Mag editors' muddled manifesto
The American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME) wants Web sites to be
clearer about the distinction between editorial content and advertising
material. It's a good cause, to be sure: Many Internet users remain in a
state of great confusion about where they are on the Web, who created a
particular page and who paid for it. The more information sites provide,
But the "voluntary guidelines" the ASME recently issued betray a deep
ignorance of the nature of the Web -- and a kind of self-righteous
complacency about the quality of editorial/ad distinctions in print
The full guidelines don't appear to be available online (as far as I've
been able to tell, using six major search engines, the ASME does not have
its own Web site), but here's a summary of them as posted on MSNBC:
The publication's home page should display its name and logo to identify
who controls the content.
Online pages should make a clear distinction -- through words, design or
placement -- between editorial and advertising content.
Special ad sections should be labeled as advertising along with the
No ad links, no ad section references in the table of contents.
Editors shall not create content for special ad sections or other ads.
Not every Web site is a "publication" -- some are catalogs, or stores, or
reference resources, or personal pages. A lot of Web users get confused as
to the nature of the site they're reading when they hop links from site to
site. It's certainly a fair argument to expect a Web site to identify
itself on its home page, but lots of links don't go through a home page at
all, but rather deep into a site.
In any case, telling sites to "identify who controls the content" is a lot
more complex than it sounds. Are we talking about the name of the company
that publishes the site? The individuals in charge? Or the financial
backers who make it all possible? In print, ownership information is rarely
provided on covers but traditionally buried in a publication, in fine print
at the bottom of some boilerplate page.
A simple exercise in trying to apply this guideline to existing print
publications reveals how arbitrary it is: Does the New York Times Magazine
cover announce that it is owned and operated by the Sulzberger family? Or,
to comply with this guideline, would it put the editor's name on the cover,
the person who "controls the content"? Right now, in fact, the New York
Times Magazine provides no information whatsoever as to its editor's name.
Yet it retains plenty of credibility. (One wonders why ASME isn't issuing
similar guidelines for TV networks. Shouldn't ABC prominently identify its
connection with Disney before it runs another special report promoting the
latest Disney film?)
The other guidelines are just as inconsistent. Most of the print magazines
I receive have entries on their tables of contents for "marketplace" or
"reader service" pages that are really just lists of advertisers -- pretty
similar to "ad links" or "ad section" references on Web sites' "tables of
contents," for those sites that even have tables of contents. Why is it OK
for print magazines to do this, but not Web sites?
Worse than these inconsistencies is the deeper level of incomprehension of
the Web that the guidelines display. ASME takes the existing categories and
terminology of print magazines -- like "section" and "table of contents" --
and wants to apply them across the board to all Web sites. Yet, though
there are plenty of Web sites that have borrowed a great deal from the
magazine model (Salon is one of them), there are plenty of others that are
modeled on TV shows or radio programs, mail-order catalogs or
ASME's goal -- urging Web site operators to be up front about who's paying
for what -- is laudable. But it's not going to get very far by trying to
import print-style guidelines that aren't even well-honored by print
publications into an electronic medium where they're barely applicable.
Surely it would be wiser, and more effective, for ASME just to ask Web site
operators to indicate, clearly and prominently, the nature of their site
(magazine or mall?) -- and to answer questions like "Who paid for this?"
promptly and accurately (this is, after all, an interactive medium).
Even more important, ASME could help Web users understand that links may
carry them instantly from a publisher's turf to an advertiser's. The
organization could launch an educational campaign (it may need to start
with its own membership). In the end, the only real guarantee of editorial
credibility, online or off, is a readership with sharp antennae tuned to
catch and complain about aggressive blurring of the line between editorial
material and ads.
July 10, 1997
-- Scott Rosenberg
--- Rohit Khare /// MCI Internet Architecture (BOS) /// firstname.lastname@example.org Voice+Pager: (617) 960-5131 VNet: 370-5131 Fax: (617) 960-1009