Monday, April 14, 2008

Breaking my heart: more unethical links in edit

The B2B publisher that has perhaps the best reputation in the industry for ethical behavior is behaving unethically.
And I'm sick about it.
CIO magazine, which is owned by CXO Media, a unit of IDG, is adding links to editorial copy without the approval of editors.

Longtime readers of this blog will understand why that has broken my heart. But if you're new to my work, allow me to explain.
I've been fighting against in-text ads such as those sold by Vibrant Media for a very long time now. And the reason I do so is because such links are -- clearly -- a violation of the ethical guidelines of B2B journalism. (If there was ever any doubt that such links were unethical, such doubt was removed when ASBPE updated its ethics policy nearly a year ago." ABM has also made its position clear on the issue.)

The reason such links are unethical should be obvious to anyone who works in this industry. These links violate the basic premise of professional journalism -- news is kept as separate from commercial interests as is possible. If someone other than editors controls any part of editorial, then all of editorial is tainted.
Let me say that again:
If someone other than editors controls any part of editorial, then all of editorial is tainted.

To make matters worse, these new links are from a site I love (LinkedIn), are based on a concept I love (opening an API to developers) and appear on a magazine site I love (CIO) that is owned by a company where editors have won the Timothy White Award for editorial integrity for two years in a row!
And to add insult to injury -- IDG is a client of mine. Hell, just a few months ago I spoke at an all-day conference of CIO/CXO editors and warned them, as I warn all B2B editors, to fight against the unethical use of links in copy.
But to tell you the truth, I never thought that particular group of editors would have to fight this fight. I just never expected this behavior from IDG.

No need for this
The links are appearing in stories across the CIO site. Take a look here. What you'll find is that throughout the story company names have been turned into links with a little symbol next to them. Click on those and you'll get a pop-up that tells you how you're connected to people at the company.
Now in truth, that's a pretty fun piece of functionality. And in truth, such links may be of value to readers.
But by automating the links rather than giving control to editors, CIO has violated industry ethics.
And what is most annoying about that is that there's a far more appropriate way to do this.
For example, take a look at this article in Businessweek about Starbucks.
In the center column you'll see a series of "Story Tools," including one that says linkedin connections. And if you're a LinkedIn member, you'll find that when you click on that tool you'll get a pop-up that tells you how you're connected to people at Starbucks.
That's the exact same functionality as what's used at CIO. But the folks at Businessweek recognized that those links should not be appearing inside the news story. (Note: It appears that Businessweek may have once considered a plan to place the links inside stories.)

Disrespecting your peers

According to what I hear from IDG staffers, the links made their appearance on the CIO site in exactly the same way such things have happened elsewhere.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, they were there.
Rank-and-file editors and reporters hadn't been consulted. And questions about the links were deflected with meaningless corporate-speak like "it's an experiment."
And, as has happened elsewhere, the people responsible for the links were confused and surprised by the editors' reaction.
But that is absurd.
Imagine the reverse situation. Imagine that some senior editors decided to change the ads on a site. Imagine that they altered the html so that readers who clicked on an ad didn't visit the advertiser's site, but went instead to someplace that editors thought they should go -- perhaps to a competitor's site.
Would anyone be surprised that the advertising staff was upset?
And if a salesperson ran into the newsroom screaming in protest, would anyone think it was an appropriate response to say "it's just an experiment."

Read 'em and weep
You can see more of these new, offensive links here.
Take a look. Then read the following excerpt from ASBPE's ethics guidelines (I've added bold text for emphasis):
"Whether for editorial or advertising information, hypertext links should be placed at the discretion and approval of editors. Also, advertising and sponsored links should be clearly distinguishable from editorial, and labeled as such, as should clickthrough pages, which may also contain the publication’s editorial content, with appropriate disclosures provided. Such disclosure may include a “use with permission” statement or similar language. Contextual links within editorial content should not be sold. If an editor allows a link, it generally should not link to a vendor’s Web site, unless it is pertinent to the editorial content or helpful to the reader. [Paragraph D. revised, May 7, 2007, by vote of the Ethics Committee.]

