me uncomfortable and gave me a weird kind of gut feeling that there was more here and I had the time to dig into a long history of these problems. And it’s helped me see that the solutions that I might have initially thought were easy to implement, might have already been tried 100 years ago, 200 years ago, and we have to kind of be more original and more thoughtful about how we’re looking at the complexities of these problems. And so it’s great to have the time and space to think about that. But I also think that it does have a tendency to remove you from the kind of immediate action you could take if you were still in a corporate position.

Nick Hirshon: [00:36:15] Sure. I think one of the challenges that I face moving from being a reporter to being a scholar is the amount of time that you spend on a project that could be nice – as you say it allows a lot of time to dig in deep on something – but then of course there’s a lot of time between when you’re writing it when it finally gets published. You may be talking years for an academic journal or university press so that does keep you a little bit out of the currency that we’re used to in the news industry. Were there any other differences just in work schedule, lifestyle? Because I think, again, we have some listeners who maybe are making these kinds of decisions and it would be interesting to know how folks like us have managed that.

Ava Sirrah: [00:37:05] Yeah, of course. So, the great thing about having what I call a real job, which is probably not the best term, but I used to have a real job, is that you work five days a week and then you have your weekends off and you kind of recharge and you approach the projects that you have in your upcoming week with a fresh mind. But I find that being in grad school, you’re kind of always grappling with these issues and you’re kind of always interested in reading and learning more. And it’s not so much, I think, a lot of people say, well, the workload is so much worse. And I actually don’t think that’s true. I think it’s kind of the same amount of work, but I find that when you make a transition into a graduate program or a Ph.D. program, you’re kind of taking a long soak in a topic and it’s something that is always in the back of your mind and that you enjoy toying with.

[00:37:57] And I honestly, it might not be the thing that a lot of people want to hear, but I think a lot of the decision to go back to graduate school has a lot to do with just your personality and the types of questions that do keep you up at night and things that get you excited. I always say that going back to grad school has added more color to my life even though I have many more questions than when I entered. I just feel like the more I learn the more colors I see. But I don’t know that that is always fruitful for everyone.

Nick Hirshon: [00:38:30] Yes. Well said. I think there is an element of discipline there that you’re mentioning that when you are in a job in journalism that requires daily deadlines or maybe deadlines throughout the day, someone’s always watching over your shoulder. In a Ph.D. program, there are of course your advisor, professors, but I think it’s a little bit different. There’s a lot of times where you may have the entire week where, OK, you have a few classes, but there are big chunks of quote-unquote “free time” and it’s up to you to decide, how am I going to get this chapter done and by when. And so that’s part of the challenge that I find when talking to a lot of former journalists who ended up in academia in some way. Have you faced any of those sorts of, your writing schedule and how you pace yourself throughout a day or throughout a project?

Ava Sirrah: [00:39:18] Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think that it just it messes with time in the sense that again when you have a corporate job, you’re usually at your office at eight or nine and then maybe you go home at six or seven.

[00:39:30] But I find that my days now, they start earlier and they end later into the night, not necessarily because I feel like I’m being productive, but because I might be reading something that’s loosely related to my field or I might be taking notes on something that I think might be fruitful later. But you’re not working against a deadline, so you don’t always know that that’s productive.

[00:39:53] You just know that you might be trying to, in the true sense of the word, explore something, which there isn’t just a ton of space for exploration at a traditional job. And so I think that adds a lot of tension of, yeah, technically it is free time and technically I’m not writing a paper based on what I read today, but I still kind of need to do it.

Nick Hirshon: [00:40:18] Sure. Well, and now as you start to look past, I know you’re still in the throes of your dissertation right now, but I’m sure you’re thinking about the future and what it holds. And maybe someday you will be teaching media literacy, media history. How has your research affected your philosophy and how you might teach it? You’ve probably taken courses like that before, or you’ve had colleagues who have done so. How might you discuss these kinds of issues that we’ve brought up about native advertising and branded content if you were talking to undergraduate students?

Ava Sirrah: [00:40:49] That’s a great question. I certainly think about it and I’m not sure that I have the answer yet. I just have my answer as I learn, which is mostly that the interesting thing about programs and communication and in journalism and information, because they all kind of have different labels at schools, at my school it was the School of Communication and Information for undergrad. And those words actually just never made sense to me when I was an undergraduate. Comms is just a very wide discipline. Journalism at least I can wrap my head around it because I’ve read news articles. I know the profession of a journalist, et cetera.

[00:41:33] But I think that what’s been helpful to me now that I’m on the academic side of it, is being able to explain how communication is really at the center of all of these different mediums and explain how the challenges we’re facing today aren’t at all new. And I think that when you invite people in to question how new technologies have always been adopted, they start to realize that these words actually do have a meaning that isn’t as amorphous as they might initially seem. And so I guess the way that I think about teaching it is the way that I’ve learned it myself, which is at first it seems really vague. Then I became a practitioner. Then I was able to examine it more fully in grad school. And now I’m kind of starting to see how these threads overlap and they add kind of nuance to these terms that we throw around all the time. But furthermore, what I find interesting about these schools is that the jobs people get after are usually in PR and advertising at a tech company. There just aren’t as many jobs in journalism.

