Journalism ethics 2.0: As the Internet changes the market, some conventions must change as well

With the deadline for applying to our News Entrepreneur Boot Camp approaching, I’m thinking in even greater detail about the steps print journalists must take to make a successful move over to online publishing.

One change folks with print experience must be willing to make is to rethink some of the assumptions they may have had about journalism ethics. I’m not suggesting that journalists should change their core beliefs about this field when they switch media. The central tenet of journalism ethics (in my opinion) remains: Do what’s best to empower your readers with truthful information. Everything we do ought to flow from that goal.

The practice of journalism is an act of service. But if we are going to be able to continue to serve our audience, we will need to change some of the conventions and assumptions we’ve brought to our practice if they now stand in the way of our ability to serve. What good are conventions designed a generation ago to protected our public image if following them today leaves us with a shrinking audience and no advertisers to support us?

Here are three widely quoted tenets of traditional journalism ethics that I believe journalists must change in order to remain relevant in a more competitive online information market.

The old rule: You can’t cover something in which you are personally involved.

The new rule: Tell your readers how you are involved and how that’s shaped your reporting.

The Internet rewards the articulate expert. In an increasingly complex world, readers crave the authenticity of a writer with personal training and experience with the topic he or she covers. There are simply too many good first-person sources out there, on blogs, forums and social networks, for interested readers to waste their time with ill-trained general assignment reporters. Concerns about the appearance of a conflict of interest mean nothing when the alternative is poorly-informed coverage.

TV sports figured this out a long time ago, hiring retired athletes and coaches to provide color commentary, off-court analysis and reporting. Sure, some individuals are better at this than others (Cris Collinsworth, meet Emmitt Smith), but on the whole, having people with first-hand, day-to-day professional experience in a field reporting upon it boosts a news outlet’s credibility with far more consumers than having such diminishes it.

The next step is to go with active, not retired, professionals. In fields from medicine to economics to music, professionals are blogging now, in direct competition with news organizations. The successful journalists online will be the ones who write with passion about the field in which they have deep knowledge and experience.

Again, the core principle ought to be to serve the reader. That should drive journalists to put their reporting into context for the reader, explaining how their training, experience and relationships relate to their reporting. Such reporting would be far more “objective” than that produced by less-knowledgeable reporters who might be (and often are) duped by a tricky source.

The old rule: You must present all sides of a story, being fair to each.

The new rule: Report the truth and debunk the lies.

I hit this issue last month, and will amplify here. When newspapers had monopolies, we had a responsibility to our communities not to abuse our power, and to provide a neutral commons for reporting and debate.

Now, as just one among dozens, if not hundreds, of popular news voices within our communities, our responsibilities have changed. Now, we serve our busy audience and stand apart from the competition with reporting that cuts the clutter and identifies the truth among many conflicting narratives.

This is why the first change, above, becomes even more important. A news organization needs people with the expertise, and the long and detailed memory, necessary to make these calls in deciding how to report and present a story in ways that make the truth clear.

If your definition of “fair” meant blasting that which deserves blasting, then this one isn’t much of a change.

The old rule: There must be a wall between advertising and editorial.

The new rule: Sell ads into ad space and report news in editorial space. And make sure to show the reader the difference.

In a competitive market, news organizations must keep their production costs low. And for a start-up, there’s no lower cost than doing it all yourself. But if you are the only person on your site, that means you have to sell the ads, and well as report the stories, if you are to have any ad income.

Sure, you can outsource the job to an ad network, but, trust me, you’re leaving money on the table if you don’t do direct ad sales.

What about conflicts of interest? Well, within the industry, I think your colleagues would be thrilled to see anyone in this field making money online at this point, so I don’t think you’ll hear much complaining from them. As for readers and advertisers, transparency provides the key. (See a pattern here?) Let your potential advertisers know that they are buying ad space, not editorial coverage, and stick with that. Let your readers know, through design or explicit labels, where the ads are. (See what I wrote on this topic in November for more detail.)

Eventually, should you enjoy the success that enables you to add staff, you’ll want to hire specialists. And one, obviously, should be in ad sales. But if you don’t sell some ads now, you’ll likely never see that day.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. says:

    Old rule that should be revived: The FIRST priority is to make it accessible to the reader/viewer.

    Black and white print on a blue-gray background violates this rule.

    I’d love to read the whole piece – but I get eyestrain trying.

  2. says:

    [quote]New rule: Tell your readers how you are involved and how that’s shaped your reporting.[/quote]

    How can the reader tell if he’s an honest journo or a liar with an agenda?

    [quote]Old rule: You must present all sides of a story, being fair to each. New rule: Report the truth and debunk the lies.[/quote]

    Assuming the journo [i]knows[/i]. And cares! The ‘old rule’ allowed the reader to make up their own mind.

