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In the world of traditional print journalism, the phrase "church and state" is immediately recognizable. It refers to the inviolable wall between the editorial and advertising divisions of a publication, the complete prohibition of advertising influence on editorial matters.

In the world of online publishing, that wall is collapsing like the Berlin Wall did a decade ago. And as that wall falls, online publishers need to be aware of the consequences.

Dangerous Intersection

Perhaps the most fundamental difference to emerge so far between online publishing and traditional print publishing is that while content remains king in the new medium, commerce has become an equally powerful queen. Discussing Time Warner's recent overhaul of the Pathfinder Web site, Lisa Allen of Forrester Research noted that the Web audience "has a different set of expectations: They look for utility and convenience and savings, as well as content." She added: "Online publishing blends content and commerce increasingly, as if the old lines between editorial and advertising are disappearing." [1]

One common example of this merging of content and commerce comes in book reviews. Read a review in The New York Times or Salon magazine, for instance, and if you'd like to purchase a copy, it's just a click away at Barnes and Noble. Such transactions — as well as links from reviews to buy CDs, purchase tickets to cultural and sporting events, make reservations, or purchase other products or services — are undoubtedly convenient for the reader. Even five years ago, obtaining a copy of a book that received an interesting review would require taking the time to travel to a bookstore and then possibly waiting weeks for the title to be ordered. Direct online transactions also benefit Web publishers, offering the opportunity to generate additional income. Many media analysts see these transactions as the "advertisements of the future." [2]

But with them comes one of the biggest ethical debates of the present. Such arrangements have the potential to influence content producers. For example, new media analyst Steve Outing notes,

Positive reviews are of course more likely to generate more sales of a book. The danger inherent in schemes like this is that it could influence book editors to publish mostly positive reviews, because of the financial interest at stake. (Imagine if the bookseller offered a higher commission on certain books that it wanted to promote. The temptation might exist to write a positive review to take advantage of the financial bonus.)[3]

Online news publisher, analyst and academic Eric Meyer adds, "It's not so much a question of whether a sales link tempts your critics to write favorable reviews (although it might). It's more a question of how a sales link influences which performances critics will review." [4]

A History Lesson

Such debate isn't new. Even while printed publications ruled the world and espoused their "church and state" philosophy, it was not uncommon to find lapses. Some were minor, such as critics accepting free tickets to performances. Others were major, such as special sections being planned and copy being edited to suit the whims of large advertisers. In all cases, those lapses made for a skeptical public — far more skeptical than many in the business suspected.

Mindy McAdams, the Web strategist for the American Press Institute with a background in the world of print, recently related just how little the public believes in the separation of editorial and advertising. In a post to the Online-News Discussion list, McAdams wrote:

The shock of my life came when I was behind the one-way mirror at a focus group session. All the focus group members were subscribers of a very large U.S. daily. They were highly educated, longtime newspaper readers. All over 30, as I recall. Discussing the newspaper they all subscribed to.

One of the men suggested that the ONLY restaurants reviewed in this large, independent, respected newspaper were restaurants that had bought ads. (Of course this was not true. This paper's restaurant critic has high standards, never accepts any freebies, freely writes very negative things about very important restaurants, etc.)

One woman in the focus group disagreed and said the restaurant reviews were independent of advertising. EVERY OTHER PERSON in the focus group (maybe 12 or 15 people) DISAGREED with her. They said the newspaper would be stupid to review restaurants unless they bought ads. The people in the focus group went so far as to claim that that was WHY restaurants bought ads — to get a review. This discussion continued for some time. There was no evidence — except from that first woman — that anyone believed editorial was separate from advertising.

I was very shocked. I will never again blithely believe that the people trust us or think that we don't sell our souls every day.

The problem is possibly worse on the Web, where it's hard to determine the source of information. Richard Gingras, editor in chief of At Home Network, told the New York Times, "I often look at sites and say it's hard to tell where a piece of information came from. People still do not trust the Internet, and they are not ever going to if they feel that the sites they go to are not being straight with them." [5]

Cutting Them off at the Pass

The best way to deal with such skepticism is for online publishers to presume that readers think they are cutting ethical corners — and to actively work to counter that perception. Doing so is a two-step process. First, publishers should formulate clear guidelines on handling direct online transactions. All employees should sign off on the guidelines, which should be easily available for public inspection on the publisher's Web site. For an example, look at the San Antonio Express-News, which recently developed and published a new ethics code. Second, paid links should be labeled clearly as such. "Clarity sets appropriate expectations and establishes a context that the user needs in order to interpret the information," notes Steve Yelvington, editor of Star Tribune Online, the Web service of the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, Minn. [6] Steve Outing suggests labeling direct transaction links as "Paid advertisements" and including a "disclaimer" link nearby to explain the site's policies about contextual advertising. [7]

Looking Ahead

As most online publishers are still seeking the elusive Holy Grail of profits, direct transactions are likely to become increasingly more common. Other revenue-generating schemes also are likely to raise ethical questions. While it's hard to envision all the ethical challenges that lie ahead, it's a safe bet that openness with readers is usually going to be a publisher's best bet.


The author thanks Beth Haller of Towson University for editorial review.



Thom Lieb is an associate professor of journalism and new media at Towson University in Baltimore. Among his courses is Writing for the Web. He is the author of Editing for Clear Communication and has written and edited for magazines, newspapers, newsletters and online publication. He holds a Ph.D. in Public Communication from the University of Maryland at College Park and a master's of science in Magazine Journalism from Syracuse University. You may contact him by e-mail at lieb@towson.edu.

Notes

    1. Alex Kuczynski, Time Warner Closing Pathfinder Site, The New York Times, 27 April 1999. http://www.nytimes.com/library/tech/99/04/biztech/articles/27path.html. [Editor's note: you must "subscribe" to the New York Times to be able to access this article. However, the subscription is free.]return to text

    2. Steve Outing, "A Debate: Contextual Transactions On News Sites," Editor & Publisher Interactive, 6 January 1999. [formerly http://www.mediainfo.com/ephome/news/newshtm/stop/st010699.htm].return to text

    3. Steve Outing, "Read the Review, Buy the Book: How Ethical?" Editor & Publisher Interactive, 10 October 1997. [formerly http://www.mediainfo.com/ephome/news/newshtm/stop/st010699.htm.]return to text

    4. Outing, "A Debate."return to text

    5. Saul Hansell and Amy Harmon, "Caveat Emptor on the Web: Ad and Editorial Lines Blur," The New York Times on the Web, Feb. 26, 1999.return to text

    6. Outing, "Read the Review."return to text

    7. Outing, "A Debate."return to text


    Links from this article

    Barnes and Noble, http://www.barnesandnoble.com

    Forrester Research http://www.forrester.com/

    Online-News Discussion list http://www.journalist.org/cgi-bin/online-news/online_news/index.html

    The New York Times books http://www.nytimes.com/pages/books/index.html

    Salon magazine http://www.salon.com/books/

    San Antonio Express-News ethics code http://www.mysa.com/mysanantonio/aboutus/expressnews/ethics.shtml.

    Star Tribune Online http://www.startribune.com/