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Features Posted April 24, 1999
What If You Couldn't Trust The New York Times?
By Matt Welch, OJR Staff Writer and Columnist

Print version
Everybody trusts The New York Times. So much so, that nearly two years after America's paper of record signed a landmark agreement to post Barnes & Noble "buy" buttons next to its online book reviews, much of the criticism regarding the ethics of the practice has sputtered out, and the news industry has largely followed the Times' lead into e-commerce.
 
When asked about the Chinese Wall impact of "buy" buttons, which are increasingly used to sell airline tickets, CDs and brokerage services, editors from publications with inferior pedigrees are quick to invoke the stamp of approval from America's paper of record.
 
"The ability to click and buy," Salon Editorial Operations Vice President David Weir told NewMedia last month, "certainly doesn't mean the reviews are more positive in The New York Times."
 
True, no doubt. But do other news organizations merit the same trust, whereby readers can rely on the impartiality of articles written about the companies behind the "buy" buttons -- or those companies' competitors? Should news providers disclose key e-commerce relationships in their articles? What will happen if readers become suspicious?
 
A careful reading of the hallowed New York Times this year yields jaw-dropping results: In one remarkable 35-day stretch in February and March, the Times ran five articles and two opinion columns, clocking in at a whopping 13,800 words total, effectively sullying the reputation of Amazon.com -- Barnes and Noble's biggest and most feared competitor.
 
In only one of those articles did the Times disclose its influential agreement with Barnesandnoble.com, and the subject did not come up in a lengthy profile of B&N Chief Executive Leonard Riggio published April 18.
 
The Times' Defense
 
Nancy Nielsen, The New York Times' president for corporate communications, said there is no reason to question the impact of the Barnes & Noble business relationship on the paper's coverage.
 
"Our editorial and advertising decisions have always been made separately -- regardless of how news and ads are delivered," Nielsen said via e-mail. "Readers can be confident that we will continue to operate like that."
 
Or in other words, "Trust us, we're The New York Times."
 
[N]early two years after America's paper of record signed a landmark agreement to post Barnes & Noble "buy" buttons next to its online book reviews, much of the criticism regarding the ethics of the practice has sputtered out...
And what of lesser news organizations that mimic the Times' e-commerce and disclosure policies? Has the Gray Lady opened up a Pandora's Box of ethical fudge?
 
"We don't believe that to be the case," Nielsen said.
 
Nielsen answered a question about the paper's disclosure policies by referring to a Feb. 26 Times article about online ethics, which included the following statement:
 
"As The Times, like other news organizations, seeks to expand its revenue from transaction fees, it is developing formal guidelines to ensure that its journalistic independence is not compromised."
 
(At press time, the Times had not yet publicly formulated an e-commerce ethics policy.)
 
Certainly, trust in the paper has been earned, and continues to be earned every day by its continued excellence. Still, most any other news organization would have drawn scrutiny for the extent of the walloping it delivered to Amazon, whose success comes at the direct expense of Barnes & Noble, and therefore The New York Times Company, though to a much lesser extent.
 
The Times v. Amazon
 
It all started Feb. 8, when reporter Doreen Carvajal delivered an impressive investigation, revealing for the first time that book publishers could buy positive reviews and author profiles on Amazon.com for as much as $10,000, with the readers and "Amazon community" none the wiser.
 
The scoop quickly spread through the international media, and Amazon was forced into an embarrassing apology and reversal of policy, which merited two follow-ups in the paper.
 
The original article discussed "the blurring lines between editorial and advertising" and included withering quotes from Barnesandnoble.com Chief Executive Jonathan Bulkeley -- without disclosing the Times' own line-blurring agreement with B&N.
 
The Times' Nielsen said there was no reason to mention the relationship.
 
"In the two original Amazon stories, the issue in question was that material essentially constituting paid advertising was masquerading as objective reviews. We don't do anything like that on The Times on the Web, and so our B&N relationship wasn't relevant to the issue at hand."
 
On Feb. 11, the Times ran two more stories that -- although not specifically about Amazon -- portrayed the bookseller in a negative light.
 
