November/December 1996

The Online Threat to Independent Journalism

On the Web, Where Does News End and Ads Begin?

By Wendy S. Williams

Journalists pushing their newspapers and broadcast companies to move into online publishing say the Internet promises an exciting new type of media—interactive, democratic, instantaneous, multi-modal and many-layered.

Yet there is new evidence that the very qualities that make online publishing so intriguing to journalists are spawning subtle new approaches to advertising that may threaten the fragile journalistic tradition of independence from advertiser influence. In this new digital environment, advertisers—who have always itched to have a say in the content of news coverage—are finding fertile ground for blending marketing and news. Some journalists are beginning to fear that on the World Wide Web, opinion, marketing, advertising, information and news may soon weave together so seamlessly the public will no longer be able to distinguish between journalism and promotional messages.

As consumers have grown more sophisticated over the past several decades, mass market advertising has become increasingly subtle and indirect. This trend has brought us such innovations as product placements in movies and TV shows, infomercials, video news releases that can be spliced into news reports, and ads masquerading as journalism through the use of news-like formats, sets and former news personalities.

On the Web, a world that so far has resisted traditional advertising, ad companies are finding they have to be even more subtle to find any niche at all—and the more they can blend advertising with useful information, the more consumers will accept it. Through focus group studies, advertisers have found that online consumers are irritated by visual display ads that take precious screen space, or demand that readers answer questions or give personal information before they can continue with their Internet search (Advertising Age, 7/22/96). So online advertisers are looking for alternative niches for ads--one of which takes advantage of consumers' need for a guide through the often bewildering array of offerings on the Web.


Searching for Sales

Companies that provide searching mechanisms, known on the Web as search engines, have started selling advertisers the rights to certain popular keywords--general terms chosen by readers to help the computer search for information. When a reader sends a search engine out looking for information on a specific keyword, the engine produces a list of all available sites, with the best—usually the most popular—sites at the top. If a commercial search engine has sold the spots on the "best sites" list to companies that have paid to be there, rather than listing the sites deemed the best by some independent criteria, consumers may be funneled unwittingly to advertisers.

One company, Iron Mountain Global Information Systems, bought the rights to 55 keywords related to politics--such as Congress, Elections and Democrats. It then sold advertisers placements lists that would pop up whenever these words were used through one of the leading search engines. When consumers get a list of "Top 10 Political Sites," those aren't necessarily the 10 most important, or the most popular—some are advertisers, like George magazine, which paid for the right to be there (Washington Post, 7/7/96). Such lists are seldom tagged as ads, even when the keywords have been sold. and marketing data shows most people click on sites from highlighted lists rather than sift through long lists of available sites (Advertising Age, 6/24/96).

Beyond selling keywords, several search engine companies have recently recognized they can make more money by building special interest destination sites for advertisers on the Web. One so-called "content developer," New York-based iVillage, recently signed nearly $1 million in ad commitments from companies that want to advertise on its new Parent Soup site. Parent Soup is a parent-oriented forum that blends news and information with discussion groups and marketing opportunities in a subtle mix designed to be inoffensive to Web readers. Market analysts predict the search companies that survive will be those that get the bulk of their revenue from advertising, rather than those who sell search engine services to consumers (Advertising Age, 6/24/96).

Some content developers are even seeking links with established news organizations. CNN International, for example, is planning an advertising promotion that links an on-air travel feature on the cable channel with promotions from a travel company through CNN's interactive website. Central to the concept is building a "bridge-page" from CNN's website to the travel agency's website. The bridge page will describe the promotion while providing "some sort of content link back to the news feature," according to an article in Advertising Age (6/17/96). But is the bridge page news or advertising—or a smokescreen?

In a similar vein, Yahoo!, one of the search engine companies selling advertisers the rights to searchable keywords, is now building alliances with a chain of network-affiliated broadcast stations around the country. The stations will run on-air promotions of Yahoo! information services linked to stories on their evening news broadcasts. Yet because Yahoo! is selling keyword rights, the Yahoo! searches promoted will direct viewers to sites paid for by advertisers rather than the best independent sites for finding out more about the subject of a news story. This conflict doesn't seem to have bothered the producers at the broadcast stations.

