Certain articles and blog posts on the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune websites sport a few choice words tinted green. The green words are links to e-commerce sites like Amazon.com and TicketNetwork, which the media company that owns the two newspapers hopes will be a new source of financial green.
The green links don’t appear in breaking, national or local news articles. They’re in blog posts along with sports, health, food, and entertainment stories. In a review of “Iron Man 2,” for example, a click on the green words “Iron Man” calls up a page on which readers may buy the first film in the franchise on DVD. If a reader does that, the newspapers get a small percentage of the sale.
Bill Adee, vice president of digital development at Chicago Tribune Media Group says newspapers are trying a lot of different strategies to generate cash on the Web.
"Doing the green links works better than anything else I've seen," he says. "It’s not a lot of money though."
The Chicago Tribune piloted the green links for six months, then they started popping up in some Los Angeles Times articles. Adee says they're still an experiment that doesn’t pay enough to underwrite a full-time position yet.
Geneva Overholser, Director of USC Annenberg School of Journalism, worries the links move newspapers into some dicey terrain.
"What is to keep the news operation from enhancing its opportunity to bring in revenues by including more material that is e-commerce linkable?" she asks.
But Overholser is realistic about the collapse of old media business models. She knows all newspapers need to find ways to support their content on the Web.
"This is not a subject that has been very widely discussed as a journalistic ethic because newspapers have been so fearful about doing it," says Overholser.
She says by making the links green and adding a disclaimer at the end of the article, the newspapers are being straightforward about the links' purpose: e-commerce and not editorial content. The green links experiment, Overholser says, will spark a discussion among media watchers about the intersection of journalism and e-commerce.
"I welcome that opportunity," says Overholser, "because frankly if we don’t find sustainable business models for newspapers, we’re not gonna have a lot to argue about."