Can Newspapers Report Fairly on Cyber Competitors?

By: Steve Outing

Imagine this scenario. Your newspaper operates an Internet service provider business, serving your local community with online access. You get good marks for this service, with some ranking services rating you as the best in your state when it comes to customer service. Your Web site is good, too, having won several awards from national organizations.

A competing newspaper runs a staff-written story about the local Internet access business, profiling or at least mentioning most of the key players in the local ISP business. But it leaves you out of the story entirely. And to add insult to injury, it later runs a major feature about a new cable modem service being offered in your area with which it has a business relationship.

This actually happened to a U.S. newspaper I ran across recently. The aggrieved publisher doesn't want to get into a "spitting match" with his competitor, so I will not reveal the parties in this particular case. But these events demonstrate the slippery slope that journalism is on when it comes to reporting on new industries in which publishers are now involved.

This is going to become increasingly problematic for newspaper publishers who are in the ISP business, and are entering the burgeoning online community guide/arts and entertainment guide business. Likewise, newspapers are gaining new, credible and increasingly threatening competitors in the electronic classifieds field. And in the field of news and sports coverage itself, the Internet is bringing a new wave of online competitors. In all, the Internet has brought a horde of new competitors onto the scene who are slowly eating away at the newspaper industry's fat revenue cow.

So what's a publisher to do? Resist the temptation to tie your business relationships in with your editorial coverage. Just as there is a traditional "church-state" separation between editorial and advertising at most reputable newspapers, there must be similar distance between a newspaper's interactive ventures' business managers and the paper's editorial staff.

This becomes more tricky in the new media world, because traditionally trained journalists operate in close quarters with business, marketing and advertising people, and technicians/software developers/programmers. Interactive side business managers often have journalism backgrounds, but have made the transition into business roles. The environment creates a volatile mix of conflicting corporate cultures. But journalists must hold the line when it comes to business interests influencing editorial coverage.

The extreme example cited above is clearly stepping over the line of ethical journalism. I do not mean to suggest that it is a common practice, but whenever it happens, this is a practice that must be condemned.

Here are some practical suggestions for holding onto your ethical standards as your news organization enters new lines of business in cyberspace:

It's important to use your newspaper to promote your online ventures, but don't disguise what is promotion as "legitimate" editorial coverage. Readers will see through that. Don't shy away from covering a legitimate news story because its publication will work against you. The newspaper company that operates an ISP can't have its reporters ignore that industry because ISP stories would just publicize the competition. The business editors assigning those stories must not be in a position of having intimate contact with the newspaper's own ISP managers, except to get a quote for the story about local ISP trends. Some newspaper companies have established policies that do not accept advertising from companies that are directly competitive to their own ventures. This is a low form of doing business -- indeed, it is anti-competitive -- and I urge publishers to avoid this practice. When doing an industry overview (such as of the local ISP industry), it's imperative that reporters go out of their way to make sure that their newspaper competitors operating in that business are included. Not to do so is to risk losing credibility among your readers and leave yourself open to attack from your competitors. Disclose, disclose, disclose. When you write about trends in the local ISP business, mention that the newspaper's parent company operates an ISP. When writing a story about misdeeds or mistakes by an online entertainment guide, mention that the newspaper is a competitor to that company. Perhaps hardest of all, be willing to report in your own paper when bad things happen with one of your online ventures. If the executive in charge of the local Sidewalk online city guide was charged with a crime and fired, your reporters would probably write about it. If the same thing happened at a newspaper's online site, it should be reported in your paper as well. The alternative is that competing local media report the story, you do not, and your paper looks sleazy for "covering it up." All of these are suggestions based in commonly held principles of ethical journalism. I'd like to think that as an industry we don't even need to be reminded of them. But as the incident that prompted this column demonstrates, in the evolving world of interactive news media, some people need a refresher course.

Permanent links discussion

My series of columns last week about permanent Web links brought quite a bit of mail. Bob Gale, new media director of the Herald, in Everett, Washington, wrote:
"We have been using permanent story URLs since we launched HeraldNet this January for all the reasons you've stated in your columns. We encourage other sites to link directly to our stories. Keeping all the stories available hasn't been a big problem for us because the first phase of our site has involved a relatively low volume of locally produced material and we're not aggressively pursuing archive revenue. If we want to begin charging, we will just start serving 'toll booths' based on the date heirarchy in our story URLs. Our photos have permanent URLs as well, and we plan to add 'order photo reprint' buttons to them."

Chug Roberts of Congressional Quarterly, who earlier this year left a position at WestLaw News (WLN), wrote:
"The only thing I would add (to your series of columns) is the desirability -- not necessarily the feasibility -- of incorporating an alpha brand/marketing moniker in the citation for the database call. E.g, 1991 NYT 12345, 1997 WSJ 12345, 1997 WAPOST 12345, 1997 DENPOST 12345, 1997 SFCHRON 12345, etc. Adds a bit more information in the cite. "It is especially desirable if the citation can be used across media. In the WLN system, we built the cite in immediately following the byline and used the citation as the database call. The citation was displayed and used as the cite and database call online, on the Web, on CD-ROM, and in print. Single unique cite for each document, worked in all media. Made references by others easy, too."

Reader Steve McQuinn suggested:
"I would prefer to see archival charges for 'old news' stories, rather than perpetuate the advertiser support model that has corrupted journalism. Consumers have much more of a say about things when market forces are put into play. We could all be very surprised to find that folks would rather pay for a reliable information product than receive a compromised one for free. ...

"As for the proper price point for archived stories, consider the cost to someone printing out past stories from microfilm at the local library. Then add the value of time and effort to make the library visit. Cut this cost by some factor if up-to-date ad inserts are included with the archival page BUT!!! let the customer choose the type of ads to see. How does that come out?"


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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 at

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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