[00:42:42] So, it’s very interesting as an educator because you’re teaching a classroom full of people who you know may very well work into the industries that you’ve just problematized for them. So, I would hope to be able to teach them that there are ethical ways to take those jobs and there are also excellent questions that they should be asking when they do take those jobs.

Nick Hirshon: [00:43:08] When you’re teaching millennials as we discussed before, they grew up in an era where a lot of this was just what was part of their fabric, part of their childhood. So, they don’t really know the old television infomercial or the advertorial in the newspaper the way that older generations might. They maybe need someone like you who has the media historian element and can say, ‘This is where it was and how maybe the future will pan out.’

[00:43:36] Because we’ve seen how history can affect the future. So, that’s a good perspective to bring them, although it may be a challenge to bring them kind of up to speed or back to speed as it were in this case.

Ava Sirrah: Back to speed is great.

Nick Hirshon: [00:43:52] But in just a few thoughts there before we leave, you’re gonna be presenting at conferences, I’m sure, and we’ve talked about teaching media history and that element of it, but another side of being a professor and being in a Ph.D. program obviously is the research. So, how have you taken to presenting at conferences, submitting for peer review, getting feedback from professors? How has that side of it been different than what you faced in the industry, for example? How have you adjusted?

Ava Sirrah: [00:44:23] Yeah. That’s a great question. I think that’s probably where I’ve been struggling the most because to do all of the research is very time consuming and I think that’s what I was alluding to earlier when I mentioned that I tend to like read a lot of things or see a lot of things that I’m not entirely sure how it’s going to fit into the larger questions that I’m asking. So, you kind of amass all of this research and then you sit down at your desk and you want to apply for a journal or a conference where you think you’re aligned with the topic and then when it comes to kind of figuring out how do I tell the story and take this research and take the facts and quotes that were really interesting to me and turn them into something, it’s just a new skill set. And it’s that kind of deep thinking that I haven’t been tasked with outside of graduate school.

[00:45:21] And the thing that I learned the most from that process is that, for me, writing is thinking. I don’t really know how I feel or what I think about a topic until I have the chance to write it down and kind of make sure that it’s a logical argument. So, I think that that’s been kind of the first challenge. And then the second challenge with conferences is actually very helpful.

[00:45:47] The feedback that you get, the types of questions you get, the people that come and speak to you after and say that, you know, ‘I found X, Y, and Z really interesting,’ and that kind of changes your own perspective of your work. And it helps you answer that question that grad students get a lot, which is, Why does this matter? Why should we care? So, I find the writing process to be challenging in that I just have to toy with it and work with it a lot to figure out how I feel. I find that conferences are very helpful in getting me to sharpen what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. And then with journals, I haven’t had to deal with a ton of peer review, but I think that it is a process where they, again, ask you a lot of questions that I just didn’t consider when I was writing a paper.

Nick Hirshon: [00:46:37] Sure, and that could be helpful of course and help us grow as scholars, but it’s also just a new sort of a way of learning how to write and how to communicate with a different kind of an audience, certainly as a journalist, than you try to go for a general audience, this is not quite what we’re doing as academics. Well, again, I thank you for all this perspective. You’re I think the first Ph.D. student that we’ve had on the Journalism History podcast. So, that gives us a whole different kind of perspective on this industry.

[00:47:05] We always ask our guests as a final question, one simple thing. Why does journalism history matter? And I pose that to you, I know we talked earlier about why the history of advertising matters to media history in general, but we are named after the academic journal Journalism History. As you’ve been doing all of this research, as you’re going to be making this argument maybe someday to students, why do you think journalism history matters?

Ava Sirrah: [00:47:34] Yeah, that’s a great question. I will take the words of one of my favorite professors, Professor Richard John, who said, “I don’t know if history repeats itself, but I know that it rhymes.” So, I think that might be a cop-out because I haven’t answered your question from my own personal view, but I found that that remark really hit a spot with me because I think that we learn so much from our past and we learn from the solutions that we try to implement, the challenges that are very familiar and how we’ve had to deal with them and on new technologies kind of change the expression of these problems. I think that they’re issues that we’re going to have to face for a very long time.

Nick Hirshon: [00:48:17] Well, terrific. Well said. Well, thank you so much for joining us today on the Journalism History podcast.

Ava Sirrah: Thank you.

Nick Hirshon: Thanks for tuning into this episode of the Journalism History podcast. An additional thanks to our sponsor, Donna Harrington-Lueker, author of Books for Idle Hours: Nineteenth-Century Publishing and the Rise of Summer Reading. Until next time, I’m your host, Nick Hirshon, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow: Good night, and good luck.



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