For the news consumer, it may be unclear in this environment when they have stopped listening to the news and moved to reading an ad. In the old days, when you had to pick up a newspaper to read it and most advertising was labeled, the line between editorial content and advertising was relatively clear. In the digital world, however, that border is easily crossed and seldom marked. A news story about school lunch programs may contain a hotlink to an independent organization that promotes causes for kids, which might link to a corporate-sponsored content site about children and nutrition, which might link to a baby food company website—but the lines between these steps blur as the reader clicks from one to the next.


Snap, Krackle, Buy

Companies that market goods to children have long understood the value of blurring the line between content and advertising. In an effort to protect children from unscrupulous marketing, Federal Communications Commission rules for children's television require five-second "bumpers" to separate ads from programs, prohibit the host of a children's show from pitching products to kids, and limit the amount of advertising time in children's programming. But those requirements only apply to TV, and several organizations are becoming concerned that online marketing targeted at children is exploiting the unregulated terrain of the Web to reach children with methods that aren't allowed in other media.

Web of Deception, a study by the Center for Media Education of online advertising directed at children, found that some advertisers are building electronic environments that attract children by offering the chance to play games with popular product "spokescharacters," such as Tony the Tiger or the Rice Krispie elves. Others are using interactive forms of product placement that encourage children to click on icons in favorite games and play areas that whisk them away to advertising sites.

The Center also found some sites gathering personal information, including data about how kids move through the Web (known as "mouse-droppings"), or compiling personal profiles of children for direct marketing purposes. In some cases kids are asked to type in their name, age, sex and email address to access a site. Once they do that, the spokescharacter speaks to them directly, calling them by name, suggesting products or directing them to online order-forms.

Content developers are also experimenting with "environmental advertising" for adults, using ads and icons as visual graphics at a website more as background than as upfront ads. Warner Bros., for example, has a new website called the Warner Bros. Virtual Lot, which features mock street scenes for different interests with ads or sponsor icons on billboards and storefronts. The virtual lot for insomniacs, for instance, has a billboard ad for Starbucks Coffee in the background and information about sleep disorders. Warner Bros. executives say focus group data shows consumers are less offended by ads in environments than banner ads.


Cracking Standards

But advertisers are not the only ones looking for opportunities on the Web, and that may be where the greatest threat lies to the integrity of independent news. Traditional news companies, like Times-Mirror, are beginning to see that they can license their news product and then resell it to content developers who will pull together customized collections of news and information for sites sponsored by advertisers.

It is unlikely in such a market, however, that controversial coverage will have much resale value, particularly coverage critical of business. If reselling licensed or "brand-name" news becomes a profit generator for news companies, it may be harder for controversial news topics to attract newsroom resources, particularly if competition between media companies heats up as newspapers go online.

In fact, academic research has found the lofty standards of independent news organizations often crack under financial pressure. Studies of newspapers show publishers and editors make more compromises with advertisers during recessions, cases of extreme competition between two newspapers, or when the newspaper is losing advertising revenues to other outlets in the market (Washington Journalism Review, 11/91). In the coming telecommunications and publishing shakeout, which will increase competition between all types of media companies, advertisers most likely will gain increasing clout. Journalistic standards, in fact, are already showing signs of erosion under pressure from competition and internal cost-cutting. A recent study of several California TV stations (Market-Driven Journalism, J. H. McManus) found that efforts to increase profits by expanding audience and reducing reporting costs produced a new set of rules that undermined accepted standards of newsgathering. Instead of seeking the truth, journalists were now told to seek images over ideas; seek emotion over analysis; avoid complexity; increase drama; exaggerate to add appeal; and avoid extensive newsgathering because it wastes time and effort, and may prove the information that makes the story attractive is actually false.

Commercial interests—both internal corporate pressures and outside advertisers—have traditionally influenced news more in what is not covered than in blatantly unbalanced coverage in a single article or newspaper. In this new, fragmented world, where advertising will piggy-back on news and information in ways we can only begin to imagine, there is every reason to be concerned about the mix and balance of coverage over time. Whether journalists will have the will or desire to protect the integrity of independent news—or have any idea where to build the firewall that keeps advertising out—remains to be seen.

Wendy S. Williams is a journalism professor at American University in Washington, D.C.

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