Ad Network Dumps 'Tabloid' Over Controversial Content

By: Steve Outing "Fishbone is 6' 3", has a 66-inch waist and sports a Mr. T-style mohawk and a little furry growth on the underside of his chin. If he was walking toward you, you'd probably cross the street -- if the seismic waves caused by his every step did not knock you off your feet first. He is a circus freak. ... Doctors called him morbidly obese, which is a medical way of saying 'big fat pig.'"

So writes Tabloid New York bureau chief Ed Mazza in his September 3 story, "Subway Whale!", about New York City subway train operator Dwayne Richardson, who weighs 450 pounds and filed a lawsuit to get his job after failing a physical, claiming his weight made him "disabled" and thus eligible.

Well, Mazza certainly isn't shy with words. Even writing for his regular employer, the New York Daily News, where he is a new media editor, Mazza wouldn't dare write such spit-in-your-face prose. But in his part-time role as an unpaid writer for the San Francisco-based Web-zine Tabloid, he can be a little more opinionated than he might dare in print.

Mazza's controversial writing style, however, has caused a bit of a problem for Tabloid. The San Francisco-based Web news start-up has been running national ads placed by Web ad network Flycast. But citing Mazza's column about the "big fat subway guy," Flycast has stopped its ad placements with Tabloid.

In a September 21 letter to Tabloid founder Ken Layne, Flycast network coordinator Leslie Fincke wrote, "I regret to inform you that we will be deactivating your site from the Flycast network. Advertisers have complained about the objectionable and sometimes offensive editorial content that you post on your site. The most recent complaints have come from three of our largest advertisers regarding (the 'Subway Whale!' story)."

Fat activism at work

The advertisers who Flycast heard from apparently were influenced by a group that watches for instances of published bigotry against overweight people, and as you might imagine they were not thrilled by Mazza's writing. Tabloid's editors heard from the group, too. In a September 18 e-mail, someone identifying herself as Christina Webster of "Ally for Fat Liberation" wrote, "I am writing to let you know that your publication will be BOYCOTTED as a result of the bigotry that attempted to pass as journalism written by Ed Mazza about Dwayne Richardson. ... Publishing this ignorant piece of garbage by Mazza was a grave mistake. If you are interested in getting your fat readers back, then I recommend a lavish public apology to fat people everywhere, along with an immediate dismissal of Ed Mazza." Layne says several other similar e-mail messages arrived shortly after Webster's.

"These people are apparently pretty serious about making publications succeed or fail based on whether morbid obesity is portrayed as a good or bad thing," says Layne. "... Of all the things to use as a litmus test for advertiser-worthy Web publications. ..."

Layne views Flycast's action as cowering to pressure from a handful of zealots, and hypocritical to boot. "A so-called Internet advertising firm that bows to every complaint from fanatics is no better than the United Nations fleeing the Taliban," Layne wrote in a reply to Flycast's Fincke. "Has Flycast cancelled the accounts of every news outlet reporting the foul, pornographic details of the Starr report on President Clinton's private affair? ... I understand that business seldom has an interest in obscure issues such as the Constitution and a free press, but that doesn't mean a media business shouldn't be castigated for showing a lack of backbone when it comes to dealing with fanatics."

Layne points out that among Flycast's current accounts are other Web sites that probably should have their accounts cancelled if Flycast is going to be consistent -- such as The Onion and the National Enquirer. He believes that Flycast's management lacks an understanding of the media business. "There are so many people (in the new media business) who don't have even the most basic understanding of media law and media history," Layne says. After all, "no one is losing ads over running the Ken Starr pornography."

Flycast's executives are refusing to get into a public debate with Layne. VP of marketing Lyn Chitow Oakes says the company position is that "this is a private contract matter that we hope to work out professionally." She refused to discuss on the record any of the issues raised by Layne. The San Francisco-based company places ads from some 300 advertisers on about 600 client Web sites.

Flycast's rationale for cancelling its account with Tabloid is a contract provision that states in part, "Affiliate's Web site(s) and Ad Spaces shall not contain, or contain links to, content ... promoting expletives or inappropriate language; content promoting illegal activity, racism, hate ...; content that is libelous, defamatory ..., or any other content deemed inappropriate by Flycast in its sole discretion." Obviously, that language is broad enough to cover Mazza's September 3 article.

However, Layne claims that when his lawyer went over the Flycast contract that Tabloid's owners signed, it was discovered that that language wasn't in the contract that Tabloid had on file, though Flycast cites it as its reasoning for cancelling the Tabloid account.

Layne is not set on what to do next, though he says his lawyer thinks there might be a lawsuit worth filing. If he pursues that route, it would be for the challenge of not letting Flycast's actions set a precedent that could damage free speech by Web publications and to put other ad networks on notice. "I would be satisfied if Flycast just got a big black eye from this," says Layne, and if it encourages the ad networks to set sensible policies when similar issues arise.

Not a death sentence

Tabloid is not going to be unduly burdened by the loss of its national banner advertising. Layne says Flycast was paying the site only about $300 a month in royalties. The controversial site, which Layne says gets just about a half million page impressions a month, is living primarily off its initial cache of start-up cash, says the founder, and later in the year hopes to have an internal ad sales operation ready to go. That's the only way to make any significant money from Web banner advertising sales, he believes.

Layne is uncertain about whether to go after another ad network deal, believing that other revenue streams -- from content syndication to hawking Tabloid T-shirts and coffee mugs -- will do better. "We could panhandle outside our offices and probably make more than we do" from the ad networks, he says. "It's been such a pain in the ass to deal with these companies -- and not just Flycast."

Tabloid has been with Flycast for just over a year, and the Mazza incident was the first time the ad network paid much attention to the site, says Layne.

Personal comment

It is of course fascinating to watch the Internet grow into a news medium (among other things). As this case demonstrates, new media is destined to deal with age-old issues as they apply to the new media. The idea of advertisers trying to influence objectionable editorial content is as old as is commercialized media. Typically, it's an individual advertiser that puts pressure on a publisher, and the publisher always has the option of telling the advertiser to take its money elsewhere.

It gets a little more serious in the online publishing world when a controversial publication loses its advertising from a network. For some sites (though not, apparently, Tabloid), the loss of a national ad network deal could be enough to put a site out of business. Should national ad networks have that kind of power to influence editorial content on Web sites they do business with? Most of us would answer that with a No. This poses a private-sector-driven threat to freedom of the press and free speech.

It's unfortunate that Flycast executives declined to tell their side of this story. I can envision a far more amicable solution to the dispute between Flycast and one of its Web clients: Flycast should offer its advertisers packages of sites, and controversial sites could be part of a package that squeamish advertisers could opt not to be placed in.

Contact: Ken Layne,

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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing

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