    [quote]The old rule: There must be a wall between advertising and editorial. – The new rule: Sell ads into ad space and report news in editorial space. And make sure to show the reader the difference.[/quote]

    Rather misses the point. The old rule was there to stop advertisers influencing the content; the new rule says ‘they might – you guess’

    While the new rules aren’t all bad, I think it’s worth considering why the old rules existed, before chucking them out.

    At first read, I didn’t see it as ‘old rules out, new rules in’, but ‘journos out, bloogers in’

  3. says:

    I spent 12 years as a copy breeder/editor/assignment editor/managing editor. I maintain contact with many former colleagues, many of whom, via email, continue to share their day-to-day, on-the-job observations.
    Some of the correspondence – and especially during the election – would make most critical thinking individuals cancel their newspaper subscriptions immediately. Many editorial departments served as Democrat war rooms.
    Seeing what I have seen and reading what I have read over the last four years is astounding and does not bode well for an industry whose primary underpinning (in my opinion) is to provide a fair, impartial accounting of daily events in the news hole (the editorial/opinion hole is completely different).
    The morale is rock bottom in many newsrooms. The few honest reporters out there are being tugged from the sales side (to write puff pieces on advertising clients) and being battered by the significant clout wielded by the p.c. Democratic Party activists serving on the assignment and editorial desks.
    Is this what you want you want in your community’s journal of record? Not me. Good bye PI (and other dailies). Get rid of the dead wood. Time to start over.

  4. We have a full-text RSS feed at for anyone wanting a better reading experience in the meantime as KDMC works on the redesign of the site.

  5. To

    The first new rule boils down to: We need journalists who are smart and informed enough to know to know which are the *sources* who are liars with agendas. The journalism industry has utterly failed on that account over the past eight years, at least on the important Washington beat.

    And the second is: We need those journalists do their jobs and put their readers ahead of those lying sources.

    And the third is: We need those journalists to go out and raise enough cash to keep their sites afloat, ’cause the fat-cat managers who were supposed to be doing that failed to get it done in this new environment.

    If anyone thinks that we can keep doing things the way we have and expect a different result, well, that is one colloquial definition of insanity.

  6. says:

    Don’t bring out that tired hype that editorial boards are “Democratic war rooms.” Newspaper editorial boards usually have supported Republican presidents almost two-to-one (changed with Obama).

    The ownership made them more conservative and right-leaning, and that’s a hidden influence that they’re hard-pressed to admit distorts or dictates coverage.

  7. says:

    I think the suggestions are very good – and not as extreme as some suggest. Newspapers have had the problem of sometimes acting as if they are the only journalists – but what about, for example, magazine writers, such as the New Yorker’s Joseph Mitchell?
    He openly became friends with some people he wrote about, yet crafted beautiful, insightful stories that don’t raise any ethical alarms. Lillian Ross also has a wonderful piece on this very issue – how she wrote about Hemingway yet was friends with him, too.

  8. I think you are misreading the responses. No-one is seeking to go on as we are – but change must be for the better – not the worse.

    Trouble with the new rules, is that they assume the journo and the owner are honest.

    The whole point about the old rules is that they were intended to safeguard the reader – not the journo.

    Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that the new rules are designed specifically to make life easier for the journo.

    Fine if he’s honest. Suppose he isn’t?

    ALL professional codes of practice should protect the client (in this case, the reader) from the human frailties of the professional. But does the 21st century want professional journalists – or cheap ones?

    I’m all for re-examining roles and updating them – but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!

  9. [added:] You headed this ‘Ethics 2.0’.

    Does the new ethics allow us the blur the line between advertising and editorial?

    I see nothing ethical about that, new or old!

    Does the new ethics allow the new journo (working unsupervised on the web, with no editor or sub editor to be his conscience), to write about stories where he has a conflict of interests?

    I see nothing ethical about that, new or old!

    Does the new ethics allow the journo to cover only one side of the story – he having decided that that side is ‘the truth’, rather than allow the reader to see both sides and decide for himself?

    I see nothing ethical about that, new or old!

    {NB for he, please read ‘or she’ on each occasion]

  10. says:

    Perhaps you should have had “Old” rule and “No” rule. It’s a slippery slope when “real” journalists start bending the old rules.

  11. What I’ve proposed here really shouldn’t be that big of a deal… unless you are a journalist who defines journalism not by its result, not by its service to a community, but by its adherence to a specific set of old conventions.

    I don’t. I define journalism by what a journalist does, and not solely by the specific way he or she might do it.

    This is a Darwin moment for journalism, folks. We have to adapt to a new market, where we are not monopolies, where we must win audience and financial support on a daily basis.

    Journalists didn’t have to worry about those in the past, and developed industry conventions within that context. That context has changed. Again, it is a Darwin moment. Adapt to the new environment, or… don’t.

