Whether or not you’re an auto racing fan, you know what a NASCAR contender looks like. Its shimmering skin is festooned with insignias of the branded products that paid to build the car and keep it competing. It’s a billboard, a rolling montage of promos.
Bear that in mind while you hear about this hot new money-maker in the online news business. The idea is to put links to commercial vendors right in the text of published articles where they appear in order to make money by helping them sell their goods. It could be a theater review that enables you to click through to the box office to order tickets, or a blog that keeps on top of college entrance news and lets you click through to enroll in a course that might help you to help your kid go Ivy.
The point of the linking is to stimulate sales. In the case of the college admissions advice, the New York Times itself is the vendor. It’s part of a revenue diversification drive in which the Times sells wisdom that could have gone into a $25 softbound book but instead is a $225 online “educational course,” so you can earn a certificate in tormenting your teen.
The Washington Post (which is already in the education business, though its Kaplan Inc. test prep company), now has a deal with Amazon to share revenue generated by links from Post reviews and columns to products sold on Amazon.
The Los Angeles Times, piggy-backing on an idea from its sister, the Chicago Tribune, last spring started adding green links to various online columns and blogs that take readers to various e-commerce sites. It’s both “a reader service and a revenue opportunity,” the editor explained.
So what have we got? Maybe the beginnings of a basic reformulation of the way that news makes money. Traditionally, journalism was sustained by a combination of direct payments from its audience and fees collected from advertisers in return for the chance to pitch to that audience. Now, what we see emerging is a new model in which the revenue potential of editorial work can be directly calculated—and, in principle, the work can be engineered to max out on that potential.
Now, the digital revolution already poses serious threats to principled journalism, by institutionalizing haste, lowering standards of verification, fomenting a new custom of anonymous discourse that’s utterly incompatible with the transparency that the online gurus natter constantly about. But I have to say that this economic reformulation may be the most dangerous development yet.
The danger goes way beyond conflict of interest, as usually understood. It’s not just that the theater reviewer might praise some tedious play so that she can hit her target of kickbacks for the week. It’s more fundamental than that. It’s a transformation of the purpose of news and commentary. Instead of informing and provoking, their real job will be to initiate commercial transactions.
To be sure, the mainstream organizations that are dipping their toes into this chilly pond have strong cultures of newsroom independence, and so far have restricted these links to non-news content—blogs, features, commentaries and the like.
But these are industry leaders, the top dogs, with vast influence over lesser entities that are desperate for money and have no comparable in-house legacies of principle or public service. Yet even these bastions of probity have embraced a business model whose basic direction is clear: That editorial offerings may properly be inventoried and harvested so that opportunities to channel readers toward cooperating sites can be maximized, for pay.
I’ve written before about the phenomenon of calibrated news, in which the ability to track audience traffic with demographic precision—and put a price on how valuable the readers of a particular item might be for advertisers—will corrupt news judgments in favor of coverage that draws a more desirable crowd at an acceptable cost.
Paid linking adds a new and disturbing twist, one without clear limits. Why confine it to blogs and features? If there’s a story about coming elections, why not link to the Republican National Committee, and accept a commission for donations the link enables? Besides, isn’t it only logical to encourage mention of entities that want to play ball and tilt coverage toward topics with richer opportunities for linking?
All of that makes my earlier comparison to NASCAR a little unfair. After all, stock car drivers may wear jumpsuits covered with brands, but they don’t change the way they drive to oblige their sponsors.