A follow-up on nytimes.com ad placement

Written by Adrian Holovaty on October 25, 2002

JD Lasica has some fine points in response to my comments today regarding nytimes.com ad placement. In short, JD argues that the problem I point out isn't a particularly important problem and that's why technical solutions haven't yet been adopted:

Is there anyone out there short of a dimwit or conspiracy theorist who thinks the New York Times would risk its reputation by slanting a review just because it accepts some pocket-change advertising income from an MSN ad that occasionally pops up on a news page?

I know, and I acknowledge many others know, that New York Times coverage probably will not be influenced by advertising. The intention of my blog entry (which I should have made more clear) was not to chastize nytimes.com, but to point out the need for a technological means of avoiding this problem -- which, I maintain, is important. I see two ways this can be accomplished:

  • Enable content producers to "turn off" a certain ad on a story-by-story basis. This solution is far from perfect, because it requires that news producers have a working knowledge of their site's current ads. Rather, it's a contingency plan -- an "oh, shoot, that ad really shouldn't go with that story" kind of plan.
  • Implement an effective keyword metatagging system that lets computers make "intelligent" decisions on the fly. (That sounds technical, doesn't it?) In other words, assign keywords to advertisements and news stories. Then configure the site's CMS to check the keywords against one another when an article is published. (Or, if pages and ads are drawn dynamically, the comparison likewise would be made dynamically.) In theory, the CMS would flag possible problematic matchups.

Venturing from the ethics world into the similarly important world of good taste, here's a more realistic situation in which this'd be useful -- a story about a plane crash juxtaposed with an advertisement for an airline. I've seen this before. Do you think it's acceptable to have a Delta Airlines ad right above a plane-crash article? It looks bad for the news publication, and it looks bad for Delta. That's precisely where this type of software would come in.


Posted by kpaul on October 25, 2002, at 6:06 a.m.:

[[In other words, assign keywords to advertisements and news stories.]]

I just got off the phone with the guy in our newsroom who posts the web. We're still implementing a new PHP based CMS and he was having a problem.

After I talked him through the problem, I told him about an idea I had to use keywords for stories to be able to pull up 'related' stories from the past automatically. He said it would take too much time to enter the information.

This is what I'm running into - not enough resources in the newsroom as belts are tightened to withstand whatever is happening with the ad revenues.

The situation may be different at other organizations, but at the moment I'm just not seeing enough manpower being given to make the web anything more than a dump of a portion of the print content, which simply won't work in the long run.

I'm working to change this thinking where I work. I believe news sites need to embrace community now or be left behind as the communities form on their own elsewhere.

Posted by shayne on October 25, 2002, at 6:29 a.m.:

i think your keyword metatagging system is the best solution. however, the complexity of what you describe is unlikely to deployed on news sites in the next 3-5 years, as just getting content shoveled online is kicking most news sites in the ass.

Perhaps a manual, generalized approach might work best short term. It would probably need to be adopted from the editorial side, as you suggest, and not the ad side, since the editorial production schedule follows or comes after ads have been entered into the system.

I'm thinking a simple <adban> meta-tag, that uses broad categories, such as airlines, technology, sports, etc. And it might only be necessary on a handful of stories, as all stories don't necessarily have potential for ad conflict. It would be necessary for the ad staff, of course, to properly categorize ads. And there are the time constraints that kpaul mentions.

However, if deployed too broadly, this could hurt advertisers who are looking for that proximity to related content.

nonetheless, I think your ideas are sound.

Posted by Rob on October 25, 2002, at 7:24 a.m.:

I'm posting a response to something in JD Lasica's entry. Here's the paragraph in question:

"Ad adjacency is a legitimate concern in print in many situations. But of the hundreds of (non-journalist) readers I've heard from over the years -- and during the umpteen conferences I've attended over the years -- how many folks do you think have mentioned this as an ethical issue in their eyes for the online medium? Not a one."

I don't think this is quite true. I look for juxtapositioning of ads when I read news online, and believe that many people -- especially with technology stories -- do exactly the same thing. They're likely to notice if a company's ad runs with an article concerning the company. I know non-journalists who then jump to the conclusion that the company must be influencing the coverage of the newspaper. This sort of thing has the potential to happen quite frequently, given the dominance of certain ads. That MSN ad was all over news sites today -- I repeatedly saw it on at least 5 or 6 sites.

I'll say that the logistics of fixing the problem made my head hurt at first. However, perhaps this is one of those crucial steps that online journalism needs to take. It's a pain to sweat the details, but it creates trust -- something that's invaluable for online news.

Posted by Carl on October 25, 2002, at 4:43 p.m.:

[He said it would take too much time to enter the information. ]

Google does not hand-enter keywords when it scans a web page. Search engines in general are experts at using automated means to them drag out.

So perhaps what we need is a company to sell a similar, stand-alone system for business use. Grab keywords, remove some junk words/common words, sort by relevance, and then output into a usable format for later computer comparison to other files of the same nature.

The articles are easy - it's the ADS that would be more likely to need a human to produce adequate keywords.

But if a company like the NY Times sells the need for advertisers to not look bad due to poor placement of their ads (Delta and a plane crash, mentioned earlier) then the advertisers themselves would perhaps be willing to help, for their own benefit.

The NY Times could even use that as a selling point - "we guard your ads from accidental misuse".

Posted by kpaul on October 25, 2002, at 5:34 p.m.:

Come to think of it, we're already using HT://dig to index our site. I wonder if that might be able to be used as base code to setup a system to keyword stories...

Posted by gsetser on October 25, 2002, at 6:55 p.m.:

I'd just like to ad some emphasis to something Rob said:

"It's a pain to sweat the details, but it creates trust -- something that's invaluable for online news."

Trust is the thing mainstream media can't afford to lose. It is the one thing that differentiates us from all the rabble-rousing renegade bloggers. I'm not saying rabble-rousing rengade bloggers are a bad thing. I'm just saying keeping the publics' trust is a really, really good and necessary thing for newspapers.

Posted by Rob on November 3, 2002, at 10:30 a.m.:

A follow-up on this topic, found on the Washington City Paper site:

Off Message

Most news organizations pride themselves on keeping the advertising division separate from the news division. Sometimes, however, a little coordination between the two goes a long way.

Try this example: On its Web site last week, WUSA-TV (Channel 9) posted a story about the sniper's Home Depot killing. Titled "Latest Attack Yields New Clues," the story covered the aftermath of the sniper's first incursion into Fairfax County.

And the banner ad that accompanied the story? "Fairfax: The Place to Be!"

Officials at Channel 9 and Fairfax's economic-development office didn't feel like attaching their names to the foul-up. "When there's a plane crash, one of the first things you do is tell advertising, and they pull the airline commercials. In this instance, they didn't do it fast enough," says a Channel 9 source. The station eventually replaced the ad.

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