A grim notice for the future of Internet profitability was served in March 1998 when the New Century Network, a venture formed by the publishers of the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and several other respected papers to put newspapers on the Internet, folded its tent, citing economic problems. If the biggest newspapers in America couldn't draw sponsorship money, how are smaller companies going to be able to make money?
Some newspapers have developed websites to help augment their paper, placing longer versions of printed stories on the Internet, or developing sections solely for special reporting. The Chicago Tribune has an on-line news staff that covers more local stories and in-depth pieces that may not be practical for the print version of the paper, but finds a home on the limitless space of a website.
But for other papers, websites are a part of the widespread push for Internet profits. According to Fred Mann, General Manager for Philadelphia On-Line, many sites are created more out of a fear of being left behind, because no one knows if there is truly any money to be made on the Internet. In fact, it is possible that the websites could lead to greater losses as they may draw away customers from news in print form. CNN provided substance to these fears when they canceled their subscriptions to print newspapers in February 1998, asking their staffers to read the news on the Internet, saving the company $500,000 a year.
To combat economic difficulties, websites have been seeking advertisers to sponsor areas relevant to their products, hoping to entice ad dollars that can help pay for the site. These advertisements have raised questions about the ethics of on-line journalism in relation to the money-making end of operations.
For almost the entire history of journalism, one of the hard and fast rules of journalistic ethics has been the separation of the business and editorial departments of a newspaper. The biggest fear behind this separation was the possibility that business matters would interfere with fair and unbiased reporting. By not allowing either side to come into contact with the other, an invisible wall was placed between the two that helped to avoid potentially unethical situations to arise.
The 'wall" has begun to erode in the world of on-line journalism. Many on-line papers have sponsors for sections, for example, Barnes & Noble bookstores sponsoring the book review section of the website through commission deals on their on-line sales. This brings about questions that make editors cringe. Doesn't it look like the reviews may be influenced by the financial dealings of the site? Will these deals in a tight advertising market give the sponsors an increased leverage to affect coverage?
Some say no. Hotwired's Brooke Shelby Biggs says that on-line journalism isn't that same animal as its print sibling. 'You can't apply the ethics from the old media to the kinds of information and editorial content you'll find on the Web," she said. Tim McGuire, editor and senior vice president for new media at Minneapolis' Star Tribune sees how the deals could be problematic for papers but gives a simple solution for preventing difficulties: 'What exists in newspapers and what we've got to translate into on-line is that we are independent and not for sale. That means advertising cannot ad will not affect coverage. It also means that you must not fool readers about what is advertising and what is news and information." McGuire advocates simple statements acknowledging the advertising preventing any confusion.
University of Illinois journalism professor Eric Meyer disagrees with this mixing of news and business and blames the 'new ethics" of on-line journalism on the scarcity of money on the 'Net. In a post to an on-line news forum he wrote, 'On-line we call it intelligent marketing... Why? Because it's money, and money is in particularly short supply on-line." His argument is centered on the appearance of news becoming commercials. He continued that news organizations 'have an active financial stake" in the topics they cover. 'Any way you cut it, however many rationalizations you try to make, coverage becomes an unethical shill for a product."
The future of on-line journalism is very much dependent upon there being a present for the medium, and without money that will not happen for long. Sponsorship deals seem to carry the risk of potential kickback in the form of preferential treatment in the press, a weighty coin in which to deal.
The answer to the conundrum surrounding advertising may be in the passing of time. In the magazine industry, advertising is hard to come by for newborn magazines. Advertisers tend to place their bets with the tried-and-true, where they are sure to be seen by an established audience. As the Internet establishes itself as a real medium through which people will receive their news, the advertising initiative may switch, forcing the advertiser to chase the content providers, instead of the current situation that raises the questions of ethics.