Amid the rapid growth of the Internet and the push to make it profitable, maintaining the wall between editorial and advertorial content is often a matter of semantics.
In the world of online publication, where the nature of the medium is that both journalistic sites and their ads are fraught with slick graphics, clear labeling of articles and advertisements can be key to keeping potential readers aware of what they are reading. However, when an advertorial is not labeled as an advertisement but as an 'InfoSite,' or with other such euphemistic labels, it may serve to lure readers into ads. This may ultimately create what PC World magazine calls 'stealth sites,' material that looks like news but is disguised marketing material.
'I don't think the average consumer that sees 'InfoSites' will know that it is advertising and not independent editorial material,' said Cathryn Baskin, editor in chief of PC World print magazine. 'The average consumer will have to exercise a lot more caution on line than they do in most print publications.'
If average consumers were to come across Toronto Star or the ABC7 San Francisco Citysearch sites, which include event listings and features, they would have an opportunity to exercise this greater sense of caution. The advertorial sites that exist within these news sites label ads only as 'InfoSites.' It is not until readers scroll down to the bottom of these pages that it is clearly stated in fine print that: 'The above organization has sponsored and written this page.'
Conversely, the Washington Post Citysearch site has icons indicating that readers are about to enter the 'Sponsor's Website,' and within this site, the top left-hand corner is clearly labeled 'Promotional Pages.' 'If it's pure advertorial in nature, we think that readers expect to be kept clearly informed and to come to their judgments, based on a clear understanding of the authorship, of what to make of the assertions in the content,' said Christopher Ma, Washington Post.com executive editor and senior vice president.
'I think it's particularly an issue because the nature of the medium allows you to click from one type of content to another kind very, very easily and it may not be clearly apparent that the content has very different origins? The nature of the medium does lend itself to a bordering of the lines in some cases.'
One of the most recently-launched sites, the Los Angeles Times 'Calendar Live' Citysearch site, does not have icons labeling sites as sponsor's sites before readers click on them, but in the site itself, next to the label of 'InfoSite,' is the label of 'advertisement' in parentheses.
Stan Holt, general manager of the LA Times site, explained that issue of the blurred line that online publications face is the same one that print publications face: the importance of labeling things clearly. 'Because of the potential for blurring, you have to be really on guard to make sure that it is one thing or another,' Holt said. 'There is a pressure, space pressure [within the site], but it's something that you can't get around or you undermine the credibility of the whole publication.'
This issue is not just related to the credibility of individual publications but to the integrity of online journalism. Buckling under the pressure to make a profit, many sites may be undermining the Internet's future as a credible source of journalism.
Along with the problems in labeling, there are also advertisers who will stay with a site based on the number of 'clicks' on their banners and on a performance basis, where a percentage of advertisers' sales will go to the site, said Lewis Perdue, president of IdeaWorx, a new media company, and a founder of www.Webethics.com. He explained that the potential of online journalism may be crushed by the pressure to profit -- and perhaps for editorial to cater to advertisers.
'There are venture capital firms who are making the site that they fund do a return on investment for every page. If that page doesn't generate enough income, you don't continue writing,' Perdue said. 'I think that if performance based advertising becomes the norm, the Web will be a gigantic infomercial. I think people will think that the Web will be somewhere between limited and worthless, and I think that is the problem that online journalism faces.'
In what is a relatively young medium, many publications are now in the exploratory stages of how they balance profit with editorial integrity, Baskin said.
'There are a handful of sites making a profit on the Web, and in this experimental stage of publishing, they are trying all sorts of business models and spending all sorts of money to get ad revenue, which is pushing some of the problems between advertising and editing.' In this exploratory process, online journalism is in the process of establishing its identity, said Michael O'Donnell, publisher and president of Salon magazine.
'The Internet has become the Wild Wild West right now and rules are being written. People are realizing that reporting on the Internet has the same consequences as in traditional media,' said O'Donnell. 'I think you need to use the traditional modes of editorial. The Web needs to adopt standards that are more consistent with traditional media. It's a little loose right now on many sites and we need to get with the program.'
A set of guidelines was established in June 1997 by the American Society of Magazine Editors, a non-profit member-based organization, yet the stringency and the enforcement of these guidelines have been questioned.
'I'm quite certain that the standards of the guidelines adopted by the ASME are fairly watered down from the ethics of traditional media,' Perdue said. 'They're the best set of guidelines out there so far, but I don't think they go far enough to keep the Web from being a giant infomercial.'
These standards were based on an existing set of print guidelines, said Marlene Kahan, executive director ASME, who contends that the standards have not been compromised in their adaptation for the Internet. 'The guidelines are not watered down at all. The language, of course, looks at the online world rather than traditional print medium. Really, our goal was to draw clear distinctions between editorial and advertising on the Web,' said Kahan, who admits that the enforcement of these guidelines has posed challenges.
'As far as policing it, it is somewhat difficult because the Web is so vast. At this point, we do what we can to police and write to people who don't comply.'
Despite these ethical issues, the potential of online journalism is not lost on those who have been watching it grow.
'Online journalism has the potential of not only being credible but being better than traditional media because you can put all of your source documents online. I think it can be better, more credible and more valuable,' Perdue said. 'It's a great opportunity if it doesn't get fumbled or compromised.'