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The age-old ad/edit debate

You're reading a news story about a teenager who went on a shooting spree, and something catches your eye. The advertisement on the Web page is for a book about teenage violence. And it's not a coincidence.

You're reading a news story about a teenager who went on a shooting spree, and something catches your eye. The advertisement on the Web page is for a book about teenage violence. And it's not a coincidence.

In what seems to be part of a nascent trend, some news sites have begun to tailor advertising specifically to the content of stories. CNN, MSNBC, and other general news sites have begun posting ads for related books from Barnes & Noble, according to a report in Sunday's New York Times. These sites "collect a commission for each book sold from these ads," the article reported, citing concerns that the practice could potentially compromise journalistic independence.

This is clearly a legitimate point, and such scrutiny is necessary for the medium to establish credibility with the public at large. But the core of the issue--where to draw the line between advertising and editorial matter--is hardly new, and there is no reason to believe that the Internet will take a drastically different course.

In their perennial struggle to maintain both profits and credibility, news organizations have redrawn the parameters of advertising-editorial relationships many times. A little historical review may put the Internet's version of this conflict in proper perspective.

A few years ago, well before the Web had made its way into the popular vernacular, the Times itself struggled with many of the same concerns for its pulp edition.

At that time, according to news accounts, its then-new publisher was intent on breaking down the traditional walls that stood between the advertising and journalistic staffs of his family's publication. It only made sense, he reportedly reasoned, that both sides communicate more to share ideas and information about such matters as who their reader/consumers were and, ultimately, to determine the direction of the newspaper.

To any business executive, this would probably seem to make perfect sense. To editors at the Times, the idea was tantamount to prostitution.

It is fashionable among many pundits in the traditional media to speak and write of a "blurring of the lines" between the forces of advertising and editorial online, and they are right. What often is not acknowledged, however, is that the balance has always been a moving target.

The technology that yielded radio waves created a new mass medium and, with it, a new way to advertise. Television did the same. Very few people remember that David Brinkley once anchored the Camel Caravan News Hour in TV's infancy, an arrangement that would be unthinkable today.

Are there dangers in online advertising imposing on journalistic integrity? Of course there are. Will there be abuse within the digital publishing industry? You bet there will.

But will Internet news organizations witness more of this phenomenon than their counterparts have in established media? In the end, I doubt it.

For example, earlier this year the Wall Street Journal wrote a story about contracts at Esquire that required the magazine to alert certain companies like Chrysler when controversial articles would appear in the issues that were also to run their advertisements. Similar policies at Sports Illustrated and People magazine were mentioned as well.

Esquire's reasoning seemed simple enough: Companies should have the right to pull their ads from an issue they might deem offensive to their customers. But such action would likely have at least some chilling effect on the story-assignment process. (For the record, none of this advertising-editorial conflict had anything to do with the Internet.)

The Journal, by the way, includes a hyperlink to "advertisers" on the front page of its online edition. NEWS.COM runs ads on its front page, as does the online version of the Times. The Times site also links to Barnes & Noble at the end of book reviews, and CNET plans to do the same in a contract with Borders.

None of us, it appears, is immune from the economics of publishing.

Regardless of the medium, the real issue has and always will be credibility. In all the hand-wringing that goes on over online journalistic ethics, pundits rarely take into account the only judge who counts: the reader.

If the often-brutally candid email sent to NEWS.COM is any indication, online readers are far more skeptical than readers and viewers of news organizations in other media. Many appear to assume that advertising considerations are an inevitable component in the business of journalism--which it obviously is, at one level or another--and they factor that into their equations when sizing up the worth of the publication.

And those factors will constantly change, online and off. The only difference is that, on the Internet, they change a lot faster.