March 8, 2001

Behind closed dot-com doors

Balancing business interests and journalistic credibility at BabyCenter

This column appeared March 8, 2001, in the Online Journalism Review. Here’s the version on the OJR site. See the related story, The fuzzy world of sponsored content.

By J.D. Lasica

For those of us who still believe in the promise of online content sites, the March 2 sale of BabyCenter from online toy retailer eToys to the baby goods manufacturer Johnson & Johnson was significant on a number of levels:

• If you’re pregnant or a new parent, there’s simply no other site on the Web that comes close to offering the breadth of trustworthy editorial content, expert advice and baby products that BabyCenter offers to its 2.2 million visitors each month. (Its nearest competitors draw only one-fourth the traffic.) The 4-year-old site, which faced the prospect of shutting down alongside its ailing corporate parent, can now not only grow but thrive.

• The sale sends another strong signal that even the most successful pure-play content and commerce sites may not be able to survive without the support of a deep-pockets parent or brick-and-mortar partner. The site has won three straight Webby awards, but has still not achieved profitability.

• The sale also rekindles the debate over a corporate owner’s effects on journalistic standards. Simply put: Can a content site retain its independent editorial voice when placed under the control of a corporation with a stake in the site’s core offerings?

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March 12, 1999

Ethics debate: It’s time to move on

Electronic commerce is here to stay – deal with it

This column appeared March 12, 1999, in the Online Journalism Review. Here’s the version on the OJR site.

By J.D. Lasica

The following column is based on remarks made by the author at the Online Journalism Conference held March 10, 1999, in Berkeley, co-sponsored by Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley and the Annenberg School for Communication at USC. Lasica appeared on the panel “Reestablishing Credibility.”

Last year I appeared at this conference as a panelist addressing online ethics, so it was a little ironic that at the time I was employed by Microsoft.

Since that time I’ve taken a job as senior editor at BabyCenter, a Webby Award-winning startup in San Francisco that is a very rare creature: a new media company committed to traditional journalism values. Our 10-person editorial team is committed to providing high-quality news and information about pregnancy, babies, and parenting. I can’t begin to tell you how satisfying it is to come into work each day and read the latest batch of gushing e-mails from readers telling us how much they love us. That didn’t happen every day at Microsoft.

There’s a second component of our site, the BabyCenter Store, which sells maternity clothes, strollers, toddler outfits and the like, and every day we wrestle with issues over the intersection of retail and editorial credibility. So far, we’ve found the right balance. We’ve built a high level of trust, and we won’t do anything to jeopardize that trust. One of the top priorities on our agenda is to draft a company policy on privacy and editorial ethics, and on Sunday I took a first crack at it, and I think it says something about our philosophy that this is starting with a journalist rather than a marketing person or a lawyer.

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