Does NY Times Web Site Blur Editorial-Advertising Lines?

“To borrow from the tagline of the new blockbuster film Lord of the Rings, it may be the one Web page that binds them all. But did it united them in darkness?

That’s is how CBS MarketWatch leads a story claiming that The New York Times Web site’s ‘sponsored content’ for that film is the latest example of “how the modern world of Internet journalism is colliding with the age-old struggle of keeping news and advertising apart.”

Earlier this year at the Content Summit in Zurich, we watched New York Times Digital General Manager Scott Meyer explain his company’s ‘sponsored content’ concept: The advertiser gets to create a promotional Web page pick that features the advertiser’s choice of previously published Times articles about whatever is being promoted.

Because the articles were written by the newspaper’s critics and staff and were objective, the Times claims use of those articles by the advertiser doesn’t blur the line between editorial and advertising content.

But we maintain that New York Times Digital has clearly blurred that line because:

  • The advertiser chooses which Times stories will be published on the Web page — it is unlikely that negative stories about will be published.
  • From the consumer’s perspective, the Web page clearly looks like a Times editorial news page, not an advertiser’s page.
  • Letting an advertiser pick which stories get published on a page would clearly violate the Times print edition’s ethical practices. The Web might be a new medium, but we believe that ethics transcent media.
  • If the Times is to maintain itself as the paragon of American (and perhaps all English-language) journalism, it must be held to a paragon’s journalistic ethics standards. That’s why we’ve criticized the frequent ethical lapses by its Web subsidiary. And we assert that the root cause of these lapses was New York Times Chairman Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. installing former advertising executive Martin Nisenholtz — an ad executive without any journalistic experience who is in change of a paragon journalistic Web site.