Ziff Davis Caught in Bloggers’ Crosshairs
B-to-b publishing consultant and influential blogger Paul Conley is accusing tech publisher Ziff Davis of running afoul of editorial ethics with its online content. In a strongly worded blog post Wednesday, complete with advance warning of "foul language," Conley had this to say: "There’s no reason to pretend any longer that Ziff Davis is a reputable company."
Conley’s wrath is directed at Ziff’s decision to use an advertising feature called IntelliTXT developed by Vibrant Media that hyperlinks keywords within an article to a pop-up text ad. When the cursor is moved over the hyperlinked word or phrase in an article, such as "software" or "server technology," a pop-up text ad appears that links to a sponsor’s Web site. To Conley, and others, the practice skirts the issue of advertising transparency, even though the pop-up window is labeled as an advertisement and the hyperlinks are uniquely formatted, in this case, in green with a double underline. The service can also be used as pop-ups to alert readers to related articles.
In a bizarre twist, as Conley points out, the IntelliTXT feature appears in Baseline’s editorial mission statement. Baseline, covering the IT market, has been a frequent Folio: and ABM award winner. The ad service is also on the eWeek site. Other ZD sites, such as Pcmag.com and CIO Insight, are also using the IntelliTXT feature.
On PCmag.com, the word "phone" links to a pop-up ad for Packet 8.
This is not the first time Conley has accused Ziff of breaking edit ethics rules online. In an encounter in January, Conley made repeated appeals to Ziff officials to dismantle the IntelliTXT feature on eWeek’s site. Now it’s back again and Conley has resumed his campaign.
This time, however, Conley is advising editorial employees to boycott. "Grab a few coworkers, head to a nearby coffee shop, and plan a rebellion," said Conley in his post. Further, Conley urges competitors to hire talented Ziff employees away.
The American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE) Guide to Preferred Editorial Practices states: "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ﾅcontextual links within editorial content should not be sold, and generally should not link to a vendor’s Web site, unless it is pertinent to the editorial content or helpful to the reader."
Jeffrey Seglin, an ethics columnist for The New York Times Syndicate and ASBPE ethics committee member, who evoked the Forbes.com fracas in late 2004 when the editors successfully rallied to have the service removed, says, "To make the argument that it’s distinct because it’s a different color and underlined is not really true. Online magazines are using hypertext as part of the edit, so there’s not enough of a distinction and it doesn’t give editors enough control. So it is in violation of the guidelines of ASBPE."
Seglin also notes that aside from ethics, the practice creates more opportunity for confusion. "Sometimes it’s editorial, sometimes it’s advertising-based. It’s a disservice to the readers and hampers the editorial integrity of the publication," he says.
But Ziff Davis doesn’t see what the big deal is. "The IntelliTXT ads are clearly labeled as advertisements in compliance with existing ASME and ASBPE guidelines as we understand them. Should these officially recognized bodies adopt specific policies related to IntelliTXT ads, we would welcome that clarification and would also be inclined to comply with those guidelines," says Michael Vizard, editorial director and senior vice president, Ziff Davis Enterprise Group.
Furthermore, adds Vizard, "At no time does the existence of the IntelliTXT ads ever influence editorial content as the ads are applied well after the content is produced. The editorial team has no information or incentives related to the topics in the ads."
Hammock Publishing president and blogger Rex Hammock supported Conley’s opinions in his own post, also noting that a commenter pointed out that the intelliTXT feature can be blocked or filtered via browser preferences. Nevertheless, Hammock says, "Again, that’s an ethical feint; like announcing at the top of the article that links go to ads ; that may provide a publisher some room for a fuzzy defense of the practice, but at what cost?"
Blog Post Roundup
- Paul Conley: Ziff Davis crosses the ethics line again (paulconley)
- Rex Hammock: Paul Conley is mad as hell at Ziff Davis for embedding text ads in news articles (Rexblog.com)
- Eric Shanfelt: Give Ziff Davis a Break (Emedia Strategist)
ASBPE president Roy Harris e-mailed their official statement regarding the treatment of hyperlinks:
"This debate has turned out to be a good opportunity to show how our ethics-code machinery works at ASBPE. The committee members came back strongly supporting the code’s statement that editors should have the final say about whether to use hypertext links in editorial–whether they are hyptertext edit links or links to vendors. That is our preferred editorial practice.
There was a feeling that the code might be misread by some (although it is unlikely) because of some punctuation in the section headed "D. Approve Hypterxt Links." The paragraph will be changed so that it ends this way:
‘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.’
Web-based journalism offers exciting new ways for B2B journalists to tell their stories–including through hypertext links. But it also presents certain dangers that exist in a form different from what print publications face. We feel the code offers a clear guideline: Editors, not publishers or ad-sales folks, should make the final decisions on ALL uses of links within edit copy. Also, ad links within editorial text should NOT be sold under any condition."