As always, I welcome readers input. What do you think of these links?
Also, do you agree with me that CIO can remedy this situation by moving the links outside the story in the same way Businessweek has done?

For a Reuters story on LinkedIn, its API and a deal with Businessweek magazine, click here.

(Editor's note: CIO sent me a press release about the deal with LinkedIn earlier today. That release was also sent to a number of media outlets. The release was embargoed until later this week. But earlier this afternoon, Media Business magazine published a brief story on the deal. CIO also published an letter to its readers today announcing the deal. I consider the embargo broken.)

tags: , , , , , , , , advertising


  1. Sorry, Paul. I disagree with you this time.

    While I am 100% with you on the issue of in-line ads, I don't believe the clearly marked Linkedin feature presents the same ethical challenge.

    There are many instances where site-wide in-text hyperlinks are automatically embeded that serve the reader.

    Highlight and double click on any word on the website -- 100% of the words -- and you'll go to a definition of that word. I view that as an editorial service, not an ethical violation because the editors have not manually approved every word of every story.

    Likewise, nearly every financial news site on the web has such automatic links to information about publicly traded companies. Those are in-line links that an editor does not explicitly approve every instance of their inclusion -- they are baked into the CMS.

    We can argue whether or not BusinessWeek or IDG have a more appropriate use of the feature -- but I don't think one is more ethical than the other.

    To me, the ethical issue of the earlier in-line links was the issue of embedding advertising in editorial copy, not in providing editors the ability to approve automated hyperlinks to user-helpful editorial content.

  2. Hi Rex,
    Thanks for the comment.
    I understand what you're saying. I also thought about the links used in financial-news sites when I wrote about this post.
    But when I worked at, the forerunner of, those of us on the editorial side had control over the use of those links . And that made all the difference.
    What bothers me about the CIO links is that the editors aren't choosing to use them. And to me, that's a violation of ASBPE rules.

  3. In that case, I think the wording of the ASBPE code may be flawed. If in-line links can be automated that serve the reader (whether or not you agree these are), it should not be unethical to use such technology. If such is the case, the New York Times website is unethical as every word on it is a hyperlink -- and I'm sure no editor can over-ride it.

    I might add, I have no knowledge whatsoever about the discussions that took place internally at IDG among editors, management on the introduction of this feature. My opinions are strictly related to the ethical questions surrounding the links that were raised in your post -- not to how it was communicated to those involved.

  4. Hi Rex,
    It looks like we'll have to ask ASBPE for a ruling on this.
    If they agree with me that the links violate the guidelines, then maybe CIO will agree to give the editors control.
    If ASBPE agrees with you, then maybe it will issue a clarification of the guidelines.

  5. Hi Paul - I think you must be misinformed. As Editor in Chief at CIO, I approve the use of these links. The former Editorial Director of approved them before he left. They are not ads but a reader service, so I think that pretty much satisfies the guidelines.
    If I believed this was in violation of editorial ethics guidelines, we wouldn't be doing it. Chances are we will modify our implementation of the widgets as we go forward and evaluate how our readers react. But this partnership with LinkedIn (the Company Insider widget is just one part of the overall agreement) is an opportunity for us to make a real leap in how we engage with and facilitate networking among our audience. It's imperative for media companies to find new ways to get their content in front of readers if they want to continue to be relevant, and I'm proud to be at one that is leading the way.

  6. Abbie, I think the key part of your comment is: "the Company Insider widget is just one part of the overall agreement"...So LinkedIn is paying CIO for these links within editorial copy? Whether you control their use or not, you're being paid to alter editorial content. Period.

  7. This is an interesting discussion. On the one hand, there is more than a "helping the reader" interest in these pop-ups (they're not links, technically, IMHO, since they don't go anywhere). If the service were really just to "help the reader" then they would include links to other social networks - facebook, etc. as well. They are ads for LinkedIn. Possibly useful for readers, but aren't all ads supposed to be useful?

    I don't think the problem is automation of links.

    The New York Times situation is vastly different, IMHO. For one thing, all the words are not highlighted or underlined. If you double-click the word, the pop up comes up with an NYT-branded page. And the information provided is from several sources.

