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Transcript of Guidelines for Better Practices on the Web, from “Building Trust on the Web,” Consumer Reports WebWatch’s First National Summit on Web Credibility


  • CS: Cyndi Stivers, Time Out New York
  • DK: David Kurns, Meredith Interactive Media
  • SW: Stuart Wilk, Dallas Morning News
  • CN: Carol Nunnelley, Associated Press Managing Editors Credibility Roundtables
  • JC: Janice Castro, Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism
  • DB: Dorian Benkoil, ABCNEWS.com
  • NS: New Speaker
  • BB: Beau Brendler, Consumer Reports WebWatch
  • AF: Anna Fielder, Consumers International

Note: This is an edited transcript of the proceedings. 

CS: I’m Cyndi Stivers. I’m president and editorial director of Time Out New York. I think I got asked to do this because I formerly was the president of American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME), and I’m still on the board of the Magazine Publishers of America (MPA), the parent body, and have been working for the past few years on their guidelines. The online version, we even got the publishers to sign onto, which wasn’t easy. And we’re constantly looking at trying to keep those updated and reviewed. We haven’t really changed it in a couple of years. But that’s why I got asked to do it.

I will now introduce my panelists and hear why they got tapped to be guidelines people. And then I think we’ll do a little show-and-tell from them, and I’d love to get the room involved and find out who here has worked on guidelines themselves? Okay, great.

So they’re going to tell you their obsession and why they’re working on this issue and then I want to hear you guys tell us, too. So, Carol Nunnelley and let’s see, you can —

CN: Tell what I am?

CS: You can, yes.

CN: I am the director of the Associated Press Managing Editors (APME) National Credibility Roundtable’s Project. I think my time is up!

APME got into this project because over at least a decade, maybe longer, there were a lot of studies that showed that the public was increasingly distrustful of certainly the print media, television media. I think those early studies didn’t deal with online. Lots of studies. They tended to sit on a shelf. So our job was to get local newspapers involved in engaging with the public about the issues that were causing distrust, applying that to very local situations in terms of coverage and then taking action that seemed journalistically sound and taking into account public views.

We are just now moving to work with some Web sites and the online world and that’s a somewhat different situation. The Online News Association study shows the public at least is fairly trustful of the Web. But in our project, we try to look behind that and see what builds that trust, what might hurt that trust and put human voices to it.

CS: Okay, Stu.

Stu Wilk

SW: I’m Stu Wilk, I’m managing editor of the Dallas Morning News. I’m a member of at least one minority group here in that I’m a print guy. But I’m also an early adopter, which means I pay more than I really should for everything, and it also means that I embraced the Web maybe a little bit earlier than most print guys and gals did.

My obsession has to do with journalistic standards, and my reason for wanting to be involved in Consumer Reports WebWatch has to do with journalistic standards. My belief being that, whatever journalistic standards apply to the print product — in my case, the newspaper — should also apply to the corresponding Web product.

I think that may be a little bit like Louis Freeh said free speech is — that sounds great, until somebody says something that you don’t like and perhaps that applies here, too. For instance, if your newspaper or magazine or whatever kind of publication does not run unscientific polling, if you only run scientifically sound polling then, in my view, you shouldn’t run unscientific polling reader response polling online. While the newspaper’s spending tens of thousands of dollars on scientifically valid polling and the Web site is saying, ‘If you agree with the war in Iraq, click here,’ and ‘If you don’t, click here,’ I think that kind of thing really erodes the credibility of both media.

If your newspaper, let’s say, subscribes to the notion that images are sacred and shouldn’t be distorted by technology, i.e., Photoshop, then I think that means that you don’t have fun and games online, either, and I’ve brought one example and then I’ll pass the mike. This appeared on my favorite Web site, Dallasnews.com. It’s a picture of Emmitt Smith — and I can pass this around — as an Arizona Cardinal. The only problem with this is that this appeared several weeks before Emmitt became a Cardinal and certainly before he ever looked at or tried on a uniform. This was done by Photoshop, and it was done as a clever way to entice people into the story about will Emmitt become a Cardinal. It created a bigger stir in the newsroom vis-à-vis the Web than anything that’s happened since we had our Web site. This is the kind of thing I think shouldn’t be on the Web if you wouldn’t put it in your newspaper.

Q: Did you get complaints from users?

SW: No.

Q: Only within the —

SW: Only from journalists.

Q: Was it labeled textually as a representation or anything like that?

SW: It says “Emmitt as a Cardinal.”

Q: So it doesn’t really say [unintelligible] representation.

SW: No, and, to me, the only labeling that would have been honest would have been, ‘See what we can do. Now you can’t believe any image that you see in the Dallas Morning News. Now you can’t trust us.’ That would have done it.

Okay, after throwing that grenade, I’ll pass the mike.

CS: All right, to Dave.

DK: My name is Dave Kurns, I’m the editor-in-chief of Meredith Interactive and, yes, I own a flaky computer, so. By that, I guess I may have to [unintelligible], to show my stuff and be done with it.

You may not know Meredith, but you probably know the magazines that we publish, which are Betters Homes & Gardens, Ladies Home Journal, More Magazine, Country Home, Traditional Home and on and on. I’m responsible for the creative staffs, the interactive media Web staffs for Better Homes, Ladies Home Journal, now American Babyand More.com, which is More Magazine’s Web site. So I run the creative staffs for those groups.

My obsession is really advertising and editorial on the Web. In some senses, I think the editorial product is easy to define. We know how to do it, we’ve been doing it from our heritage as a hundred years as a publisher. But it’s sort of the advertising hasn’t found itself yet, so it is Wild West for advertising. Some of the examples I want to show are how do you draw the line, what is the line between advertising and editorial and what are the pitfalls to come.