For circumspect online editors of newspaper sites ... the e-commerce debate boils down to hundreds of tiny ethical, practical and fiscal questions, with few black-and-white answers.
An article about the "addiction" of online buyers explained how "wired shoppers talk sheepishly of their 'Amazon problems.'" Another article, about the shady schemes of e-merchants, started like this:
 
"If suckers are born every minute, there is a new technique every second to capture some of them on the Web. Here are some of the ways Web site designers lure people in and transform them from surfers into loyal customers. The first and most obvious -- and perhaps the most subtle -- is to make the visitor feel part of a community. Amazon.com is a place where book lovers can get thoughtful and often erudite advice about books (never mind that some publishers pay to have their books featured on the site)."
 
On Feb. 26, the Times weighed in with another piece that discussed how "on the Internet, with bookstores becoming literary reviews and news outlets turning into travel agents, it is getting hard to find a source of information that does not have a financial stake in what users do with what they publish."
 
The first example of the many cited? Amazon.com.
 
The article finally did disclose the Barnes & Noble arrangement, followed by a quote from Martin A. Nisenholtz, president of The New York Times Electronic Media Company: "The editorial people who write for the Book Review and work on it in the electronic area never even consider the advertising side ... There is no ambiguity about how the link is applied within the framework of the site."
 
In another Times article about e-commerce, Nisenholtz acknowledged that buy-button relationships between sellers and news providers do pose risks to ethical boundaries.
 
"It boils down to the perception that something has changed," he said. "The reality is that there's absolutely no interaction between the editorial side of the book review and the advertising side. We handle commerce the same way we handle advertising."
 
Meanwhile, international affairs columnist Thomas L. Friedman weighed in with "Amazon.you," an editorial about the proprietor of a small Internet bookseller called positively-you.com. Friedman contended that the success of the comparatively tiny bookseller shows "just how easy it is to compete against Amazon.com," and said he's "dubious that Amazon and many other Internet retailers will ever generate the huge profits that their stock prices suggest."
 
The piece de resistance in the Times' Amazon debunking was a massive 7,500-word Sunday Magazine feature titled "Riding the Wild, Perilous Waters of Amazon.com."
 
The article, which starts with "I have seen the future, and it's a little exaggerated," goes on to lampoon the company's employees as "bovine missionaries," and rehashes the editorial/advertising flap from the month before. It discusses the competition with Barnesandnoble.com -- without mentioning the Times' relationship -- and offers a dim conclusion of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his ability to predict the future.
 
The Real Debate
 
Debates about the ethical propriety of e-commerce on news sites tend to be shrill and one-dimensional, with one side saying, "It's bad!" and with the other, larger side saying, "It's the future -- deal with it!"
 
(For an excellent exception to this rule, see a two-part discussion between Editor & Publisher columnist Steve Outing, an e-commerce enthusiast, and AJR NewsLink Online Editor Eric Meyer, a skeptic.)
 
[I]f a site gives much more editorial emphasis on literature, music and travel online than off, accompanied by buy buttons, at what point (if any) does that threaten to give readers the impression that content is shaped by potential e-commerce?
For circumspect online editors of newspaper sites, however, the e-commerce debate boils down to hundreds of tiny ethical, practical and fiscal questions, with few black-and-white answers. For instance, if a site gives much more editorial emphasis on literature, music and travel online than off, accompanied by buy buttons, at what point (if any) does that threaten to give readers the impression that content is shaped by potential e-commerce?
 
"It's a problem if it's not handled carefully," said Bruce Oakley, online editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, via e-mail. "Our stock in trade is information. If that information is questionable because it may have been influenced by a commercial tie, we have no viable product. But a Web books section with a book site ad or even a link to an e-bookstore is not very different from a newsprint sports page with an ad for a sporting goods store."
 
The New York Times Web site posts 19 years' worth of book reviews -- more than 50,000 -- for free, complete with a Barnes & Noble "buy" option. However, most of the paper's other sections are subject to its paid archive service, going back only 365 days.
 
"We decided to take some of our archives in specific areas and make them available at no cost because we felt it enhanced our Web offerings in those areas," Nielsen explained. "Books is the most extensive use, but not the only one; travel and film reviews are available for extended periods at no charge, Op-Ed columns are available for several weeks, and all over the site there are selected archival packages on specific subjects related to the news."
 
