Saturday, October 23, 2010

Words of Wisdom Today from Mike Allen's Playbook

We live our lives by a simple rule that we teach our kids: If you wonder whether it's OK, it's not.

A little simplistic, but when referring to tenuous line between advertising and newsrooms autonomy, it certainly applies. Allen is referring to The Washington Post's ombudsman Andrew Alexander's piece about Amazon links being inserted into a Post review online. The click provided from an interested reader delivers a pay cut to The Post, which is slightly troubling in itself, but my (the newsroom's) sense of unease is amplified by the fact that the links will be in the article itself and not in some clearly-marked Amazon-hosted side bar or at the end of the article.

I don't know if there is a marked ethical difference on the placement of the links (though my instinctive response of, "...What??" tells me that I certainly believe so) but I am also seeing it from a reader's point of view. The idea of having links in my newspaper article drive me from the article to Amazon.com is just a little too jarring for me. If I were to click on "Transformer's toys" thinking it would lead me to somewhere else on Washpo/other news outlets (maybe a business story about how toys do as failing franchises grow? I don't know - just an example) it would be really disconcerting when I find myself at a website that is directly aimed at my money-spending sensibilities.

Now reader-convenience aside, as a wannabe journalist , the idea of having links to a consumer website within an article just makes me skin crawl. I know it's probably not a big deal (even Alexander says that no reader has complained to him about it) but even with all the safeguards put up by the Post, I feel like if I were a writer crafting a story, I might hesitate to use a product name unless if it's absolutely necessary.

I just don't understand why Amazon can't have a little scrollable sidebar where they automatically generate the products mentioned in the article - so it looks like it were an Amazon code generating it, instead of the Post hyperlinking it. Like I said, I'm not sure if it's a big difference, but it certainly makes me feel less uncomfortable when I look at an article littered with consumer links.

Perhaps the best thing for them to do is as Allen says Politico does: They include products in Playbook for a reader's convenience, but they get nothing from it.

After all, if the executive editor Marcus W. Baruchli says that their primary concern is "simplifying a user's experience," then I know it would be far simpler for me to not have to mull over the ethical concerns of their business practices within the newsroom.

PS. I just looked briefly through some articles and I realized that there are rarely any products mentioned in Politics, World and Domestic News and D.C. news, which is certainly expected.

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