CS: Great. Dorian?

DB: Hi, I’m Dorian Benkoil, I’m a managing producer at ABCNEWS.com, which is a fairly big title. Previously with the same title, I did a lot of what Stu was talking about. These days, I’ve moved a lot into dealing with business issues, which more or less means a salesperson calls me and says, ‘Dorian, can we…?’ And I generally got to figure out a way to say ‘yes’ without bastardizing the news site or cheapening it or doing some of the things that would ultimately hurt our credibility, and sometimes you really just say no. I have an example of that.

While I agree with Stu in principle that the basic issues of journalism are the same, such as double-sourcing credibility, check your facts, make sure they’re right, attribution, all those things, I think there are some things that the Web presents that are unique to the Web because of technology and the way people use it. And it’s important for us to confront those. I don’t know that we have the time to get into them in depth at the moment —

CS: Oh, but we will later.

DB: — things like technology and privacy and tracking and all kinds of other things.

CS: Okay, Janice.

JC: Hi, I’m Janice Castro, I teach journalism at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern. I think I’m on the panel because I was the managing editor of Time magazine’s interactive operation for several years and then was the launch editorial director for Britannica.com. But also, perhaps, because I was one of the people who started the Online News Association, so I [unintelligible] should be there.

You know, obsession, I have a number of obsessions and they all have to do with credibility and does the reader really know what’s going on. But I want to tell one really quick story, because now I wish Director Freeh would come in on our panel and listen on our time, because this is something I would loved to have asked him about in the other room: Photoshop.

I did a little story about four years ago, maybe five years ago for Timemagazine on the new FBI Fingerprinting Center in West Virginia, which is a pretty impressive center and a huge installation. While I was there, they were very excited about showing us their brand-new, digitizing operation, where they were digitizing all of the fingerprints in their files. First we went through this vast, vast file room where they had literally all of the fingerprints that had ever been taken, 20 million fingerprints and they showed us, here’s John Dillinger and here’s this and here’s that.

Then they took us down into the room where they were digitizing all the fingerprints and the idea is that, at some point, I think they have the technology now, if a cop stops you, they stick your finger in a little device and within a couple of minutes, find out if there’s an outstanding warrant.

Point being, I’m standing down there watching them put all these things into the computers. And I’m looking, they have Photoshop, they have this, they have that. I said, ‘I’ve got all these tools, too. My producers could be doing this, too. And what’s going to happen to the integrity of fingerprints?’ ‘Oh,’ they said, ‘this is better than paper. This is better than the original. After all, those originals are all taken by all kinds of cops with all kinds of levels of training and this is better.’ And I said, ‘Well, what are you going to do with the originals after you get them all digitized?’ They said, ‘We’re probably going to throw them away.’ I said, ‘This is great. This is a defense lawyer’s dream.’

So I’m really glad you brought that picture, Stu. I’ve been worried about what is variously called photo enhancement-enhancement. Isn’t that a great euphemism? And it’s used by journalists. It’s really, really offensive.

I also find that one of the most important things I have to take time to teach any student in my class is that the rules for photos are different than the rules for words. They really don’t understand this. I mean, the rules for words are that, if I quote you, I have to attribute it to you and I have to quote you correctly. But they’re not the same for pictures. They think that they can take pictures and use them. And that the greatest obligation they have is to put the right credit on it. They don’t understand that if you use a picture, you diminish its value as soon as you use it again. And that the photographer is losing money every time somebody does that.

So I think we have a lot of ground to cover in terms of setting and protecting standards. It’s why we started ONA in the first place, because we thought there had to be a voice for quality in digital news and that someone had to establish some standards that were appropriate to digital news.

CS: Okay. How many people knew and had referred to the WebWatch guidelines before coming here? Oh, that’s good. Because obviously, that’s why we’re — the whole point of this is that we are all trying to put forth standards and come to some sort of consensus we can all use across all sorts of industries. I know there’s at least one person in this room who’s not involved in journalism —

NS: Hi.

CS: — but who wants standards for her industry. So, Dave, you want to share your show-and-tell, so you can turn off the rolling thing? Great.

DK: What I wanted to show you was — one of the things I’ve been intrigued by is how advertising is moving around on the page. And, basically, it’s a magnetic pole to where our eyeballs fall. So it started out as banners at the top; it’s moved over to the right. And now it’s starting to intrude on what’s traditionally the editorial well of the page.

Now, here, this is our site, so this is stuff that I’ve approved. This is sort of what our advertising group calls a ‘surround package,’ where you get the glorious banner, you get the skyscraper on the right, plus you get what we call an in-content unit that offers advertisers a chance to basically offer links to tools to their site. So, in this case, Coldwell Banker — you can actually type in a city-state pair and launch over to the Coldwell Banker site in a new window.

It’s been an interesting evolution. But, clearly, things are moving on and where the user’s eyeball, the visitor’s eyeballs go, that’s where the advertisers want to be as well. And they want to be here, they want to be here. And that’s sort of the pressure that we come with every day. I hear your statement: Can we do this? I get those calls five or 10 times a day, when the RFPs start flowing in. So it’s fascinating to me that advertisers know that that space is about $2 CPM, this stuff is $15-30 CPM and this stuff is glory land, where you’re at $30-40 CPM and they know — sellers know this is prime space. And there’s going to be more prime space. We just don’t know where it is yet, so we’re trying to resist some of these. But trying to clearly label these things, you know, what’s ours, what’s theirs. And hopefully there’s no —

CS: Does everybody know what an RFP is? And CPM? Pretty much everybody knows —

DK: The cost that we get for those banners is really cheap.

