Continued | Back to Personalized context
Newspapers’ historical role as the hub of the community puts them smack dab in the center of the local marketplace of news and information, civic discourse and public policy, commerce opportunities and personal services. Consider the rich “content” that newspapers can draw upon: not only hard news, but a reservoir of features, advice columns, community announcements, gardening tips, home furnishings, comics, horoscopes and advertising. That’s right: Ads are content. Job listings, apartment for rent, storewide sales — all of that is useful information to some consumers.
Over the decades, news organizations have erected artifices to maintain a separation between church and state, and that division has resulted in a tradition of editorial independence from business considerations. When reporters and editors keep faith with the readers rather than cater to the company’s bottom line, journalism is well served.
With the advent of the Internet, journalists face the challenge of embracing a medium where the ethos is still a work in progress and the divisions not so neatly delineated. The reality is that the Web is not first and foremost a publishing medium; it’s primarily a tool for retrieving information, communicating, and making transactions. On the Web, users don’t want to merely read about people, businesses, products and services. They want to be connected to them.
A user who reads a music review on RollingStone.com expects to be able to buy the CD with a couple of more mouse clicks. A high school student reading a roundup of best colleges in a major news publication appreciates an additional link that lets him submit an application online. The fact that RollingStone.com and the news publication receive a small commission for those transactions may upset ethics purists, but the real violation of trust would occur if Rolling Stone published a favorable review to increase sales or the news publication listed only colleges that paid them a fee and failed to disclose that arrangement.
On the Web, service journalism has transformed into transaction journalism, a term I coined in 1997 to describe the phenomenon of news sites giving users the opportunity to participate in an immediate commercial transaction. The practice can take the form of giving users the option to buy a book or CD they’ve read about on a news site — a useful service, in my view. Or it could cross the ethical line — something that is occurring with disturbing frequency, particularly by sites that have no journalistic traditions from which to draw upon.