Is Advertising in New Media Doomed?

For many in B2B publishing, the future hinges on a simple question: Is online advertising viable? The answer, unfortunately, is not yet clear. But to me, at least, one thing is certain: advertising will only work where it is based on transparent, equal, and positive relationships among publisher, advertiser, and consumer.

Photo by Chris Wheal This was a topic raised in last week’s episode of This Week in Google. At about 46 minutes in, the conversation turned to a recent dispute between Microsoft and the Apache Software Foundation involving the way websites track users with cookies, a key requirement for many online advertisers. For unclear reasons, Microsoft’s newest web browser, Internet Explorer 10, comes with user preferences set to Do Not Track, rejecting all cookies by default. Apache, which makes the software that runs most websites, objects, saying users should make that decision, not Microsoft.

Whatever comes of this controversy, the danger it represents is clear. If advertisers are denied even basic information about who clicks on their ads, they will have little incentive to continue advertising. And independent content providers, in turn, will have even less revenue to keep them going.

As “This Week in Google” host Leo Laporte said, how people think about cookies and privacy really depends on how you frame the discussion. If you start by saying that cookies are used to track and collate information about your behavior on the web, it sounds bad. If you say instead that they help websites and advertisers deliver personalized information that you want, it’s more acceptable.

My point isn’t to say that tracking is always a good thing. It isn’t, particularly as used in a mass-media context. But in the healthy sort of relationship between publisher, advertiser, and reader/visitor that you traditionally find in the B2B world, it’s not just a good thing, but a necessary thing. As Jeff Jarvis said in response to Laporte, “media needs to build a relationship with people, but that relationship requires knowing you, and knowing something about you, and being able to act positively on that” (58:19).

In practice, this means two things for publishers. First, earning and keeping the trust of their users is paramount. They must respect their audience and practice transparency in all their dealings with them.

Second, publishers need to hedge their bets and search vigorously for advertising innovations and alternatives. As David Johnson wrote today on MediaShift, the “online advertising experience is awful. There’s no dancing around it, and all the talk about saving journalism isn’t dealing with that fundamental problem.”

Ultimately, audience and advertiser need each other, and will find ways to share their information. It is a necessary relationship. But if independent publishers cannot find persuasive ways to demonstrate their value in that relationship, they will be cast aside with few regrets.

Photo by Chris Wheal

Beware the Witch-Hunting Impulse

My experience today reading Joe Konrath’s “Writers Code of Ethics” was probably exactly what he intended. From points one through three—never write or pay for reviews of your own work—I was in complete agreement. From points four through six—don’t ask friends or fans to review your work—I was thinking, “wow, that’s pretty strict.”  By point nine—”I will never allow anyone to send out copies of my books to be reviewed”— I was suspicious. Long before I got to his twenty-third and final point of ethics, I realized he had veered into satire.

What spurred Konrath’s gradual escalation into ethical absurdity was a manifesto of sorts by a group of authors condemning other authors behind a recent rash of “sock-puppet,” or faked, and purchased book reviews. His aim, I take it, was not to defend dishonest marketing, but to warn us against mob instincts:

“All of you pointing your fingers and proclaiming your piety? Get back to working on your books, not judging your peers.”

In the recent uproar over the apparent multiple plagiarisms and fabrications by Jonah Lehrer and one instance of plagiarism by Fareed Zakaria, I’ve sensed a disquieting rush to judgment. In each case, the acts are indefensible. But for those of us striving to be ethical, unreservedly condemning them, as Barry Eisler puts it, is a dead end. That lack of reserve leads all too readily to overreactions and unfair accusations.

Viewing ethical mistakes in black and white makes life simple. But we can learn more, and become better people and better writers, by trying to understand the complex intentions and motivations behind those errors.

Fear and Social Media Don’t Mix

MUD day 19:

A friend of mine who works for a large nonprofit institution serves on a panel that’s trying to decide what the institution should think and do about social media. Should it encourage its employees and other stakeholders to use social media? Should it restrict what they say and do there? Or should it stay strictly hands off, neither aiding nor impeding social media activities?

Journal Register Company's Rules for Social Media

Cynics might argue that institutions inherently distrust anything they can’t control. But their challenge in dealing with social media has more to do with the culture of caution and conservatism that every traditional organization seems to engender. It’s one of the key reasons why the AP repeatedly feels the need to crack down on the way its staff use Twitter, and why Georgia Tech recently decided that federal privacy rules require it to ban classroom wikis.

I suspect most institutions wouldn’t much appreciate John Paton’s three employee rules for using social media. A little too, shall we say, vague. But I do think they would be well served by the slightly more detailed rules Dan Gillmor proposes for news organizations:

  1. Be human.
  2. Be honorable.
  3. Don’t embarrass us.

I can already hear the objections. But my point would be this: If you fear what your employees are going to do on social media, what you really fear is their humanity. Have courage. Fear and social media don’t mix.

Wikipedia Is No Authority–By Design

MUD day 13:

In an interview in Foreign Policy, published on its website earlier this month, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales was asked if he’s shocked to hear that people, including journalists, “use Wikipedia all the time.” His response is worth repeating to any journalist that either uses Wikipedia unthinkingly or unthinkingly refuses to use Wikipedia:

Journalists all use Wikipedia. The bad journalist gets in trouble because they use it incorrectly; the good journalist knows it’s a place to get oriented and to find out what questions to ask.

