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September 30, 2019

Tribune Newspapers Blur the Line Between Advertising and News

Filed under: Internet,Retail — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:05 am

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Several prominent newspapers in the Tribune family are now devoting entire sections of their websites to product reviews. Sounds great – a good consumer service. The problem is that the articles amount to a form of advertising because the papers get paid for each product sold, and they don’t disclose that fact to readers upfront.

Here is a screen capture of the product review section from the Chicago Tribune:

Chicago Tribune consumer reviews

Scroll down the list.

Some of what they cover are important topics such as “The Best Men’s Slipper,” “The Best Baby Bath Toy,” “The Best Nipple Pasties,” and “The Best Cake Pop Maker.” These certainly are the type of reviews that shoppers are clamering to read, MrConsumer opines sarcastically.

A full page of stories/reviews also appear in the consumer review section of the Sun Sentinel (Florida), the New York Daily News, the Baltimore Sun, and other Tribune newspapers.

Here is an excerpt of the men’s slipper story, as an example. Note that the links to the three “best” slippers all go to Amazon.


Chicago Tribune Slippers story excerpt

Scroll down the story to see links.

Those links are affiliate links where Amazon (in this case) pays a small commission if a reader buys any of those slippers. Hovering over the link reveals a “tag” used by Amazon to identify the affiliate so it knows whom to compensate.


Tribune affiliate link

That commission on each sale is shared between both the newspaper and the service that provided the reviews, BestReviews. Tribune Publishing is a majority owner of BestReviews. The review company says it strives to be 100% objective because it buys all the products it tests. But the company admits it doesn’t really test all the products it writes about.


“For some product categories we solely use research and consumer feedback to create the information in our review.”

If you didn’t realize that the newspaper publishing these stories makes money via those links, that is no accident. The paper only discloses that financial connection at the very end of each review.


Chicago Tribune disclaimer

Federal Trade Commission guidelines for both product endorsements and native advertising (where advertising looks like regular editorial content) require clear disclosure if there is a financial connection between the parties, and that advertising content that looks like regular articles be clearly labeled. Whether the Tribune has violated the law is up to the FTC to decide, but we think they could do a better job of disclosing at the top of these articles that both the company that wrote the stories and the newspaper that publishes them make money if readers make a purchase through the provided links.

We asked editors at the Chicago Tribune, the Sun Sentinel, and the Tribune entity that distributes these stories some very pointed questions about their review section. None of the three responded to our inquiries.

The use of affiliate links in traditional media stories seems to be increasing. So (unfortunately) you have to look carefully to see if a website posting a story about a particular product might also be recommending it because they have a financial incentive. If so, take that into account.

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  1. The Tech reporters, CNET and PC World do this as well, including in your Facebook feed if you follow them, with no disclosures

    Comment by David Bookbinder — September 30, 2019 @ 8:24 am
  2. Gannett also does this via its USA Today app. I have not seen it in its print publications–yet. To Gannett’s credit, the required disclosure is very evident.

    Comment by Uniangulo — September 30, 2019 @ 9:46 am
  3. This is almost assuredly not in line with the legally required disclosures for native advertising and it is definitely not in the spirit of the guidelines for native advertising.

    Hopefully this is something that is looked into, I remember the FTC cracking down on “Instagram Influencers” and other social media accounts doing something similar.

    Comment by Joel — September 30, 2019 @ 11:14 am
  4. The Wirecutter, a New York Times company, is another product review site that earns a commission when you buy through their links. More disturbing to me is that the venerable institution Consumers Union (Consumer Reports) now also states: ‘When you shop through retailer links on our site, we may earn affiliate commissions. 100% of the fees we collect are used to support our nonprofit mission.’ I purchased a portable generator that Consumer Reports recommended. Their shopping link sent me to Amazon where the price is $1035, but I found the same generator at Harbor Freight for $699.

    Edgar replies: You are absolutely correct — the commission-paying links are all over, sometimes with good disclosure, sometimes not. We pointed out last December in our story “Even Angels Quietly Make Money Referring Buyers to Sellers” that even places like Consumer Reports and Oprah’s Favorite Things all make money when you buy a product they mention using their links.

    Comment by Bob — September 30, 2019 @ 12:10 pm
  5. If I want a review I want it from an official site.

    Comment by richard Ginn — September 30, 2019 @ 12:52 pm
  6. Surprise, surprise – not! This was all so predictable. Once so-called sponsored ads came into existence, it was only a matter of time when the slippery slope would kick on. The Tribune should be ashamed of itself.

    Comment by HMC — October 1, 2019 @ 8:57 am
  7. Pure greed is ok if you are uninformed. Andy that you can not fix stupid for those who want to drink at that trough.

    Comment by dun — October 13, 2019 @ 12:14 am

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