Randy Kilgore, advertising director of Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition, said the move partly stems from a fear that, if the blurring continues, the Web could lose credibility as a source of trustworthy information. "Integrity and credibility are not only hard won, but difficult values to restore once lost," he said.
Kilgore is careful not to name names, but charges several sites with integrating or disguising advertiser's message in editorial content in ways that "as yet are completely unheard of in any traditional advertising environment."
Kilgore has called for the industry to band together to draw up guidelines to be enforced by the Internet Advertising Bureau -- the governing body of the Web's advertising community. Two groups of publishers -- the American Society for Newspaper Editors and the newly-formed Online News Association -- are also calling for guidelines because of what some predict to be a future reader backlash against the integration of advertisements and editorial, advertiser-sponsored content, paid links and sponsored chats.
The ONA is headed by WSJ Interactive managing editor Rich Jeroslovsky. All of the 18 online news executives who attended the group's inaugural meeting thought the blurring of the lines between editorial and advertising to be one of the most important issues to address as a group, he said. "It is an issue on many people's minds. It's a time-honoured issue for any medium. Lines haven't been draw because the medium is so new," Jaroslovsky said.
USAToday.com and HotWired.com both recently ran advertisements on their sites touting Hewlett-Packard Colour Printers, in which the entire Web page, including the banner advertisement and surrounding editorial content were involved. The sites' normally colourful news pages appeared black and white until the user clicked on the ad.
Steve Yelvington, editor of the Minneapolis Startribune.com in Minneapolis, was disappointed with HotWired and USAToday.com for agreeing to run the Hewlett-Packard ad. "We ought to be able to expect ethical leadership from sites like Wired and USA Today. Instead, we're all let down," Yelvington said. "I don't mean to suggest that news Web sites shouldn't work with commercial Web sites. Obviously we should. But we can do it in a way that's clear and fair and above-board, where everybody wins, including the consumer."
The Wall Street Journal Interactive edition turned down the Hewlett Packard Ad, Kilgore said. " When sites allow advertisers to affect the way the content is viewed, then it can't help but leave a negative impression on the value of the content they are getting. It's an over-commercialisation," he said.
Kilgore and others are in favour of taking action to write guidelines so similar instances do not occur. "The IAB and other industry groups need to be advocates for Web sites' rights," Kilgore said. "It's divide and conquer. As long as HP can get sites to do that, it will continue. Meanwhile, the editors are extremely concerned."
Sponsored links are another bone of contention. Several news Web site book pages, including those at the New York Times, USA Today and the Chicago Tribune, offer a link to Barnes and Noble from their book reviews -- and receive a cut of the profits generated by the traffic. Such "contextual advertising" dilemmas were one of the first salvoes fired in the advertising-editorial skirmish, and are of concern to editors because of the ease at which users can go from a presumably objective book review to a purchase from a link near each book review.
Another complaint is that sponsored content often has no advertisement labels. "We're at a stage in the Net's evolution where we have developed some conventions that help indicate who's speaking -- without having to resort to clumsy labels that say 'paid link'," Yelvington said. "But they're fragile conventions. When a trusted news source like USA Today peddles its navigational controls to an advertiser, those conventions are damaged. "
When the Chicagotribune.com advertising department launched advertiser-sponsored chat, it sparked an excruciating argument between the advertising and editorial departments. In the end, to assuage the outraged editorial department a paid-for chat session between a Chicago plastic surgeon and audience members included a disclaimer on the chat page.
While some innovative, but troubling marketing tactics slip through on news Web sites, some loud balking by editorial workers are making inroads into creating standards where none existed. "It's important that we be clear about who's speaking. If information is coming from a trusted news provider, I'm going to evaluate it differently than information coming from an advertiser," Yelvington said.