Editorial, PR and Advertising Blur Online

By: Steve Outing

In the print world, editorial is editorial and advertising is advertising -- and it's usually obvious to the reader. Sometimes an ad may be designed to look like editorial content, but the publisher usually in such cases puts a small "Advertisement" logo at the top of the page.

In the online publishing world, the same standards don't always apply. While on most newspaper online services it is obvious what is editorial content is not, there are a few examples of advertising and PR content appearing to be editorial.

For example, on the main screen of the New York Times' @Times service on America Online are a series of navigation icons to various parts of the service. One icon says "NYNEX Technotorium." While a reasonable person might guess that this links to content sponsored by NYNEX (the New York telco), it's not readily obvious that this is not an area containing content supplied by the Times. The icon is in the same format as all the others; there's no visual cue that this is something different from the other content areas.

On most World Wide Web sites, advertisements are hyperlink logos that clearly will take you to an advertiser's area. Most Web site operators are doing a good job of differentiating types of content.

Where I have noticed a problem on many sites is with press releases that may be intersperced with editorial content. For example, an online newspaper service reader may use a search function to find stories about a new product. The service will return a list of articles -- some from the local newspaper's reporters, some from the wire services, and some from the press release wires like Business Wire. While a trained journalist knows that articles with "Business Wire" in the dateline are unadulterated press releases, the average person may think Business Wire is another wire service just like the Associated Press.

I would suggest that online sites that give users access to articles from the press release wires need to differentiate between that content and that from the traditional wire services and the newspaper itself. This is especially important if under, say, "top headlines of the day" you have a list of stories and some of them are press releases. You owe it to your readers to make this clear. After all, you wouldn't publish a press release verbatim in your print edition, would you?

(Let me just say, to be clear, that providing subscribers with access to press releases is a valuable service. It is a problem only when your readers confuse press releases for editorial content because of the way you present material online.)

Washington Post as role model

One newspaper online service that is leading the way in keeping editorial "pure" is the Washington Post's Digital Ink (which is on the AT&T Interchange platform). Vice president Jason Seiken says that it is policy to label all advertising and press releases clearly, so that readers will not mistake non-Post content for editorial matter.

"A lot of the other (online) services don't distinguish well between paid content and news," Seiken says. "We are trying to apply the Washington Post's high standards to the digital world."

To be sure, ethical standards in the online news world are evolving. Many basic journalistic principles are being brought over to the online medium. But it's also a different ball game, and new rules are being written as a new medium takes shape. In my view, "separation of church and state" (editorial vs. paid content) is a print concept that has a place in new media.

Watch that sloppy HTML coding

The new release of Web browser Netscape 2.0 is less tolerant of sloppy coding than the previous version. Since switching to 2.0, I've noticed a few HTML commands that show up as coding on a number of online news sites.

The bug to watch out for is in an image placement command: If you do not have quotation marks on both sides of the image file name, the coding no longer will work. For example:

will display correctly in 2.0 or previous versions.

Steve Got a tip? Let me know about it

If you have a newsworthy item about the newspaper new media business, please send me a note.

This column is written by Steve Outing and underwritten by Editor & Publisher magazine. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at steve@planetarynews.com


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