DB: Does everybody know what CPM is?

DK: Cost per thousand. Okay. So we charge these based on the number of thousand times that these things appear.

CS: And also, this morning’s panel on search engines came up with a really interesting result, which is that the word ‘sponsor’ is not necessarily understood as — I mean, all of us who work in this space got used to the idea that it’s the TV model and — well, ASME and MPA say you have to say the word ‘advertisement’ and then some can say ‘promotion,’ too — you know we don’t like that as well. That’s how our thing has been eroded.

But how many people feel like ‘sponsor’ — use ‘from our sponsor’ and you feel that that’s clear enough? Yeah? Okay.

SW: How about the flip side? How many people don’t feel it’s clear?

CS: Yeah. Well, I was certainly surprised to hear that. I had just assumed that it was understood, but it may not be.

JC: Well, in fact, there is disagreement among editors as to what sponsorship means. Some people think sponsorship means that the editorial cannot be independent if it has sponsorship. Others, myself included, believe that it doesn’t necessarily mean you compromise the editorial independence. It just means you have a single sponsor that wants to be associated with it.

CS: I’ve seen some sites say that, where they actually spell it out and say, ‘This is sponsored by so-and-so, but it had no input on the content.’

DB: Yeah, there’s no influence from the advertiser.

So would Coldwell Banker sponsor a site that had a lead story on how to sell your house without a realtor?

DK: Yeah, they’d basically buy an area of the site.

CS: But you’re saying — [laughter]

DB: But would they want to be identified as a sponsor, as opposed to an advertiser? That is, telling folks how to sell their houses without realtors?

DK: That’s a good question. I don’t know. I’m sure they’d rather have nothing at all.

NS: Do you have rules about the colors being different or the typefaces being different [on screen]? I mean, the colors here are fairly similar.

DK: We have real specific length limits on character counts for each one of these links. You know, the number of links they can have, the character counts of the subheads underneath them. And the max depth that this can be as well.

JC: So what about the color schemes matching the editorial — ?

DK: Well, we actually designed this.

JC: Oh, so you [unintelligible] designing ads?

DK: We clearly wanted some separation between the editorial here and down here, so.

CS: Okay. Ready to go to the next one?

DK: That’s one thing. And here’s another example. This is another Metal Roofing Association sponsoring — this is not just about roofing, it’s actually a broader section than just about roofing. But, again, they want to be where the eyeballs are.

This is an example of a recipe center. We have a recipe center that allows users to search thousands of recipes; about five thousand of them are tested from our test kitchen. There are member recipes as well, but basically you go in there and save your favorites and do all the kind of personalization that you want to. So this is a way for sponsors — advertisers — to imbed recipes in a certain collection, so that they get promoted from certain media spaces, and they can go into the recipe center and sort just their recipes, the advertiser’s recipes. And then they get displayed like this, as a sponsor. But they have all the functionality of the recipe center. Okay, they can save an advertiser’s recipe to your personal recipe file.

So this is a sort of a premium package for advertising, where you talked about blending editorial — we don’t do that, we clearly label it as an advertiser’s content. But they use the functionality that’s part of the site. That’s an interesting mix as well.

Q: Does that say sponsor’s recipes? I can hardly see it. It says sponsor’s recipes in the first, on the left there?

DK: Yes, it does here and over there as well.

Q: You guys test the recipes of the sponsor as well?

DK: No, we don’t.

Q: You don’t do anything with them?

DK: We don’t. Because the tested recipes always get the Better Homes & Gardens Test Kitchen Seal. But this is one of those gray areas where you’re enabling the functionality for people to save advertiser recipes. And the issues we had was, well, what happens when the advertising goes away? Is it still lost in the person’s recipe file? I saved this recipe, what happens to it? So we have ways to sort of notify the user when a recipe that’s been taken out of their recipe file or taken off the site because the ad program basically went away.

CN: Okay, that’s complicated.

DK: It is, very complicated.

JC: It’s taken out of the person’s own recipe file.

DK: They’re notified that this recipe is gone.

CS: It just expires, doesn’t it?

DK: Because I was counting on that recipe from Pillsbury or something, you know. So it’s a dilemma we face.

Here’s another one and some of you may have seen this on other sites as well. I think this one is sort of getting back to my obsession with how advertisers are becoming content creators and syndicators. What I mean by that is advertisers are creating content and then shoving it to people, saying, ‘Put it on your Web site. It’s free of charge. Now, either don’t charge me for it or charge a different price.’

Lowe’s has an agreement with a third-party company to create animations about how-to and home improvement steps. And so we’ve labeled these — and this is actually, it doesn’t appear in all these ways, but now it’s integrated into this — this is our content well here. And these are sponsor recipes — recipes, forgive me — animations, as well. So there’s an index to their animations and it launches a window: ‘By Lowe’s.’ Again, this is served up by Lowe’s, the advertiser.

I think it’s sort of a slippery slope now, as people are supplying content to Web sites saying, ‘Just put our name attached to it.’ So have we just crossed the boundary between what is Better Homes & Gardensversus what is Lowe’s material? And I think we — I don’t think this thing clearly states it as much as it does onsite now, where there’s a sponsor tag on top of it and it’s mentioned as a sponsor information, for everywhere. But I think if you go to some other sites — I don’t want to name our competitors, but if you do go to a couple of others — you’ll see that it’s clearly labeled, like, ‘Oh, come see our great animations.’ And you go to it, and it’s all run by Lowe’s. So it’s interesting how this is changing.

