5.13.2005

Advertiser Shout-Out Haterade

One of the most fun things about blogging is the haunting fear that somewhere, someone is doing something inappropriate. Every blogger worth his or her sodium chloride has an entire stable filled with high horses, saddled and bridled and ready to mount at a moment's notice. Few issues have drawn as many irate torch-waving posses as blog advertising, especially where blog ads tread too close to the line of death separating them from editorial. And GM's practice of running weekly advertiser/sponsor lists among the blog posts has drawn particular venom. For example, here's Andrew Krucoff, responding to Elizabeth Spiers' response to Adam Cohen:

I refer to Jason Calacanis who once said he just barely tolerates Gawker Media's practice of editorializing advertiser "shout-outs" in blog posts. Do these posts count as part of the famed daily quota of 12? I have no idea but if so you then they are getting paid to blog about advertisers and you lose this argument. In fact, if that's really the case, let's just close up shop entirely because the system would be too corrupt to fix.

We salute Calacanis' commitment to tolerance, and we also commend Krucoff's frequently lonely crusade to defend the rights of bloggers while holding them to eminently reasonable ethical standards. And we do believe in maintaining editorial credibility, which is what we really mean when we talk about editorial independence. Of course, there really is no such thing as editorial independence, since advertising profit or the eventual prospect of same is the only reason most editorial exists. In classic journalism terms, editorial credibility is maintained by separating edit from ads, church from state. Mark Glaser in Online Journalism Review oddly refers to this division as a "Chinese wall," and we assume he doesn't put journalists on the side of the marauding barbarians.

There are two root ideas at work here. First is that advertising should not influence editorial coverage -- virtually a dead concept anywhere but hard news, as any "lifestyle journalist" will tell you. Just because there's a publisher or other manager acting as intermediary between business and edit doesn't mean that Chinese wall isn't extremely permeable. Regardless, as far as we can tell, GM hasn't planted any posts about how awesome BustedTees are. And though there were plentiful Democratic Party and liberal-pol ads on Wonkette during the election cycle, it seems likely that was a case of the advertisers playing to (and paying for) Wonkette's already sympathetic and similarly inclined audience.

The other core idea, and what seems to annoy Calacanis and Krucoff above, is that readers should not mistake advertising for editorial -- i.e. the advertiser "shout-outs" run in with GM blog posts. We have to agree with Spiers here, in the sense that these are clearly labeled as ad content. One could argue that there should be a line running above and below, or the item should run with a color box, or some other cosmetic element to set it off further. But these are just matters of degree. Anyone who mistakes these for blog content is just as likely to mistake the sidebar text ads for a blogroll. Some people will assume an endorsement no matter how many tiny disclaimers are peppered around.

Krucoff's other point above is a little off-topic, but it's worth mulling. Do the heds and intro lines for the shout-outs count as part of the blogger's paid posts? Should the blogger's flesh blacken as if burn'd when exposed to advertising copy? We don't know, but if that does count in their posting total, we say good for them. As far as we can tell, the shout-outs have become so generically similar that each would take about ten seconds to write. That's an easy post knocked off the Friday quota. And none of the shout-outs seem to endorse a particular advertiser; they just express rote appreciation for all the current advertisers. It's not exactly a payola-level mortal sin.

So, do the shout-outs call into question the GM blogs' credibility? Only in the eyes of other bloggers, and then only because the hed and intro lines seem so superfluous and forced. Our suggestion is to just do away with the pretense of the "shout-out" euphemism and the jazzy intro lines. "Thanks to This Week's Sponsors" would be fine. We can't imagine it would make much difference in click-throughs -- and if it did, you'd have a convenient metric measuring exactly how many people were actually fooled by the advertorial head-fake.