BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. A few years back someone at the struggling Washington Post had a fantastic idea. Why not include links in the book reviews published online, allowing readers to easily click through to Amazon.com in search of the title being reviewed. Not only would they save a step, The Post would earn an affiliate marketing fee for each transaction. A win-win was the thought. At least, that was the first thought. There were second thoughts, as well.
PAUL FARHI: I think the fear or the concern was that this was going to convey to our readers that we were in some way in business with Amazon.
BOB GARFIELD: Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi.
PAUL FARHI: And that not only were we in business, that it would in some way, infect our editorial independence, that this was an unholy alliance and that the reader would be in some way hoodwinked, shortchanged or, in some way, the editorial process would be compromised by this relationship.
BOB GARFIELD: Maybe it's a stretch to imagine Post editors favoring positive reviews and mass market books in order to pump up affiliate revenue, but the deal would have created a financial incentive to do so. Therefore, lest the conflict undercut editorial credibility, the plan was shelved.
After all, for an industry that has historically maintained a firewall between advertising and editorial, there is plenty of reason, even in financial extremis, to avoid the slippery slope, because the slope is, indeed, slippery, slimy even.
Consider the recent experience of Gawker blogger Hamilton Nolan. He received an email from a New York marketing agency called 43a, offering him a cash payment for including in his blog posts hyperlinks to the agency's clients.
HAMILTON NOLAN: His essential pitch was, look, you know, you, the writer, insert these links for our clients and make them seem very natural and, you know, if your editor or anybody says anything, just take it out and say it's not a big deal. And if nobody says anything and you can slip it in, then we’ll pay you X amount of dollars per link.
BOB GARFIELD: We contacted 43a but they never got back to us. Nolan also stopped getting replies when he started asking damning questions but not, he says, before the X amount was fixed at $170 per clandestine ad.
HAMILTON NOLAN: Somebody contacting a writer directly and saying, I'd like to put some money in your pocket to stick ads in your posts is pretty clearly, to me, a – just a bribe.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, you work at Gawker.
HAMILTON NOLAN: Yes.
BOB GARFIELD: As I understand it, your compensation is somewhat dependent on page views for your pieces –
HAMILTON NOLAN: Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE].
BOB GARFIELD: - which gives you an incentive not to report on soil erosion policy –
- unless it’s being articulated by a major Kardashian, okay?
Is there any difference ultimately between that sort of financial incentive and straight up blogola?
HAMILTON NOLAN: Yeah, there's lot of difference. At this point we get paid based on the performance of our site as a whole, so in other words, if Gawker itself gets over a certain number of page views for a month, we might get a bonus. But that's not a bribe. That’s a performance incentive for doing your job well. They're not really related at all in my mind.
And, by the same token, you know, any journalist today, if you work for The New York Times, if The New York Times doesn't perform well, people are gonna get laid off. You know, so in that sense [LAUGHS] every journalist everywhere has in an, an incentive for their news outlet to do well.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, yeah. The “you only want to sell newspapers” argument, one we usually hear from scoundrels who don't like their news coverage. But reporters have always had a ready retort: Sir, I do not work on commission.
The utter indirectness of financial incentive for journalists was the mortar in the firewall. But in the online world, where profitability is elusive and page views are the coin of the realm, the divider between advertising and editorial is less “firewall” than “shower curtain.” When advertising is tied directly to content, the incentive for editorial corruption increases exponentially.
RICHARD TSO: So you're right. It is a slippery slope, but it also does create more journalism out there.
BOB GARFIELD: That's Richard Tso, CEO of the Seattle marketing and PR agency Pseudo Sound Consulting.
RICHARD TSO: It may not have the same standards as the traditional forms of journalism that have existed in the past, and that's an interesting thing, from a marketing perspective. There is a delicate balance, and I think the peer professionals out there kind of bear the brunt of wanting to keep journalists happy and maintain that quality of reporting, while also inserting marketing messages, if possible.
BOB GARFIELD: Consider Infolinks, a company that strikes deals with content providers to embed hyperlinks. It uses double underlines to alert readers to the fact that it's an ad, triggered by keywords within the text. If you choose to ignore the double underlined term, you can. If you choose to hover over it with your mouse, the ad pops up.
Tomer Trevis is the chief marketing officer at Infolinks.
TOMER TREVIS: For the advertiser, this is a golden opportunity of a reader that have given permission to be exposed to the ad. And from the publisher point of view, 90 percent of the readers are not even interrupted. So this is a very good user experience, and yet, the publisher is being compensated for the free content that they give online.
BOB GARFIELD: Super, but what happens if the publisher decides to skew the editorial content to attract more ads? For instance, the gossip site TMZ is one of Infolinks’ content partners. What if TMZ recognized that, say, life insurance was a keyword and suddenly ignored celebrity trash talk and took an editorial interest in financial planning?
Trevis says no publisher wants to push away its audience and that anyway, Infolinks’ own future hinges on readers having a satisfactory experience, which is why he says his ad placement algorithm is constructed to sniff out such shenanigans.
TOMER TREVIS: It willalways be a race between people who try to exploit it and the technology and the, and the companies that are getting better and better at it. But having some risks doesn’t mean that we have to close it entirely, because we need a business model to allow these websites to keep on providing good content.
BOB GARFIELD: At the moment, the only actual traditional newspaper to sign on is The Jerusalem Post. That site is riddled with Infolinks, some of which yield [LAUGHS] mystifying connections. The word “Thursday” gets you a PC file backup service, “negotiating” gets Freedictionary.com. And the “House of Representatives” gets you an in-home assisted living ad. I'm happy to report that thus far there does not seem to be an unusual concentration of elder care stories in The Jerusalem Post.
But back at The Washington Post, things have changed a bit. The Amazon link in book reviews idea was eventually taken off the shelf and instituted as originally conceived. So far, says Paul Farhi, who more than once has covered his own newspaper’s failures on editorial sanctity issues, there has been no sketchy behavior that he can detect.
PAUL FARHI: We've been doing it now for quite awhile. There have been zero complaints, as far as I can tell, and zero controversies. This is done so routinely that it's just kind of like puttin’ a headline on the story. The process is almost mechanical.
BOB GARFIELD: It's also free money, when it is needed most.
PAUL FARHI: And, as you may have noticed, newspapers are in some trouble these days, The Washington Post being one of those newspapers that isn't exactly growing. So if you discover this new source of revenue, and you can preserve your editorial independence - and those two statements are linked - why not?
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: Farhi knows why not. Theoretical conflicts have a way of mutating into actual conflicts. Not all links are hinky, but that slope is mighty treacherous.