The Death of Truth?

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 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.

8 comments about "The Death of Truth?".
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  1. Jan Ozer from Doceo, March 18, 2010 at 3:56 p.m.


  2. Mac McCarthy, March 18, 2010 at 3:57 p.m.

    In my experience as a longtime editor of reviews for respected trade publications, advertisers want one simple thing: For you to sell your credibility. To them. And just this once.

    Because if you make a habit of it, that would reduce the value of your sell-out to the first advertiser. Who would cease advertising because you're no longer credible.

    so the advertiser's near-term interest in buying your credibility conflicts with the advertiser's longer-term interest in your credibility being maintained so that the sell-out actually has value.

    It is the job of editorial department (and the revenue departments) to maintain the independence of the editorial product from that influence *because* such influence undermines the credibility of the product to the audience, and thus lowers the value of the audience and the product, and the price you can charge advertisers.

    That this is a constant battle between making the numbers this month and surviving to make numbers in future months does not relieve all parties of the burden of doing their jobs -- or protecting the longer-term value of the product.

  3. Randy Kirk from Randy Kirk & Associates, March 18, 2010 at 4:03 p.m.

    Truth in MSM. Died a long time ago. Something resembling truth on Fox. Truth in trade publications. Never there to begin with. Spun to keep advertisers happy. Nice to talk about the difference online. Online allows all the children into the sandbox. Probably on balance you get as good or better than traditional venues.

    Only way you can come close to the truth is to check multiple resources and hope your discernment skills narrow the choices between various reporters.

  4. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, March 18, 2010 at 4:27 p.m.

    History and experience: Smaller publications would trade editorial for ads. Larger publications such as the major pub in my market would not. If I were ever asked that they would place an ad after a positive editorial story on their behalf, I always knew there was never going to be a sale and most of the time the askers wound up out of business. That said, the editorial staff did some stupid things on their own. That said, the integrity of the upper crust at the time kept to their guns and did not cross the line and editorial had the opportunity to spill the nasties as they saw fit.

  5. Susan Lloyd, March 18, 2010 at 4:38 p.m.

    Journalism majors, like education majors, have tended to come from the dregs of the academic community (full disclosure: I have an M.A. in journalism), so seeing professional journalists as the keepers of truth would seem to involve some seriously mislaid trust. The establishment media has functioned far more as government's fifth column than as the fourth estate it is supposed to be, so this talk about separation of editorial and ADVERTISING strikes me as a bit like focusing criticism of Hitler on his table manners. In the long run, whether we are talking about traditional gatekeeper media or citizen's media, reputation will win out. There's no shortcut to building it, and no substitute for it, and once obtained it has to be scrupulously and proactively maintained. Two excellent books that discuss the role of reputation are Daniel B. Klein's "Reputation" and David Friedman's "Hidden Order." We content creators are definitely struggling to find a new business model that will pay us for our efforts, but I am more concerned about the quality of writing when there is no editorial oversight. The schools, even at the college level, are doing a terrible job teaching language skills. But going into a much-needed overhaul of our education system is beyond the scope of this discussion....Thank you for your consideration of my comments.

  6. Joe Cappo from DePaul University, March 18, 2010 at 6:25 p.m.

    The majority of news on the Internet comes from newspapers and the Associated Press. What is originated on the Web is largely opinion, and not very good opinion at that. If newspapers continue to die, the digital world will have less news to post.
    "Truth"--whatever that is--has never been the strong suit of bloggers and so-called citizen journalists.
    Good newspaper editors don't flavor their news with advertising input. Good publishers don't let ad directors influence the news product.
    Do the Web people share this ethical concern? Do citizen journalists?
    So, Web World, I'll believe in your truth when you abide by my journalistic ethics. Until then, I'll continue to get my news from newspapers.

  7. Dave O'Mara from Logan Marketing Communications, March 19, 2010 at 10:40 a.m.

    Susan has basically hit the nail on the head. The beauty of the Internet is that is that any person or group can be a journalist and must earn their credibility with consistently accurate and balanced coverage and reporting. As the cream rises to the top, brands will reward the winners with their sponsorship. Those who compromise journalism because of conflicts of interest -- both the news organs and the advertisers -- won't be in the arena long enough to matter.

    It's time for many in our industry to stop fearing the free market of information. For decades, the oligopoly of traditional media gatekeepers had no more integrity than today's run-of-the-mill blogger, but with no true competition, everyone assumed them to be trustworthy sources. Thankfully, that myth has been put to rest, in large part by the Internet itself.

  8. Tim Orr from Barnett Orr Marketing Group, Inc., March 19, 2010 at 6:42 p.m.

    Howard Gossage complained about this 40 years ago. So long as the press is dependent on advertisers rather than subscribers for its income, these kinds of abuses will occur. I find Charlie Pierce's book "Idiot America" instructive on this issue too: He seems to be saying, along with one of my high school math teachers, "Truth is not arrived at by a show of hands." As Joe Cappo pointed out, what we're getting is not news but opinion, "and not very good opinion at that." Just because a lot of people believe something or shout something doesn't make it true. In my view, the Internet gave each and every one of us our own TV station. That doesn't mean that what we choose to broadcast is correct or worthy.

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