By Brian Krebs washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Friday, July 30, 2004; 8:14 AM
Online news sites are offering their readers more than just comprehensive coverage of the presidential election this year. They are also serving up campaign ads in an attempt to earn a slice of the $1.25 billion expected to be spent on political advertising this year.
But in pursuing political advertisers, news organizations are grappling with the difficult task of setting rules for where, when and how campaign ads will run on their Web sites, resulting in a hodgepodge of policies that some observers say could prompt campaign reformers to take action.
Political ads on the Internet are not governed by the same rules that apply to radio and television, leaving news sites free to run ads without having to disclose who paid for them. Sites also are under no obligation to provide equal time to candidates or offer campaigns the lowest available advertising rates.
Most of the 15 Web sites contacted for this story require advertisers to disclose who paid for the ad, but the similarities usually end there. The biggest difference often is whether sites will allow political ads to run alongside political news, a practice frowned on by some media observers.
"If you were doing a story about the financial plight of a major airline in your [newspaper's] business section, you probably wouldn't allow a big ad for that airline to run on the same page if you were doing your homework right," said Merrill Brown, a media consultant and former MSNBC.com editor-in-chief.
Brown said he is disturbed by how often paid political ads and news stories run side-by-side on Web sites of news organizations that would never allow that juxtaposition in their print editions. He acknowledged, however, that it is a technological challenge for news Web sites to coordinate their ad delivery because many advertisers want their ads to appear on any page of the site at any time.
"I'm willing to attribute this practice to an industry that's being built on the run, but I hope in the wake of this campaign people take a good look back and try to wrap their minds around what's changed," said Brown, whose clients include washingtonpost.com.
USA Today's Web site refuses to run political ads in its politics or elections sections, said Jeff Webber, senior vice president at USAToday.com. The Web sites of the Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer do not run "big-box" political ads except on their non-news pages. "Big-box" is an industry term for a specific class of large-size ads that often get prominent placement on a Web page.
"We don't want to run the risk that our readers may think we're endorsing a particular candidate just because we've placed an ad for them within the content of a news story," said Joel Stufflebeam, senior account manager for the Seattle newspapers' Web sites. The sites did not run political ads in the 2000 presidential election.
Washingtonpost.com runs political ads throughout its site, including on its home page. It has already run several ads for the John Kerry presidential campaign, and offers political campaigns advertising rates that are comparable to those typically reserved for its biggest corporate advertisers.