NONE: ONLINE-ADS>> $1,027 - the price of journalistic ethics? (InfoWorld)
ONLINE-ADS>> $1,027 - the price of journalistic ethics? (InfoWorld)
Mark J. Welch, Esq. (markwelch_at_ca-probate.com)
Mon, 29 Dec 1997 17:49:14 -0800
I nearly choked on my sandwich while reading InfoWorld
today during lunch. There, on page 55 of the current
(Dec. 22/29) issue, was praise in the editor-in-chief's
column for Bob Metcalfe, for his October column in
which he plugged CyberGold.
Was this praise for Bob's clear and concise writing?
For accuracy in predictions? For his insightful ability
to convey important new information in an entertaining
No, InfoWorld's editor-in-chief was praising Bob
Metcalfe because he had earned $1,027 in commissions
for referring readers of his October 13 InfoWorld column
to CyberGold. Indeed, CyberGold made a special
exception for Bob (since they normally cap referral
fees at $30).
(Bob's October 13 column is available at
and Sandy Reed's current "From the Editor in Chief" column is at
As a former journalist, and as a former InfoWorld reporter
and reviewer, I was completely shocked by this praise,
and the complete lack of any discussion regarding the
ethics of a columnist being paid referral fees for
recommending a company.
Payment of a referral fee or commission for leads
casts a cloud over a journalist's objectivity, and the
cloud extends beyond the single columnist to the
I don't fault Bob Metcalfe for this: his column made it
clear that he would receive $1 for each signup if readers
entered his email address when they signed up. And
Mr. Metcalfe isn't a staff journalist: he's an industry
figure who writes a column.
Even if one columnist has enough money of his own
that this payment is meaningless (and even if the
payment is directed to charity), it certainly makes
the line fuzzy between what is "editorial" and what
is "advertising" in InfoWorld.
This is a Really Big Issue on the Internet. Companies
are emerging with entire web sites whose content is
simply a thinly-disguised sales pitch for products, with
preferred treatment given to vendors and products
which pay a better percentage. "Editorial" sites are
plugging books, CDs, and other products in exchange
for sales commissions; even venerable publications
like the New York Times are now setting up
arrangements so they can receive a share of the sales
proceeds for books they recommend. Wow.
When I left InfoWorld to create a syndicated column
reviewing computer products for legal newspapers,
I thought I was taking with me a collection of narrow
ethical rules designed to protect my readers from
bias or favoritism. I moved on, and now I'm an
attorney and consultant, but I would be shocked to
learn that InfoWorld abandoned these editorial
Of course, I'm not an unbiased person either: I
maintain a web site that lists commission-based
advertising and link programs like CyberGold's
and I do receive some referral fees and royalties from links
on some of my web pages. And I'm also working as a
paid consultant to a company that will be unveiling an
e-commerce site and a commission-based "affiliate"
program in a few weeks.
Mark J. Welch
BYTE Associate News Editor, 1983-85
InfoWorld reporter, 1985-86
InfoWorld review board member, 1986-87
Syndicated Columnist, 1987-1990
Estate Planning & Probate Attorney, 1989-present
General Rogue and Troublemaker, 1960-present
-- Mark J. Welch, Esq. (510) 462-8483 http://www.ca-probate.com/
-- This message is NOT legal advice, and is NOT confidential.
-- Web Site Banner Ads and Web Counters: http://www.markwelch.com/
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