By Andrew Alexander
Sunday, October 24, 2010; A19
When you're reading a Post review online, click on a highlighted book title and you'll likely be directed to Amazon.com, where you can purchase it instantly. It's convenient for readers. But is it costly to credibility?
That question is being debated in the newsroom after a recent push to expand links to products sold by Amazon, the giant online retailer. As part of a revenue-sharing arrangement, these "inline" e-commerce links are being inserted into reviews, columns and stories mentioning products sold on Amazon, from books to DVDs to electronic gadgets. The one-click link makes it easy for readers to buy products, and The Post gets a cut of the action on each sale (it won't reveal how much).
But two things are worrying Post journalists. The links are being placed directly into news content instead of appearing elsewhere on the same Web page, in the way that advertising is separate. And newsroom editors are being asked to insert them.
For many, that threatens the traditional barrier between the business and news sides of The Post. They fear they are being asked to step beyond journalism to create commercial transactional opportunities. They wonder whether the sacred wall is crumbling.
After months examining possible ethical concerns, Post leaders produced safeguarding policies. Products should be mentioned in news content "only when there is a meaningful editorial reason to do so," the guidelines say. Links to those products on Amazon must be inserted "in a content-neutral manner," regardless of whether The Post writes favorably or unfavorably about a book or electronic product. There are to be no product links in obituaries or crime stories, which would appear crass. And editors should link to the least expensive option on Amazon when multiple versions of a product are offered. That's to avoid accusations The Post is pushing the highest-priced items to boost its cut on each purchase.
The Post has been open about the Amazon arrangement, publicly announcing it on a trial basis a year ago. A Post news release said that a "non-editorial team" would provide links after reviews had been posted online. "The Post's news and editorial departments are not involved in placing the links," it stressed. What changed?
Executive Editor Marcus W. Brauchli said it was concluded that the safeguard policies could protect editorial standards while "simplifying the user experience."
He said putting links in reviews or stories made it more "simple and direct" for readers to click to the product. And, he said, the newsroom last month assumed the task of inserting links in stories because it is more efficient for editors to do it at the same time they are preparing content to be posted on The Post's Web site.
Brauchli said generating revenue from Amazon sales was not the driving motivation for the changes. "The primary benefit," he said, "is that we've simplified a process that readers are involved in anyway."
Journalism ethics experts see problems.
"I'm not in favor of putting the links directly in the story itself," said Stephen J.A. Ward, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. And he said using editors to insert links "certainly gives the public an appearance that journalists are participating in commercial enterprises" as they try to maintain their editorial autonomy.
The Internet is changing media consumption habits, along with accepted ethical norms. Digital readers are increasingly accustomed to receiving advertising based on their online viewing patterns. To many, links to Amazon are unobjectionable (no reader has complained to me). And having journalists inserting them may seem benign.
"But just because the rest of society doesn't value journalistic credibility doesn't mean we shouldn't value it," said McBride. I agree.
The Post should be applauded for the safeguarding policies. And a case can be made that product links in stories are a reader convenience.
But I'm troubled by the newsroom's involvement and worry that it opens the door to a slippery-slope erosion of autonomy. That time-honored independence speaks to credibility, The Post's most cherished asset. Indeed, indisputable autonomy can distinguish The Post in an increasingly cluttered and confusing media landscape.
To survive and thrive, newspapers need new sources of revenue. But several Post officials said privately that projections from the Amazon arrangement are modest. If so, is it worth the risk? What might be gained in revenue seems less that what could be lost in standing.