  12. So you ARE chucking the baby out with the bathwater.

    The ‘old rules’ were there to ensure the public could TRUST journalists; if you have such contempt for the rules and your readers (‘Sod the reader – journos make the rules!’), why bring them up in the first place?

    Your ideas are not about the ‘the survival of journalism’, but ‘the survival of journalists’ – the fact they’ll be nothing other than more-articulate-than average bloggers, does not seem to matter to you.

    Good Luck to you – you are perfectly entitled to look out for your own interests; but don’t assume your interests and the readers’ interests necessarily coincide.

    You might also care to consider the definition of ‘professional’.

  13. says:

    I would like to believe that journalists would remain free of bias toward advertisers even if the journalist was selling the advertising. I don’t think everyone can separate themselves so successfully from the impulse to be kind to a client who may also become a social acquaintance, in addition to being a significant source of financial support.

    Cynthia Crossen, in “Tainted Truth,” wrote about this type of subtle bias. I don’t see how journalists can be any less affected by the views or needs of their advertisers than researchers are by the source of their funding.

  14. says:

    As someone fortunate enough to be making a living and making her way in the new world — I left “old media” voluntarily but having been an overpaid middle manager, I can see now that my days may well have been numbered anyway — I’d say these are good points, and here’s what I can add:

    -Re: the advertising/editorial line. My husband/co-publisher handles our ad sales – but he also does some editorial work. And while 99.9% of my time is spent writing, reporting, researching, and editing, once in a while, I find myself having to answer an advertising-related question. In a small business, there’s no way around it.

    We did make a commitment to our collaborators (the people formerly known as “readers”) when we started selling ads, 2 years after starting our site: Every time we mention a sponsor, we will REMIND you that said business/organization/person is a sponsor. It’s not up to you to know or figure out, even if all our ads are right there in plain sight, lined up on the same sidebar of every page. Sometimes this becomes a little awkward, as many of our sponsors are deeply involved in the community and an otherwise innocuous event blurb will include “happened today at Venue X (WSB sponsor) and featured performers from Group X (WSB sponsor) kept awake by coffee from Shop X (WSB sponsor).” But we wouldn’t have it any other way.

    We publish advertorial “welcomes” – clearly labeled as what they are – when new sponsors join, and those reports are open to comments like any others on our site. Negative as well as positive.

    I appreciate the point of wondering “who’s the gatekeeper” when you are the publisher, the editor, the reporter all rolled up into one. I find that our “collaborators” tend to do that. There isn’t much they couldn’t find out if they had suspicions. And they ask pointed questions – which we answer. (For example, during a comment thread about local school closures, one asked if we sent our child to a certain school which she believed we were writing too favorably about. Though no rule said I had to, I responded by listing each and every school our son had attended, going all the way back to preschool.)

    In the end, either people will find value in your reporting, or they will not, and in the new-media world, you tend to find that out a lot faster than in the “we report, you read” world.

    We became an unintentional case study in this by running our site anonymously for the first two years … it started as a classic opinion blog, somewhat accidentally morphed into a news site, but even before we “went public,” many in the community communicated with and trusted us because they found value in what we were doing.

    Tracy Record
    editor/co-publisher, West Seattle Blog

  15. ok with that

  16. says:

    I believe that the ‘explosion’ of the Web, which is already being repaired, will be stronger now.

    The technology and the Web, are opening borders where there are endless possibilities to be explored.

    Diego Massarotte [Brazil]

  17. Things change a lot, and the internet is the biggest thing there is basically. Back then you would write to write, now you will write to make a buck, which isnt bad. BUt its just making sites worse and worse looking. Adsense here, ads here, your article is wrapping around these advertised links makes i look horrible. BUt the 2.0 internet which mgith even change to something else soon, is used to these ads and changes.

  18. As a graphic designer I also suggest making the background color of this site slightly lighter. The full-text RSS feed is also eye strainer – total black on total white. Even reducing the text color from #000000 to #333333 on white background will make a big difference.

    As for article and the new rules I mostly agree with them. If ads are not flooding the site and are placed properly and have relevant content I don’t have any problem with them. The problem I see is when the article is written with the purpose in mind to get traffic and get the ads clicked.

  19. says:

    As someone who has worked in online news for more than a decade, I find these discussions unbelievably tiring. Robert, I completely agree with your interpretation of the old rules, but I would argue they are not really “new”. Online news sites (even newspaper sites) have been living by them for a decade and it’s how this end of out industry has managed to grow audience while the print sides keep shrinking. You don’t have to look far from home to find real life proof that this works and doesn’t compromise our very important role as journalists. Serving our readers and being a truly integral information source in our readers’ lives should not be crippled by antiquated rules that simply don’t work in the new social-media-filtered, mobile-delivered on-the-go world of information consumption.