Advertorial with a Twist  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    THE ONLINE FRONTIER    
From AJR,   May 2002

Advertorial with a Twist   

The NYTimes.com Laramie Project Archives is a revenue model worth talking about.

By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (bpalser@gmail.com), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.     


Most online editors have seen enough advertising-editorial cocktails in the past few years to have a sense of what's tolerable and what isn't. Occasionally, a new mix warrants special attention.

On February 25, NYTimes.com launched a special archive of stories about the 1998 murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard. The section (www.nytimes.com/laramieproject) was funded by HBO to promote its TV movie, "The Laramie Project," which aired throughout March and April.

During the promotion period, visitors accessed the section through a front-page banner ad, which included the text, "A Sponsored Archive of New York Times Articles on the Matthew Shepherd Case" and "Made possible by HBO Films."

The 17 articles inside were written by Times reporters between 1998 and 2000 and were picked for the package by NYTimes.com sales and product development staff. The pages resemble other parts of the site and use the same fonts as news stories, but the color scheme and layout are distinct. Every page bears the disclaimer: "The reprinting of these articles from The New York Times was paid for by HBO Films, producers of the movie, 'The Laramie Project.' The editorial staff of The Times was not involved in the selection of the articles or production of this archive."

How can we classify this concoction? Is it one giant movie advertisement or a news archive surrounded by a strategic promotion? Should we be relieved or concerned that editorial staff didn't select the articles? Have the reporters who wrote these stories been turned into shills for the sales machine? Is old news less sacrosanct than current news?

Whenever trend-setting news sites experiment with new mixtures of content and sales, we need to notice and discuss them. That's how we refine new models and set standards.

Those who criticize the Laramie archives have two primary concerns. The first is that it's an advertisement in disguise, marked up in editorial aesthetics to maximize trust and minimize caution. That's a tough case to make. Yes, the section inherits characteristics of other parts of the site. The user experience would be disorienting if it didn't. But the color palette, the layout, the absence of left-hand navigation, the disclaimers plastered across the page and the large, permanent HBO ad--all of these are fair cues to the nature of the arrangement.

In contrast, consider NYTimes.com's first sponsored topical archive at www.nytimes.com/ tolkien. Launched in December to coincide with the release of New Line Cinema's "The Lord of the Rings," the Tolkien Archives is virtually identical to a news section, save for a "Sponsored Feature" label atop the main page. The nature of the sponsorship is not explained anywhere. Both of these lapses were noted in the Online News Association's Digital Journalism Credibility Study, released in February.

I believe the mistakes made with Tolkien have been corrected in the Laramie archives. The Laramie section is at least as distinct from the Times' news pages as any magazine advertorial.

Another concern is that the Times sold a piece of its journalistic integrity to HBO by reprinting news stories in a promotional context; that the articles confer credibility upon the movie. I don't share that concern. The package provides high visibility to its sponsor, but nothing in the details of the deal or the online presentation suggests an editorial relationship between HBO and NYTimes.com. I see an ad and an article. What does the average visitor see?

Love it or hate it, the Laramie archives demonstrates two philosophies that hold promise for online usefulness, integrity and financial success. The first is transparency, the idea that audiences benefit from knowing how a news outlet operates. This is a natural fit for the Internet, which offers unlimited space to explain newsgathering and advertising practices.

The second philosophy is user-friendly business. Except for online classifieds, Web sites have been slow to explore creative ways to play up their unique assets. The Times' crossword subscription is one example of an attractive revenue experiment; the Laramie archives is another. The ethics of the latter are clearly more controversial, but the departure from fee-for-article archives is refreshing.

At the gut level, I find the Laramie Project Archives more appealing than alarming--but that has much to do with the subject matter and the Times' attention to forthright presentation. It will be telling to watch the concept evolve with other types of sponsors and topics--and other, less experienced publishers. Whether or not the model endures, we are better for the discussion it provokes.

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