We’ve had offers from other major advertisers saying, ‘I’ve got this great new gardening tool. Put it up on your Web site, free of charge, with our branding.’ I’m, like, ‘No.’


CS: What was your question?

Q: I deal with the same issues every day as well, but I’m wondering where you draw the line in that first [unintelligible] there. You have two sort of columns there, where you have the Lowe’s information as an advertisement and on the right where it is — is that on the same page or is that just sort of — ?

DK: These could be, but I think they don’t actually appear this way now. I think we’re just trying to show the advertiser what potential placement they could have got.

Q: So where would you draw the line there?

DK: Well, I don’t think we would do this and this and this in this example. Clearly, we’re just overkilling people with, you know — clearly, this is a Lowe’s page now. This isn’t a Better Homes & Gardens‘ page.

Q: They would buy one of those three?

DK: They could buy this and this. They could have both of those.

Q: I guess my question is that second, the circle, isn’t identified as advertising.

DK: I think this one is now on the site, [unintelligible], sorry for the [unintelligible], but…

CN: Do you ever get user feedback on that? Do they say —

DK: No. We don’t get complaints about that at all. And one of the things we do, in this case, which was, we have about 100 animations of our own on this site. So we lined up theirs and said, ‘Wait a minute. Are they duplicative, or are they not? Do they add value in a certain way?’ And there wasn’t much crossover. And that played into the mix as well.

CN: At the survey that the DallasNews.com did, one of the questions they asked their body of users was, ‘Do you think you can reliably tell the difference between editorial and advertising?’ And it was close to 100 percent said, ‘Oh, yeah, we think we can.’ I think from the Consumer Reports WebWatch —

CS: Do you guys think they can?

CN: I doubt that they can. Maybe on your great Web site —

SW: Well, no, I don’t know if they can or not. But from an editorial standpoint, I would be concerned if I were a reporter in the business of telling folks stuff about their homes, and I would have a problem with an advertiser doing the content about roofing as opposed to our independent reporting staff doing the content about roofing. While the user may be able to distinguish between the advertising and the editorial content, I would be concerned about a statement that, hey, whether it comes from an advertiser or from our independent staff, it’s all valuable and here it is and — in other words, not really making a value judgment distinction between those two.

NS: Well, I don’t think you can say absolutely. I mean, advertisers create some good information as well. You can’t say it’s not valuable. It’s different, it’s biased and it’s not objective. But I think to say that in any medium, be it a publication or a newspaper or a television, that advertisers can create meaningful content that’s relevant to people. I just think it’s skewed and comes from their perspective.

CS: So you label it.

NS: Yeah, you have to. There’s some retailers that create really killer Web sites out there, because there’s good information on some of those Web sites. It just means that you go to Home Depot and you go on their Web site and look at great information on step-by-step on how to fix a faucet. It can still be valid. But you have to realize that you’re in an environment where you’re one click away from buying a faucet.

NS: And some of the food sites are really good.

CS: We’ve got two questions out here. You, then you.

Q: What’s the percentage of advertising versus editorial on your Web sites and advertising versus editorial in the magazine?

DK: I think that’s a great question.

Q: And are there some people who only want to advertise on the Web site?

DK: I really wish. That’s one of my obsessions — I wish we could get to an ad-edit ratio. I think that would be a great challenge to our industry to figure out what is what and use that as some benchmark to judge. On the print side, it’s always been 50/50. We don’t have a way to communicate that on the Web site. We basically talk in terms of size of units, number of impressions, but we don’t talk about the percentage of the real estate that’s captured by marketing versus editorial.

DB: But size of units is a valuable tool, because if you say, you know, I’m not sure how conversant everybody here is in the Web, so I’ll assume at least a base level knowledge. If you say to an advertiser that that top banner there can only be 20K, which is a weight and it affects how fast the page loads, that is in effect a limitation. You know, if the entire page editorially can weigh 150K, 40K of which is ads, that is an effective ratio. It’s — I agree, we don’t know. I mean, we just don’t know, because essentially the medium — storage space is so cheap as to almost be free, and it’s practically infinite. So once you click, you can click again and again and again and again and again, and you don’t know what the ratio is, but you do have an effective balance.

DK: And I do think — the problem is that we’re in a moving target. I mean, you can’t use page weight as an absolute measure, because you’ve got DHTML ads and all these flyovers. Do you count them, do you not? And you can’t use screen resolution or total pixel count for the same reason. But I think it’d be meaningful to try and do some of those assessments to figure out what that was.

And I forgot your third question, which was — ?

CS: Are there people that only want to advertise on the Web site?

DK: Yes, there are. Are you questioning advertising on the Internet? The audience is great. They’re one click away from buying product, it’s great branding opportunity. It’s the same advertising story to a different audience.

Q: So is advertising revenue going down in the magazine?

DK: No. Both are going up.

DB: Actually, in some cases, there’s a better story. See, that’s one of those words that I, as an editorial guy, am uncomfortable saying; I apologize for that. But that’s — advertising people talk about, what story can we tell our clients? And for — in a business sense, there sometimes is a better story on the Web.


But that gets into some of these standards issues, because I can tell some things on the Web that I can’t tell in a publication or on TV. I can tell what avenue somebody entered my Web site, where they went as they navigated the Web site. In fact, some sites, including The New York Times, are using that information to show a certain type of ad.

So, for example, if you click on the business — if you’re some — first of all, I’m by no means denigrating or saying The New York Times is doing anything wrong here. That’s an open question and part of this discussion. But it’s something that’s unique to the Web.

To access The New York Times site, you have to register. The registration includes your zip code, which gives valuable demographic information: your gender, your age, your household income, and a couple of other things I don’t remember. That kind of information — they know who you are and base information about you as soon as you enter the site. And they can serve you certain types of ads based on that.