    This is similar to the case with in-text links in Yahoo! stories, for instance. You click on a link and you get a Yahoo! box of information.

    But it's more of a gray area than the previous examples of pure in-text advertising. Those double-underlined "links" are egregious examples of ad/editorial overlap, whether editors approve them or not.

    A technical point about the inline links Paul mentioned in this post: They are confusing precisely because they are not links. They are underlined in blue, just like a regular link, and yet, when you mouse over the word, there is no information in the status bar in your browser. In fact, the mouse icon doesn't change to a hand like a regular link. This is confusing, even with the little "in" symbol next to the link. I'd suggest these widgets be changed to differentiate them more from true "links."

    There is also more opportunity for confusion. I actually found CIO's external linking practices somewhat refreshing in an article about google sites, until the last paragraph, when the source's name was linked to an internal search page, and the company that he worked for was a LinkedIn "link." Seems to me that the name of the company should have a URL associated with it instead of an ad for LinkedIn. I think that's an example of what Paul's talking about. Article here.

  8. My comments to follow are personal and do not reflect the feeling of any organization necessarily.

    The embedded links to LinkIn is one thing. It can be argued that all you are doing there is providing a way for readers to find other connections useful to them. But what's another side to the issue?

    In our hearts (I write not to praise Barry Goldwater) we all know the ONLY reason these links to LinkedIn exist is to allow the companies to sell the reader on a product or service from an editorial connection. Did any money exchange hands between the editorial-embedded CIO, LinkedIn, and company links?

    Moreover, some of the other non-LinkedIn editorial embedded links DO go directly to the company, not LinkedIn. And some of these landing pages are directly asking the reader to spend money with them. As a reader, I find this an intrusion and unethical. Am I wrong?

    That's a far cry from getting the definition of a word at the New York Times.

    With respect,

    Robin Sherman
    Editorial & Design Services

  9. Thanks to all of you who have posted comments and sent emails.
    It gives me great pleasure to know that this topic evokes such passion in our industry.
    I also want to let everyone know that I've heard from a representative of ASBPE. Members of that organization's leadership are reviewing the ethics policy and the CIO links.
    I hope to hear their thoughts soon.

  10. Paul,

    My first reaction to the links was a knee-jerk "No!" Then I started to think that perhaps they weren't quite the same as the IntelliTXT ads. But eventually I came around full circle. I blogged my thoughts (which do not reflect official ASBPE policy) here on the ASBPE Boston blog.

    I completely agree with Murley 's comments about the NY Times links, for the reasons he gave.

    Martha Spizziri
    Vice President
    Boston/New England chapter
    American Society of Business Publication Editors

  11. To Editor Watching His Industry Crumble:
    In answer to your question, no money is changing hands. The larger agreement involves CIO content and a CIO group within LinkedIn, and other APIs to be rolled out later.

  12. Have the people who are defending the New York Times practice actually used the service? Those links often go to a definition that includes a couple of text-link ads, thus, in reality they are in-line text ads.

    Second, if the Linked-in feature on is an "ad for Linked-in" then any link to any content is an ad for whatever it links to. It's a link to a "feature" -- a search feature.

    If you want to follow that logic, you'll do away with all hyperlinks.

  13. I have weighed in on this issue on ASBPE's blog at

    Steve Roll
    President, American Society of Business Publication Editors

  14. Something that CIO did that has not been appropriately addressed is that there were editorial links (other than the LinkedIn links) that take the reader directly to a company site, the landing page of which had content that was directly selling a product or service. As a reader you don't even know that is what you're going to see when you go to that link.

    That, to me is not only NOT a preferred practice, but also is unethical. The editorial-embedded links in CIO in this case are certainly not transparent. Moreover, the landing page IS an ad. No way around it.

    This is part of what's happening with CIO, just like the Intellitext links. Just a different format. This is very clear to me. Why is no one addressing this?

  15. Have the people who are defending the New York Times practice actually used the service? Those links often go to a definition that includes a couple of text-link ads, thus, in reality they are in-line text ads.


    I think there's a clear difference between a service that provides additional *content* which is helpful to readers that has an ad in the new page and the LinkedIn links with no additional information, or the intellitxt ads.