News Sites' Newest Competitor:

By: Steve Outing As if news publishers don't have enough competition to worry about in cyberspace, a high-profile retailer is making moves that encroach on the world of journalism. Indeed, its newly implemented strategy of combining editorial content with online retailing services in theory could obviate the need for consumers to consult traditional media when looking for advice and opinion about music and books.

The retailer is, the online book-selling giant that just recently launched an online music store. As part of that project, the company hired a former music editor of Rolling Stone and a team of 12 editors who all have experience as traditional media music critics and writers. Along with 200-plus freelancers, this crew of music journalists are writing reviews and editorial content to populate the music buying service.'s book side operates with a full-time editorial staff of twice that size.

You could look at this as the modern-day equivalent of the local bookstore posting brief staff-written reviews of books on the shelves to assist in buying decisions; or the music store that sends out a newsletter with reviews of new recordings. These are helpful to consumers, but it's obvious that the intent is to sell books and CDs; the "reviews" are not necessarily as objective as what you'd find in the entertainment section of a newspaper. But what is doing goes much further toward encroaching on territory held by traditional media companies covering the music and book worlds. From a traditional media perspective, it's a lot more scary.

Retailer? Media company? Both? vice president and executive editor Rick Ayre, a former editor for PC Magazine, acknowledges that yes, his company is edging toward becoming a media company as well as a retailer. Look at the site, he says, and you'll see that "it's all content" -- content designed to help consumers discover music or books that are of interest to them. "Our goal (in the editorial division of the company) is not to sell music or books," he says, "but to celebrate music and books."

When a consumer visits the music site, he is presented with a variety of information sources about a particular piece of music. These include staff-written reviews, as well as reviews from third-party review services, excerpts from other media reviews, and customer-written reviews to counterbalance the "professional" reviewers. There's also much information about musical genres, so that someone with an interest in bluegrass can learn about the most popular titles, for example. And the site has 225,000 sound clips (to date) so you can "try before you buy."'s music editors are specialists in the genres, and they are in charge of selecting the highlighted titles in the New Releases area. Ayres says that when he hires music experts, he looks for the same things as does a music magazine.

Use the site as I have done, and you'll find that it's a compelling service. Rather than go to, say, the Los Angeles Times Web site to find a music review, then have to visit a retail site to order the CD you've just read about, everything is conveniently in one place, seamlessly integrated. Ayre says that he's trying to create the "perfect interactive shopping experience," and having the editorial content to help the consumer make a decision is a major part of that.

What about credibility?

The challenge for, of course, is obvious: establishing credibility of the reviews. The company wants to sell books, so how can we trust its reviews -- even if they are authored by people with traditional journalistic experience? Ayre says that reviewers do have considerable autonomy in what they write, and he points to some reviews that indeed are largely negative. "We don't want to sell you the CD; we want you to be sure that this is the CD you want. We're not writing fluff pieces," he says.

A staff review of Natalie Merchant's Ophelia CD shows that not all of the reviews are complimentary (though my wandering through the site turned up nearly all favorable reviews). Michael Ruby's review begins, "Miss Natalie needs to lighten up. Ophelia's a pretty heavy record, in terms of both the thick, string-heavy production and in terms of her protracted, pretentious songs. Merchant has a beautiful voice but she bogs it down with weighty themes that walk around in flashy clothes without going anywhere. ..."

While that's to be applauded from a journalistic standpoint, probably wouldn't go so far as to publish a review of a hot new blockbuster if the staff reviewer absolutely hated it, Ayres admits. In that respect, there's a clear line between how his company would act compared to an entertainment magazine or newspaper entertainment section.

Is what is doing "journalism"? If a goal of journalism is sometimes to get a consumer not to buy a particular CD, then maybe what is doing is not journalism, Ayre says. On the other hand, if the goal is to present an objective body of information to help a consumer make a decision about a music or book purchase, then maybe it is journalism, he adds.

The site also includes reviews from third-party companies, and if one of their individual reviews is negative, then it gets published, says Ayre. Also, the site often includes review excerpts (under "fair use") from other media, so negative reviews get presented in that way. And, of course, site users can contribute their own comments and trash a particular title.

On the issue of "church and state separation" -- the news industry's buzz phrase for the wall between editorial and advertising departments -- Ayre says that at, "there is no sales force" to insulate the editors from. He claims that sales motives don't influence editorial to write favorable reviews of a particular CD or book because the company doesn't stockpile books that it then has to market aggressively; rather, its "smart" inventory system is designed to stock CDs or books as they are needed. The theory is to give consumers the information they need to make a purchase decision, then fill the order, without regard to selling particular titles.

Media reaction

When I asked a sampling of traditional media executives about the editorial strategy, most professed not to be too concerned. The belief I found was that consumers would recognize that is a retailer and would not rely on it for objective music or book review journalism. Jeff Vonkaenel, publisher of the Sacramento News & Review, an alternative newsweekly in California, says the strategy is "pretty ho-hum."

Richard Karpel, executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN), many of whose members rely heavily on entertainment journalism, says he's "not concerned that can compete with our members." If an AAN member paper's Web site serving a local market can't compete in its community with a mainstream national entertainment site, "then they've got problems," he says.

Karpel thinks that's editorial content will lack objectivity, especially its staff-written reviews. What happens when the president of a major recording company calls up's CEO to complain about a negative review written by an staff reviewer? The better solution, says Karpel, is for Web retailers like to work with independent publishers who produce reviews that can't be tainted by corporate sales motives.

Media response's editorial strategy is likely to have an impact on traditional media Web sites. If succeeds in becoming a one-stop shop for music and book "journalism" and purchasing, then media Web sites that only write about music and books will be at a disadvantage. What we're likely to see are more deals where media sites partner with retail sites, so that after reading the media review, one click takes the user to an order form. That's already in place at some media sites; The New York Times Web site and its Book Review area has a deal with Barnes & Noble where links to order a specific book are included at the bottom of NYT book reviews, for instance.

Such a strategy has stirred some debate in the journalism world. AAN's Karpel thinks it's a "no-brainer" for a media site to facilitate transactions, thus competing with initiatives like's. But Jane Levine, publisher of the Chicago Reader, says the New York Times-Barnes & Noble "click here to buy the book" type deals "make me really nervous" from an ethical standpoint. She doesn't think that we're in an age yet when it's acceptable for editorial and sales to be so totally integrated. With, consumers will never think that their reviews are actual criticism, she says.

David Shaw, media critic for the Los Angeles Times, says he doesn't have a problem with what is trying to do with its editorial operation, as long as it doesn't try to be other than what it is -- a retailer. If its reviews start showing up elsewhere, that's an ethics problem, he says.

What does bother Shaw more is the idea of media companies doing deals with Web retailers. Such deals have the potential to influence review content if the publisher is benefitting financially from sales of individual books by those who read the reviews then click a "buy the book now" button. That's a blurring of editorial and sales that's fraught with ethical problems.

Even if media companies resolve the ethical dilemma and start trading in online transactions linked to content, they still may be at a disadvantage over strategies like's. Ayre points out that a media-retailer partnership is at best a compromise between two different business goals by each company. Amazon's melding of editorial and sales is driven by a single set of business goals.

Contact: Rick Ayre,


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.

To receive an e-mail reminder each time we publish a new Stop The Presses! column, sign up here.

Archive of columns
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


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

Scroll the Latest Job Opportunities From The Media Job Board