And then, if you enter — they can even go further where, if you enter the site through the Business section and then navigate to the Science and Technology section, they can serve you a certain kind of ad, and an advertiser can stay with you as you navigate. If you go through the Health section and are looking at articles about drugs and medicine, perhaps a pharmaceutical company would advertise to you and stay with you as you navigate throughout the site.

So that’s one reason that certain kinds of advertisers do want to be on the Web, but it raises this question of, at what point do you become inappropriate? I mean, if you say — and there isn’t a whole lot of true academic surveying that’s been done, but the little bit that has been done is that it seems that users and people on the Web are kind of split about it.

Because if you say to somebody, ‘Hey, we’re going to throw ads at you when you go to the Web. Do you want to get only ads for stuff that you’re interested in instead of garbage that you’re not?’ People will kind of go, ‘Yeah.’ But on the other hand, ‘Do you want us to know what you’re interested in and be able to serve ads of stuff that only you’re interested, because we know you’ll actually buy it?’ ‘No, I’d kind of be into protecting my privacy.’

CS: Okay, you know what? Is your question still good? And I think we should go, finish you, then do you, then we’ll do more general. I’m glad this is a lively audience. That’s great.

Q: My question is directed towards Stu in terms of — in the newspaper, you were saying the difference in terms of content from other sources or advertising-related content. But the newspaper does not differentiate content that is created by staff versus from AP (Associated Press), versus from Knight-Ridder. And to the consumer, that’s not a [unintelligible] label.

Yet when it comes to the Web, if it comes from another source, as long as that source is deemed to be a credible source, why does the newsroom — why are they up in arms? Because [unintelligible] with the high cost of newsprint and shrinking news staffs, on the Web site, there’s much more competition for content. People sometimes need additional content to supplement what might not be available — it might be available because of the news hole issues.

Why is it now a different, or higher, set of standards than actually what’s in print? Because, although the byline might say AP, it might say Gannett News Service or Knight-Ridder Digital, which comes from a credible journalistic source, to a reader, it is not clearly identified that it was not created by a staff person. As somebody who runs a newspaper Web site, I’ve found visitors are as upset about that as they would it coming from somewhere else, because they think that local person wrote the news, yet it came from another source.

SW: Yeah, my thing is not that the Web needs a higher standard. It should be the same standard, regardless of the platform that you’re on. Stories by a staff writer should be labeled as stories by a staff writer. Stories by AP or the New York Times Service should be labeled that way. I think the newspaper sites I’m familiar with label each story by who the author is.


The point I was making earlier is if the content source is Lowe’s, and you’re in the business of providing independent information to readers, it seems to me that you’re opening your Web site up to massive confusion. If you’re saying to your reader that, ‘Hey, you can go to Lowes.com and get the same stuff or the same valuable information that you can get from our independent staff,’ that’s not something I would be real eager to say to readers. Number one, because I don’t believe it. And, number two, because it seems to me our franchise is that independent reporting.

CN: But I think — this is perhaps not really applicable to the Web discussion very much — but I have been amazed to find that, in discussions with readers, there is real concern about whether you, my local editor, are responsible for it or did it come from some faraway place that you didn’t personally vet? So it’s just been a little revelation. I never thought that was an issue.
[many speakers at once]

NS: And many people never knew what AP and Reuters were, really. The average reader, they didn’t understand it.

NS: You’re saying they do care if it’s AP or Reuters?

CN: They do. They do in many cases.

CS: Okay, brief follow-up, and then let’s get back to, so Dave can turn off his computer.

JC: Yeah, just a brief follow-up to what Stu was saying. I think maybe that we should be clearer about what we are all concerned about and why we’re here and why we’re doing this panel. You know, when TV news or TV as a medium was the age that the online medium is now, they still had their news anchors holding up Camel cigarettes and completely mixing ads in with the newscast.

We still see that happening. We still see CBS newsmen doing ads on CBS radio, and it’s still a problem in broadcast. What we’re trying to do is we’re trying to get back to the idea of the contract with the reader. The reader should know what’s going on. If the reader knows it’s an ad, that’s okay. If the reader doesn’t know it’s an ad, that’s not okay. And that’s what the Consumer Reports WebWatch standards are about, too. Disclosure and transparency.

So we can talk about — I mean, we’re still defining the real estate on the Web. We have arguments at all the Web sites about which part is okay to put marketing information on. Especially if you work at a news organization that isn’t used to doing news on the Web — that’s another story.

But I think what we’re trying to define, really, is our contract with the readers. We’re trying to live up to that contract with the readers that we’ve always had in the other medium.

CS: Okay, Dave, hit it.

DK: Just one last thing. Which is, this is a Flash application which I think will spawn a whole new generation of this entanglement between advertising and — but, in essence, if you launch this thing, you can actually grab food items onto your plate and assess the nutritional value of that lunch. It’s a fun little tool.

But the other idea that we had was to allow advertisers to append something here that would be clearly labeled, but why can’t they drag a can of orange juice or something into this palette? Again, it would have to meet the standards of this tool to say, ‘Okay, this is the nutritional value of that object.’ But that’s one of the ideas that we toyed with is saying: let advertisers partake or at least join the functionality that’s available here. Still clearly label it, but, again, that boundary gets tought pretty quickly. So it hasn’t worked, we haven’t done it yet, but it’s one of the ideas that we talked about internally.

Q: Isn’t that the same idea doing like the special sections — the back-to-school, the wedding section, where you basically have your editorial content and then you have [unintelligible]?

