09 January 2012

Pay-for-play and the reality of online news

News outlets have a tradition of pleasing advertisers with content. In the private world of profit-making news orgs, few things are more prevalent, for better or worse.

An FCC-sponsored study called Information Needs of the Communities, led by Columbia Journalism Review's Steven Waldman, revealed just how ubiquitous pay-for-play can be in television. The FCC decided more transparency was necessary for the public to know where content comes from. But industry push-back is strong. Broadcasters and advertisers don't want change.

"...the organizations arguing against better disclosure represent local news operations—yes, the same news organizations that routinely (and appropriately) demand greater transparency from public officials. Can these local TV news organizations really be so tone-deaf as to demand greater transparency from everyone else but resist even the most rudimentary, common-sense forms of transparency for themselves?"
 The sad reality is that the same mentality exists in print and online. Non-bylined stories are often press releases but the "why" is rarely clear. Some bylined stories are the result of pressure from long-time advertisers who seek some free ads in the editorial space.

At local newspapers, this happens more than we'd like to admit. At local websites, the phenomenon is likely exacerbated because of the fledgling nature of the web-based community journalism business.

Let's take Carll Tucker's Main Street Connect as an example. Mr. Tucker's Annual Visibility Packages are advertorials packaged as regular news. An "AVP" badge appears appended to each story, but its meaning is ambiguous. Clicking on it doesn't clarify it, it only invites you to find out more about becoming an AVP partner.*

To what extent should news organizations be transparent about where their "news" comes from? Should news orgs bend to the whims of advertisers to ensure the cash flows? Should there be some ethical standard, enforced legally or otherwise, that requires transparency?

If you own or run a local website, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

*Full disclosure: I previously worked for Main Street Connect.

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