The Post Weighs Rethinking and Updating Its Ethics Rules

By Andrew Alexander
Sunday, July 19, 2009

Style section copy editors recently received an e-mail from a supervisor asking for ideas on when The Post should provide clickable links within online stories to retail Web sites.

In the future, "we may try to develop a partnership with a merchant where we get a cut for every sale generated by a link," the e-mail said. "If anyone's thought of good rules of thumb for linking or not linking, please speak up."

Let's hope they do.

Links provide a service. If The Post reviews a new musical production, readers would find it convenient to click on a link that takes them to a Web site where they can purchase a ticket.

But links also can pose ethical dangers. When reviewing consumer products, for example, might The Post be more inclined to link to those that are covered by revenue-sharing arrangements?

Features copy desk chief Doug Norwood, who wrote the e-mail, understands the peril, which is why he wisely posed the question. Shared-revenue linking has been talked about "for down the road," he said, but only if it conforms to journalistic standards.

It's important to get ahead of issues like this -- especially now. The Post is struggling to recover from its ethically flawed plan to sell $25,000 sponsorships of off-the-record "salon" dinners that would have included its journalists. It can ill afford another misstep that further damages credibility.

The Post's internal newsroom "Standards and Ethics" guidelines badly need updating. They don't speak to journalists' participation in "live events" such as Post-sponsored dinners, seminars or conferences. Nor do they address situations unique to online journalism. A short list of Web "principles" does exist, but it is vague and not widely known among reporters or editors.

Even before the "salons" scandal broke, veteran senior editor Milton Coleman had been tapped to lead a broad review of Post ethics guidelines. He said last week that his goal is a "general overhaul of all policies." At the direction of publisher Katharine Weymouth, Coleman and executive editor Marcus Brauchli will first examine live events. She also asked The Post's general counsel to ensure that "business processes are consistent with, and will not in any way compromise, our journalism."

Coleman's comprehensive review should be made a high priority. Its urgency is dictated by The Post's need to restore faith with readers and the journalism world. But it's also driven by the necessity to keep pace with an industry changing at warp speed.

The money-losing Post, like so many other newspapers, is desperately searching for new revenue sources as it fights for survival. Innovation and risk-taking are being encouraged, but at a time when quality control has been diminished because of staff cuts. Ideas inevitably will surface that blur what has long been a bright line between the news and business departments.

This traditional firewall has helped preserve editorial independence and integrity. But in the current crisis, everyone needs to be actively engaged in creating a sustainable business model. That's why it's critical that ethical boundaries must be clear to all, whether they work in the news, advertising or marketing departments.

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