DK: You originate the content yourselves, to your standards —

Q: Well, it’s like the special sections, yeah.

DK: And it’s targeted areas where advertisers want to be adjacent or communicate with that audience.

CS: Okay. Dorian, we better let you get to — and then it’ll be a free-for-all. By the way, let’s just take a poll. Is there anything that you’ve seen up here — how many people would approve everything that you saw up here? If you were in Dave’s position and you had to say, ‘I think all these ads, these forms of advertising are fine’?

NS: Half and half.

CS: Okay, well, that’s exactly — how about half and half? Okay. And does anyone think none of them [are fine] — they’re totally outrageous? No? Okay, good.

DB: I stood up because I have to deal with the computer and I’m comfortable, so if nobody minds, I’ll keep standing for a moment.

I find that in whatever medium — and I’ve worked in other media before I worked on the Web, and still do to some extent — there’s kind of a basic contradiction between purveyor of information or news and advertising. I confront this in crossing between these two worlds, where the world view is almost diametrically opposed. The job of the journalist is to provide fair, some people say objective, coverage of a specific matter. An advertiser’s job is to provide information that gets you to buy his product. That doesn’t mean that both can’t be valuable, but they’re valuable in different ways and they’re sort of in conflict. And that alone could be a huge philosophical discussion.

But to get some specific issues on the Web, one of the holy grails of advertising is context, which is exactly what you were talking about with your stuff, and it’s one of the reasons that the HGTV — Home & Garden Network on television — is so successful and your publication can be successful. Because people know that — they know exactly what kind of person is going to go to a home and gardens magazine or television channel or whatever.

With the Web, the Web — again, because of its technology — allows for context that’s now becoming automated. And it presents certain problems and issues. Some of you are no doubt familiar with some of the discussion about the Google advertising campaigns. And there’s something else called Overture, which is sort of commercial search service, it’s an overlay to other things.

CS: They were both on the search panel earlier.

DB: I apologize for not having been here. An ad, this is an example of something we actually rejected. And lost some dollars because we rejected it. We signed a contract, accepted the campaign, and then discovered that the parsing technology actually could prove to be confusing and actually do a disservice and confuse the separate between editorial and advertising. Here’s an article by our science writer, Amanda Onion, about aquifying Iraq post-war. I’m sure that a lot of you in the back can’t see it: Post-War Iraq Faces Big Water Problems in Near and Far Future. It’s, you know, our typical journalistic process, went through levels of editing, etc.

Automatically, we ended up excluding Google from this campaign — this never actually appeared live on ABCNEWS.com this way. When we did our internal service, we discovered that one set of ads through this campaign, which was via the Google technology, threw up ads about purifying water and how to purify your water tank. All the things you see an automatic service would say and the computer picks the ads — water and purifying — that do that.

Another set of ads was: News on War on Iraq, Latest Coverage of the War in Iraq, Reuters Iraq Updates, Breaking News as it Happens, Custom Maps about Iraq, Baghdad Map. Now, honestly speaking, I don’t even know where these link to. In some cases, I’ve clicked on these. In this case, I don’t remember that I did.

But the issue was that, even though it says ‘sponsored links’ on the ad, a lot of people — you know, it looks a fair amount like our site — and a lot of people probably would not see any separation there and would say, ‘Oh, news on — you know, I clicked on this thing and it says News on the War on Iraq, and I’d all of a sudden be off the ABCNEWS site, reading somebody’s idea of news on Iraq. But I wouldn’t know.’ And it just — we were not comfortable with that and so that created an issue. So we rejected the ads on parts of the site where this kind of issue came up. Yes?

Q: Did you instead use less relevant content there?

DB: You mean ads?

Q: Yeah, the ads there. [unintelligible] less relevant?

DB: Yeah, we still had ads on this page.

Q: Were they as relevant as the ones, maybe that were there?

DB: Relevant in the advertising sense?

Q: Relevant to the person who might be going on there looking for information about such a subject.

DB: I know we excluded this campaign. I didn’t pay hugely close attention, but I know that the other ads — all we did was something that our technology allows, which is pull these ads from — you know, this campaign from this article and everything else was allowed to cycle through, so —

Q: [unintelligible] like Brita [unintelligible].

DB: Yeah, the other campaigns that were running on our site — Florida Orange Juice or Lowe’s Home Improvement or whatever were allowed to, you know.

Q: No, I guess — and maybe I misunderstood you — but are you saying that you perhaps had a map of Baghdad and that was an ad?

DB: These —

CS: Yeah, these things here are all sponsored links. It’s really hard to read it, but it’s gray type.

DB: This says ‘sponsored link.’ This is advertising here. That’s what I’m saying. And this is our article. This is our content, as advertising people say. So this is ads —

Q: I can’t see, does it say ‘Map of Baghdad’ somewhere?

DB: This says, ‘Custom Maps,’ ‘Mapping Services,’ ‘30,000 Map Finals,’ ‘Any Media,’ ‘Baghdad GIS Map,’ ‘The Real Story on the War,’ ‘Reuters Iraq Updates.’

Q: Is there different color shading behind that?

DB: Slight. It’s slightly — we actually went back to this advertiser and asked them to redo the visual treatment as well. But, even so, this doesn’t do it for —

Q: It seems like you’ve got the Holy Grail there, really. With targeted advertising all around a targeted piece of content labeled as sponsored links. That seems like —

DB: That’s what an advertiser would love.

Q: Well, yeah.

DB: Right, but as a —

Q: But it seems like, as a content provider who’s trying to make money as well, you’re getting sponsored content. I’m sorry if I’m speaking out of turn, but it seems to me to be sponsored content that’s labeled as sponsored around a piece of content that is also pure editorial.