Financial news sites frequently add a twist to the e-commerce debate: What if the editor setting the editorial/commerce boundary also owns shares in the company -- giving him or her direct incentive to maximize revenue?
 
"As a journalist, I am sworn to uphold independent values that are not influenced by [money]," said CBS MarketWatch Editor in Chief Thom Calandra, by e-mail. "Yet as a publicly held company that is responsible to its shareholders, I would be clueless to admit I don't care about our e-commerce relationships. I hope that the content we provide -- the articles that are written by our journalists -- excel in their own right."
 
Many news executives, like Forbes Digital Tool Publisher Dave Churbuck, see the e-commerce ethics debate being largely a question of non-traditional publishers suddenly posting editorial content to induce sales.
 
"Amazon publishes reviews by staffers as well as customers. Schwab publishes a ton of financial news and data. Look at the catalyst for change and it's coming from the other side of 'Chinese Wall,'" Churbuck said by e-mail. "'Pure' journalism sites are in the Kafkaesque position of competing with their advertisers for eyeballs and attention."
 
If The New York Times' coverage of Amazon -- and its routine lack of disclosure of the Barnes & Noble agreement -- is anything to go by, the top news organizations still have more questions to answer about exactly how their e-commerce relationships will not be allowed to erode confidence in their coverage.
 
"I have far less confidence ... in the integrity of other publications," Meyer wrote to the Online-News discussion list, which has chewed on the e-commerce issue at length. "Refrains of 'The Times does it' continue to echo as carte blanche invitations to all manner of questionable e-commerce."
 
What do you think? Tell us on the OJR Forums.

 


Matt Welch Matt Welch is an OJR Staff Writer and Columnist. His work is archived at mattwelch.com.


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Copyright 1999 Online Journalism Review
or a sporting goods store."
 
The New York Times Web site posts 19 years' worth of book reviews -- more than 50,000 -- for free, complete with a Barnes & Noble "buy" option. However, most of the paper's other sections are subject to its paid archive service, going back only 365 days.
 
"We decided to take some of our archives in specific areas and make them available at no cost because we felt it enhanced our Web offerings in those areas," Nielsen explained. "Books is the most extensive use, but not the only one; travel and film reviews are available for extended periods at no charge, Op-Ed columns are available for several weeks, and all over the site there are selected archival packages on specific subjects related to the news."
 
Financial news sites frequently add a twist to the e-commerce debate: What if the editor setting the editorial/commerce boundary also owns shares in the company -- giving him or her direct incentive to maximize revenue?
 
"As a journalist, I am sworn to uphold independent values that are not influenced by [money]," said CBS MarketWatch Editor in Chief Thom Calandra, by e-mail. "Yet as a publicly held company that is responsible to its shareholders, I would be clueless to admit I don't care about our e-commerce relationships. I hope that the content we provide -- the articles that are written by our journalists -- excel in their own right."
 
Many news executives, like Forbes Digital Tool Publisher Dave Churbuck, see the e-commerce ethics debate being largely a question of non-traditional publishers suddenly posting editorial content to induce sales.
 
"Amazon publishes reviews by staffers as well as customers. Schwab publishes a ton of financial news and data. Look at the catalyst for change and it's coming from the other side of 'Chinese Wall,'" Churbuck said by e-mail. "'Pure' journalism sites are in the Kafkaesque position of competing with their advertisers for eyeballs and attention."
 
If The New York Times' coverage of Amazon -- and its routine lack of disclosure of the Barnes & Noble agreement -- is anything to go by, the top news organizations still have more questions to answer about exactly how their e-commerce relationships will not be allowed to erode confidence in their coverage.
 
"I have far less confidence ... in the integrity of other publications," Meyer wrote to the Online-News discussion list, which has chewed on the e-commerce issue at length. "Refrains of 'The Times does it' continue to echo as carte blanche invitations to all manner of questionable e-commerce."
 
What do you think? Tell us on the OJR Forums.
 


Matt Welch Matt Welch is an OJR Staff Writer and Columnist. His work is archived at mattwelch.com.


[ Frontpage ] [ Features ] [ Back to Top ]
Copyright 1999 Online Journalism Review