Counterpoint: Blurring the Line Between News and Business

Today I respond to Francis’ most recent post: an objection to the L.A. Times’ use of e-commerce links in its online edition to generate ad revenue. In this case, I think the ends justify the means: The L.A. Times still performs a good public service, but since it’s not making enough money, the e-commerce links are justifiable. It may even be a win-win-win situation.

Newspapers aren’t dead yet, and even though different news production models are gaining traction, e.g. government subsidized news, non-profit news, citizen journalist news, etc., the transition to newer media should be as slow and considerate as possible. There are too many cases in human history where our technological prowess has surpassed our judgment.

Newspapers aren’t dead yet, but The L.A. Times may be dying. Its parent company, Tribune Co., has recently filed for bankruptcy. The paper needs more money to produce news, so let’s consider if the paper is really “selling out” by putting e-commerce links into “Health, Image, Food, Travel, Books, Entertainment and Sports articles” and 16 of its blogs.

Contrary to popular assumption, the e-commerce links that appear in the online edition of the L.A. Times do not affect the content of its articles or blogs at all. This method of creating ad revenue has been in effect at the Chicago Tribune for six months and works like this: the company charged with placing the e-commerce links is allowed to read the specified articles and link advertisements to them only after the articles have been published. The advertisers have no editorial control whatsoever and the green e-commerce links are visually distinct from their blue, news-worthy brethren (unlike this one). Any influence advertisers have over a newspaper’s content will not be greatly affected by the new e-commerce revenue model because newspapers have long depended on advertising revenue.

Corporate influence over public goods does make me uncomfortable and it’s necessary to be vigilant against any undue influence. I assume the danger in this case is the threat of self-censorship, but what would it actually look like? Would a reviewer at the L.A. Times decide to praise a bad book so that Amazon can link to it and sell more copies of it online? I doubt it. The sections into which e-commerce links are allowed are ones already largely geared toward consumption. If a reviewer reads a good book, making it more readily available to the public is a natural next step.

The L.A. Times’ pilot ad revenue program is good for the newspaper, convenient for readers and good business for companies like Amazon, which are not evil nor hunt humans for sport.

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