JC: But, Dorian, isn’t the problem also that you can’t readily tell that that is not editorial content? It looks like editorial content and, to me, that’s the reason to pull it.

SW: This is most like newspapers and magazines where there are adjacent ads and look at the same typeface and there’s a small little thing at the top that says, ‘This is advertising,’ but they’ve made like part of the product.

NS: This is the New Yorker’s special advertising section. I can go for page after page here —

Q: I guess my question is —

NS: — it’s exactly the same.

CS: Okay, hang on.

Q: What I was leading to is, are you then diminishing the user experience because, instead of having that map of Baghdad, you have a story about Connecticut, or something that’s just less relevant, that’s less interesting to the person? And it makes your site less — it makes me, I’m talking as a consumer, not —

DB: I understand. It’s a valid question. And as there’s been a dot.com shakeout, something that we thought from the beginning has proven to be true, which is that there’s been a so-called retreat to quality. Meaning that —


CS: There’s a great phrase. ‘Retreat to quality.’ Let’s write that down.

DB: Meaning — can I finish to answer his point first? Meaning that — or a glomming onto quality — meaning that the name — a certain number of people, not everybody, but a certain number of people go to ABCNEWS.com because, in their minds, ABCNEWS stands for a certain kind of credibility and a certain kind of journalistic integrity. And if they are not able to trust what they see on ABCNEWS, then, over time, it reduces our credibility.


Now, perhaps, what you’re saying — I understand what you’re saying. And, certainly somebody thinks — I mean, another part of the — unfortunately, we don’t have an Internet connection, so I can’t show you — we had rich and full maps of Baghdad and whatnot that you could navigate and if somebody thought that that wasn’t enough, I can easily see why somebody might want more. And most people who know a little bit about navigating the Web can find those.

That wasn’t the issue for us. The issue for us was not that we were scared of driving traffic off the site. The issue was: could we create confusion, could we somehow lead a user to think that this map of Baghdad that they were going to click on and see had come under the editorial vetting process of ABCNEWS? And, therefore, if there’s an error or a mistake or whatever, we can’t vouch for that. There are all kinds of legal questions that haven’t been resolved yet on the Web, but this is even pre-legal, this is sort of ethical journalistic —

CS: Yeah, this is why we’re obsessing with guidelines, because the execution is completely up in the air and we’re all — you know, it’s unfortunately always, ‘I know it when I see it.’ And every single news organization or any other kind of site is going to resolve that their own way.

How much more do you have to show? Should we continue with your questions now or do you want to keep going?

DB: I don’t mind.

Q: Can I just ask one question?

CS: Well, yeah, there’s a bunch of you behind, too. Okay, go ahead.

Q: Well, who’s the gatekeeper on the advertising? Is it the editor-in-chief, then? Is that you, the person who’s —

DB: I report to the editor-in-chief.

Q: Okay, but I mean, they’re making the editorial decisions — content decisions — as well as the decision on what ads will be appearing?

DB: No, the editor-in-chief and the VP of ad sales both report to the executive vice president.

Q: So the advertising is also being previewed and declined, from somebody who has an advertising background?

DB: Right, but somebody with the advertising background might look at that ad that I just showed you and say, ‘Ah, it looks okay to me, doesn’t bother — you know, it’s in our standard, it’s in our weight, there’s just words and text.’

NS: It’s labeled.

DB: But when we see it on the editorial side, in the context of the site, we say, ‘Uh…’

CN: Good advertising is [unintelligible] to maintain that credibility that you spoke about.

CS: Which, by the way, is why we’re not doing the definition of what this session is, because everybody knows the answers already.

JC: Can I give another example of where that kind of a problem came up and maybe it’ll be a little bit easier to understand? Because sometimes maybe water and maps — maybe that doesn’t call up any concern.

When I was the editor of the Time magazine site and it had a certain very well-defined sort of color code and design look, look and feel, I looked at my site one night and suddenly there was an ad there, in our colors, that looked exactly like it was a special report from my team, that was attacking Bill Clinton.

Now, I probably don’t have to tell you which political party was sponsoring this. But it was an advertisement, sponsored by the Republican Party, that had purposely been made to look exactly like Time.com content. And it was attacking the Democratic president. This was 1996.

I got it down in two seconds, as soon as I raised the flag. Four years later, I’m the editor of Britannica.com, which is not a news organization. It’s the encyclopedia company that has, you know, been living in the hills in a protected environment all these years. And the same thing happened.

I looked up one morning, during the 2000 presidential campaign, and there was a big package on my page that looked exactly like Britannica content, and it was the Republican Party attacking Bill Clinton again. It was in Britannica look and feel. And do you know, it took me two days to get it down? I had to fight with the CEO and the private owner of Britannica — they didn’t understand what the problem was. What they did understand is that they got a hell of a lot of money for running it. And the advertiser was delighted. Well, of course the advertiser was delighted, because they got to fly under the flag of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which since 1768 has been earning a reputation for trustworthiness. And they don’t understand what the problem is.

DK: You bring up an essential point about who you report to often determines whether or not something like that stays up there or comes down.

JC: Right.

DK: And, thankfully, I report to a CEO, who — our audience matters to him. When I bring up these issues, and the head of sales and I are in the same room, head to head, it comes down to integrity and your audience. But if it was a different CEO, I might not win that argument. And that’s such a very important point, that whoever you work for, where they place audience and advertisers can really determine the integrity of your content.

DB: I find myself —

CS: [unintelligible]

DB: Can I call on you in just a sec?

Q: Sure.

