Monday, January 29, 2007

eWeek crosses an ethical line

Well that didn’t take very long.
Just a few weeks ago, I predicted in Folio magazine that “at least one major publisher will do something unethical this year and then try to hide behind a claim that ‘things are different online.’
Now along comes Ziff Davis, acting ridiculous, and making me look like a prophet.

Ziff Davis’ property eWeek has begun running those same IntelliTXT ads that have led to scandal elsewhere. Regular readers of this blog know that VNU committed the same sin late last year, but pulled the ads after I complained. And anyone who follows the ongoing battle over ethics in journalism knows that the staff of Forbes magazine had to fight off IntelliTXT ads back a few years ago.

Look – there is no room for argument on this issue. We have been through this time and time again. If you want to hear how repulsive I find it when a publishing company so flagrantly violates the ethical standards of our industry, you can read my earlier post about VNU. If you want to see what the ethical guidelines of ASBPE actually say about this issue, you can also find that information in my earlier post.

In the meantime, I’m going to let Matt McAlister speak for me. I first heard about the eWeek problem through a post on his blog. And he summed up my feelings perfectly when he said "media sites scrapping to maintain profits on the page view model are bottom feeding for clicks with clutter and misleading links. Instead, they should spend their resources courting relationships with readers."

Look. Everyone knows that Ziff Davis is in trouble. After nearly going bankrupt a few years ago, the company has been searching for a buyer for a year. Bidding ended a few days ago, and no sale has been announced yet. But regardless of how things turn out, it’s unlikely that Ziff Davis’ owners, private equity firm Willis Stein & Partners, will get back anything close to the $780 million they paid for the company in 1999.

Ziff Davis has had a dismal performance of late in print. But online revenue has risen. And that has given investment bank Lehman Brothers, which is advising Ziff Davis on a sale, something to push. And when you have a private equity company and an investment bank both intent on boosting online revenue in the short term to help drive the sale of the company, you’re going to wind up with some embarrassing behavior.

So let’s be reasonable – selling IntelliTXT ads isn’t going to do anything to help turn the company around. There just isn’t that much cash involved in these things. Selling IntelliTXT ads won’t even provide enough of a short-term lift to help boost the price of the company. This is an absurd and offensive practice that won’t help a troubled company.
And let’s be frank – Ziff Davis isn’t in trouble because it didn’t have IntelliTXT ads until recently. Ziff Davis is in trouble because it’s run by people who think it makes good business sense to trade their reputation, their ethics and the morale of their staff for a few pennies.

Note: I sent an email to Eric Lundquist, VP/editorial director at eWeek, several days ago. He has not responded to my request for a comment.

tags: , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. There are a lot of gray areas in journalism these days, but a few things remain so clearly wrong that pointing them out feels a little self-rightous. Intellitext is one of them.
    I fully appreciate the business pressure to uncover revenue in a rapidly changing media market, but this is one method that should be easy to resist if you have any interest in the future of your news media products. Thank you, Paul, for not letting it slip by unmentioned.

  2. Hi Jim,
    Thanks for the comment.
    Perhaps the thing that bothers me the most about a professional publisher using Intellitext is that it is "so clearly wrong."
    Some ethical slips are understandable. You can understand what folks are thinking, even if you disagree.
    But Intellitext is just so obviously a bad idea that I'm amazed any professional would even consider it.

  3. I couldn't agree more, Paul. I think looking for alternative revenue sources is fine, and I understand the business side sometimes pushes things on the editorial side -- but those Intellitext things are like putting an ad right in the middle of your editorial, and disguising it as editorial. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

  4. Hi Mathew,
    Thanks for your comment.
    I'm perplexed that any professional publisher would think Intellitext was a good idea.
    Putting an ad in the editorial is, as you said, "Wrong, wrong, wrong."
    So I have to ask the folks at eWeek -- why, why, why?

  5. It even bites the ad team on the ass apparently. A discussion with someone who works at a publisher that tried this indicates that even those behind the idea will come to regret it. The introduction there of Intellitext was as brief as it was unexpected. Editorial complained but the powers-that-be said: "That's the way it is."

    That was until one company decided to buy up ads on the name of its prime competitor. There was unpleasantness. Prime competitor was also a big advertiser. The publisher couldn't shrug it off as one of those things, as it had introduced the idea of buying any keyword. Intellitext disappeared as quickly as it arrived.

  6. Hi Chris,
    Thanks for the comment.
    IntelliTXT is bad in every way that a feature can be bad. So what in the world is eWeek thinking?

  7. It looks like CMP is doing something similar with Light Reading. You can buy links for your company name in the editorial on a ppc basis. Not much better...

  8. Hi Sean,
    Thanks for the info. I haven't looked at Light Reading in awhile. I'll check it out.

  9. so glad you keep commenting on this, Paul. these kinds of ads continue to undermine practices like presenting links to share information. it really feels like folks will stick an ad where-ever they feel they can to scrape the smallest buck. it's truly insane.

  10. Hi Tish,
    Thanks. As long as B2B publishers are doing inappropriate things like this, I'll keep complaining.