Violinist.com editor Laurie Niles was covering a story about the purchase of a $5.5 million violin when the seller asked if she accepted advertising on her site.
“When I was driving to meet this guy, I realized I was going to interview him and during the same conversation, I’d be telling him about advertising on my site.”
As an independent Web publisher, Niles [wife of OJR’s editor – Ed.] wears all the hats: owner, editor, sales rep and reporter.
She rhetorically asked OJR 2007 attendees, “Is this a huge breach of ethics?”
The majority response was no, although journalists who are learning Web publishing skills on the fly do need to strike the balance between brand promotion and editorial integrity.
“One of the things about a journalist as opposed to a business person is that journalists will always err on the side of caution,” says Paidcontent.org founder Rafat Ali. “The reality is that advertising is part of the conversation and the editor draws the line about how much it encroaches [the site].”
For Eric Ulken, managing editor for news at latimes.com, the line at larger, established news organizations is clear and distinct.
“To give you an example, I don’t know a single ad sales person for latimes.com,” Ulken says.
Attendees agree that indie publishers can also deliver good reporting and pay the bills.
“When you become a truly professional website you do sell ads, whether you’re doing it all yourself, 19th-century local publisher style, or you have sales reps doing it for you,” says OSTG editor-in-chief Robin Miller.
A plethora of resources are available for novice Web publishers who want to earn revenue. User-friendly ad services include Blog Ads, Google AdSense and Yahoo Publisher Network (Overture). Publishers also can use commission-based affiliate programs such as LinkShare, Amazon Associates and Commission Junction.
Niche sites often attract a highly targeted, coveted audience, so another way to earn revenue is to sell to advertisers directly. But you need to do some research first.
“Find out what you can about the demographics of the readers because you’re selling access to the readers,” says OJR.org editor Robert Niles. “That helps to take care of some of the ethical qualms, too. The advertiser doesn’t care what you have to say; they just want you to deliver some eyeballs to them.”
As novice publishers sell advertising, knowing the site’s readership and gauging their tolerance level is crucial.
Laurie Niles says Violinist.com users let her know when a blinking banner interfered with her site’s usability, and she consequently removed the in-house ad marketing Violinist.com t-shirts. She also struck a compromise with an advertiser who requested a bold-colored blinking ad: she accepted the color, rejected the blink.
“You can be transparent in your advertising as much as you’re transparent in your editorializing,” she says.