DB: I am amazed how many times I have to explain to advertisers and to our own sales people and others again and again and again why it matters. Because, in a way, in the short-term, it kind of doesn’t. And I know John Maynard Keynes said, ‘In the long run, we’re all dead.’ But on the Internet, in today’s world, three months is the long run, and if you destroy your credibility once, it takes a hundred times longer to regain it.

I just put this up for a couple of reasons. If you go to our site today, you’ll see that we have, since I grabbed these frames last week, redesigned them, and I didn’t have time to grab new frames. But it’s kind of interesting that this is so much like your site with a similar treatment. And it gets to the Web and what are standards and technology and how the technology’s changing, and can you assume that people understand ads. We’ve had conversations about would anybody coming here necessarily know that these are ads? We think so, but it’s still an honest discussion.

This was the family adventure series which was created, as we’ve alluded to, basically as a way to do aggregated content that we’re fine with, and we vouch for it totally, but packaged in a way that can be sold. And I don’t have — I think it’s a mystery that many, many, many, many publications — does anybody think The New York Times would have a Circuits section, if not for the fact that they hope to sell advertising to technology sellers?

CS: Or the Escape section. That’s my personal favorite.

DB: Or the Escape section or the Personal — what’s it called, Personal Funding? The new thing in The Wall Street Journal?

SW: Personal Journal.

DB: Personal Journal. For the same reason. And movie sections in newspapers, for that matter.

NS: Or the real estate sections or the lottery sections.

DB: Yeah, and I defy you to find — to your question about house and home and how to buy a home without a broker — I defy you to find a How to Buy A Home Without a Broker article in the real estate section of most mainstream newspapers.

But this is very similar to your guy’s approach. In fact, I wonder if our Web designers went to the same school of design. We have the ad here, the ad here. Says ‘Sponsored by Alamo’ here to go on all these articles, these ads also appear. And then there’s this thing here, which we think is obviously an ad, but we were uncomfortable with it that it was in a non-traditional space that we stuck the word ‘advertisement’ here. Little things like this, you know, it’s another thing that we have arguments about. How many pixels? How obvious? How much? And it’s a constant balancing act. Because, on the one hand, if you make it, say, ‘ADVERTISEMENT,’ you’re in a way saying, ‘Don’t look at this,’ and then the advertiser gets pissed off and there goes the money.

On the other hand, if you hide it too much, then you’re doing your users a disservice. And it’s a constant balancing act that people at the management, higher management level have to deal with and then impart to the graphics or editorial team.

I promised to call on you.

Q: I wanted to raise the stakes here a little bit, because we’ve tripped by a concept that I want to drag us back to [unintelligible] and talk a little bit about registration. But, in fact, I can identify the user without registration. The user’s first time to ABC.com or whatever one you pick —

DB: ABCNEWS, just ABCNEWS.com, just for the sake of clarity.

Q: I’m sorry. Anyway, XYZ.com, the first time you were there may be identifiable either by what are called Web bugs. That is, cookies that are stored by third-party advertising organizations or marketing firms. Or by things like [unintelligible] MediaPlayer registration I.D., which is unique per system. So I can grab that content, feed it back to the site, go to a third party, find out who that individual is. But the guidelines that people are talking about here address that kind of use of information [unintelligible] content.

JC: Enterprise [unintelligible], and that’s very much part of what Consumer Reports WebWatch is all about. One of the five basic quality and credibility standards is the clear disclosure of what the privacy policy is and giving the consumer the opportunity to opt in or opt out.

Q: My own presumption is when you get the privacy policy, it will be well-informed and it will say, ‘Yes, we use Web bugs that identified who you are as soon as you showed up on our site. Thank you, Jean, for joining us.’

JC: Well, Yahoo! tells me that these days, because they’ve given up all pretense of protecting my privacy. But most editorial sites still promise not to do that. They will tell you that they aggregate information for marketing purposes, but that they do not allow anyone to get at your personally identifiable information.

DB: That’s, yeah, where we draw the line as well, and it’s — for sort of topline Web sites — I think the de facto standard. We’re not quite at the hard-core level that Louis Freeh was asking for, but we do have sort of a de facto industry standard of, if you accept cookies — which you don’t have to do — you can turn it off. Although probably 90 percent of the people don’t know —

JC: [unintelligible] if you do. Makes it impossible.

DB: Well, you can [unintelligible], there are ways to do it that it doesn’t, but that’s fairly a technical thing and probably only 3 percent of people know how to do it. So if when we say that we are cookie’ing you in our privacy specifications and we aggregate it, but we don’t give it individually, we will give it out in an aggregate sense. But, again, maybe that is also a legitimate issue and one that people may not be comfortable with.

CS: Do you have anything else to show?

DB: No, it’s fine, I had another slide, but —

CS: Well, go ahead and show it if you want and then we’ll get to the — because I just want everybody to be able to ask everybody what they want. You sure?

DB: Yes.

CS: All right, here you go.

Q: Janice, you said that if the reader knows that it’s an ad, then it’s okay. But I wonder if you can talk about pop-ups and additional ads and these very intrusive forms of advertising? Do you think that has an impact on the credibility of a news site, more than just simply annoying the reader? Does it affect their perception of the editorial quality and independence?

JC: I think it does, and I probably said that too broadly. I should clarify that. What I was talking about was the contract with the reader to disclose what is going on and who produced the content that they’re looking at. As far as pop-ups and all that kind of thing goes — or pop-unders, which are more of an annoyance than an interruption — I think that they’ve gotten so intrusive as to be — I don’t know if it’s an ethical problem, but I do think that it has exactly the opposite effect of what the advertiser’s probably trying to get, which is a negative impression of that advertiser.