Recent drama in the publishing world has refocused attention on the problem of the quality and integrity of content on the Internet. The New York Timesstory on the firing of long-time film reviewers at Variety, and a lawsuit by a disgruntled advertiser at Variety, provides a reason to ask, can truth survive? Or perhaps I should ask, how will editorial integrity play out on the Internet? And how will this affect who become the winners and losers online?
I believe, though, that this debate has been held under the false assumption that the need for revenue to support online content businesses requires greater 'flexibility' when it comes to maintaining the independent point of view of a media property and its creators, versus the wishes or needs of its advertisers. My view, and I'd like to hear comments from the audience, is that in the online world, authenticity, veracity and clarity of whose voice is speaking is more important, not less important, than in the terrestrial world of print and TV.
Unlike the world of print and television, Internet users who are suspicious of the editorial integrity of a site can find an alternative with no more than two clicks to a search engine and one of its links. While print readers and television viewers might have been suspicious of whether their favorite show or magazine is pulling punches to keep advertisers happy, they have had little choice but to keep consuming them. If you were a newspaper reader, what other newspaper could you switch to?
On the other hand, Internet readers have an easy way to express their distrust: they vote with their fingers, clicking to all manner of alternative voices. Readers and consumers want the real dope on movies, dishwashers, cars and vacations. This search for the unvarnished truth is one part of why community-built review sites have grown so big, why blog networks have bloomed, and social recommendation engines like Digg and Delicio.us have thrived. The search for truth is part of why new voices like Huffington Post have risen so quickly.
This issue has been debated in several contexts. Does "product integration" affect content authenticity? Can advertisers insert themselves into the social media conversation without spoiling the party? And can online publishers stand the heat from advertisers when advertising revenue is scarce?
Over the last few years the focus was on blogs that, while purporting to be independent, were either owned by or paid by advertisers to shill for their products. In the so-called "mommy blog" sector, advertisers are chasing customers who are chasing authenticity. But ironically, while the readers seek independent and honest assessments and ideas about what works in child rearing, advertisers are trying to pay to influence the so-called conversation. It didn't take long for calls for disclosure and even regulation to emerge from the fracas.
Variety's story starts with its founding by an editor who was previously fired from a competitive trade publication for writing a review that was critical of an advertiser's show. It has had a long tradition of editorial independence. So the news of a struggle over the wishes of the big-spending advertiser and the writer's points of view hit a chord.
For some reason -- they call it necessity -- many online publishers have accepted the idea that separation of church and state is not as important online as it is off. Journalism students have been taught for years to fear the influence of advertisers, and procedural walls have been erected to prevent advertisers' influence to pressure and distort editorial.
In the Internet media world I must have heard a thousand times that "integration" of advertising and content is a necessary and good thing. I certainly understand why advertisers want "integration." Marketers are concerned about becoming invisible in the online world where the user/reader has so much control and ad-blockers and other advertising avoidance strategies are commonplace. But innovative ways to display advertising messages and undue influence on editorial content are two separate things. One is to be applauded. The other is anathema.
It has already been shown that trusted, branded, editorial voices, when on the Internet, attract higher quality audiences than the so-called portals. The Online Publishers Association, the organization of publishers who invest in producing their own content (as opposed to those who create audiences through tools like email or strategies like aggregation) sponsored research that demonstrates the higher demographics and stronger purchase patterns for the audiences of their sites compared to the generic content on portals.
But these branded media sites have, in many cases, not seen the online audience growth that might be expected given the online traffic available. Instead, new, irreverent, fast-moving, "raw" alternative content sites have captured much of the Internet traffic that might have accrued to the big, old, famous brands. It seems that users feel these alternative voices and sites are based on more-specific, more-useful, even less "slick" content that is more honest and reliable.
My conclusion is that, as Lincoln said, "You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time." Publishers who expect to thrive online need to revisit that "wall" between editorial and advertising and ensure that it is secure.
I recommend that publishers go even a step further: Make your online content more pointed, more controversial, and more unfiltered than ever before. You will be rewarded by audience growth that will drive revenue growth, superseding the lost revenue you might be worried about from grumpy advertisers.