Wales goes on to say the Wikipedia is actually quite old-fashioned in its approach, looking for “reliable sources” rather than “something in a blog somewhere.”

What I find most interesting about Wikipedia, though, is the way it undercuts the old-fashioned notion of authority. Once you start thinking in any depth about why you should or shouldn’t use Wikipedia as a source, you start to realize how vulnerable to criticism the authority of any source is.

This, I take it, is the position of one of Wikipedia’s biggest fans in journalism, Dan Gillmor. In his book, Mediactive, he argues that the audience for news and other media must change from passive to active consumers, that they have a responsibility to be skeptical and exercise judgment.

Wikipedia, I think, operates on this principle. In telling its users, “don’t trust us; decide for yourself,” it is passing responsibility for judgment back to the individual reader. By handing any user who wants it the key to authorship, Wikipedia is enacting a radical idea: that authority is a shared responsibility.

Three Stock Photography Pitfalls to Avoid

I’ve written recently about the need to use meaningful visuals to accompany your text. In passing, I mentioned the downsides of that frequent last resort, stock photography, but left it to an article by Heather Rubesch, elsewhere on the web, to provide details.

Photo of dragon © istockphoto/zlisjak

Stock photo: Here be a dragon

The controversy in the last week over the use—or misuse—of stock photographs by VegNews magazine suggests that a deeper examination of the pitfalls of stock photography is in order.

The magazine has evidently been in the habit of taking stock shots of meat-based meals and using them to illustrate articles about vegan dishes. In at least one case, they have acknowledged using Photoshop to eliminate the bones from an image of what they wished were vegan ribs but weren’t. Some vegans have been deeply offended by this practice. One vegetarian and editor even went so far as to call for the editorial awards VegNews received from Folio: magazine to be rescinded. That might be ever-so-slightly extreme, but it illustrates the strong feelings that stock photography can inadvertently generate.

Rather than dwell on the VegNews example, which has been exhaustively covered on the web, let’s look at a couple of other recent instances of stock-art misuse. They point out three common pitfalls of stock photography.

One of those pitfalls is when a strong relationship is implied between the subject of the stock art and the subject being illustrated. That’s what happened on a website touting the presidential potential of Newt Gingrich.  On its front page, an image of Gingrich and his wife is superimposed over a photograph of a racially diverse group of men and women waving American flags.  Though to the naive eye it might appear that the people pictured are actual Gingrich supporters, the shot in fact comes from Getty Images.  The effect, as Rubesch cautiously puts it, is “to make Newt’s supporters look more multi-cultural and diverse than perhaps they are in actuality.”  Did the site designer intend the people pictured to be seen as real Gingrich supporters? Probably not. But they were surely meant to reflect the kind of people who support him.

Gingrich 2012 Screen shot If the shot had conformed to the picture most people have of Gingrich’s supporters, its stock-house origins would probably have gone unremarked. But because the the association looked so unlikely, it triggered doubts (and some amusing parodies). The lesson here is to respect the generic nature of stock photography. The people in that picture aren’t real people—they were effectively turned into icons by Getty Images. But the way the designer used the photo, they have been reanimated into specific human beings: real, live supporters. This wouldn’t have happened with a drawing because the iconic nature of the art would be too obvious. But with a photograph, it’s all too easy to slip into deception.

Statue of Liberty Forever stampA second pitfall can open up when stock photographs are not in fact generic, but very specific—or seem to be. When the U.S. Postal Service went looking recently for a close-up of the Statue of Liberty to illustrate a Forever stamp, they went to a stock art supplier for the image. The only problem, as the USPS discovered too late, was that the close-up was not of the actual Statue of Liberty, but of a replica in Las Vegas.

Needless to say, it helps to read the fine print. The Getty Images page for the photo, by photographer Raimund Linke, clearly states (now, at least) that the shot is of a replica statue in Las Vegas. If the website didn’t make the location of the statue clear when the postal service saw it, wouldn’t checking with Getty Images or Linke have been a good idea? No doubt the service would think so now.

The Gingrich site also highlights a third potential pitfall of stock shots: other people can use the same shots you do. This sometimes leads to memorable embarrassments: As the Wall Street Journal points out, the Gingrich crowd shot first appeared on a website for the late liberal democrat Ted Kennedy, accompanied by the phrase “we are the democratic majority.” The mind reels.

You can’t control who else uses stock images, so before you make your selection, ask yourself: What if your competitor, whether political or commercial, uses the same one? If that’s a concern, you may want to find an alternative to stock art.

In a perfect and well-funded world, stock art would never be needed. But the reality is that, from time to time, you will need to use it, and all too often when you’re on a critical deadline and can’t think clearly.  Tread carefully: As my own use of stock art above demonstrates, here be dragons.

UPDATE – April 26: As Paul Conley pointed out today via Twitter, when a stock photo is reused by enough people, it morphs from an embarrassment into a meme, as in the curious case of the Everywhere Girl.