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Journalism and marketing debate: Blogging for payola

I recently exchanged e-mails with a blogger who writes about the home construction industry, hoping to get him interested in a new product from my client.

Payola has always hovered in the background of journalism. Until the last generation or two, it was common for newspaper reporters to receive gifts or even side jobs from businesses, promoters and other hoping to curry favor.

Even today, travel journalists often take free trips and lodging from resorts, cruise lines and others whom they may be writing about. Glossy, high-end magazines catering to fashion, entertainment and gossip audiences traditionally have had much looser restrictions on freebies than their newsier counterparts.

So it’s no surprise to hear that the new world of blogging is grappling with the issue of pay-to-play. Marketers have rushed to build relationships with bloggers, many of whom have developed substantial followings.

And in building those relationships, the bloggers sometimes get — or demand — free products and even cash payments. Earlier this year, Ann Taylor Loft held an “exclusive blogger preview” event for its summer clothing collection, offering gift cards to bloggers who wrote about the event.

I recently exchanged e-mails with a blogger who writes about the home construction industry, hoping to get him interested in a new product from my client, a major Minnesota-based manufacturer. The blogger replied with a note informing me that henceforth, he’d only be doing “sponsored blog posts,” and helpfully enclosed a price list.

Targeting ‘mommy bloggers’
So-called “mommy bloggers” have become an industry unto themselves, with advertisers scrambling to get a piece of this online real estate where millions of women discuss products. A recent New York Times story on mommy bloggers featured a discussion on how best to monetize one’s blog.

Now the Federal Trade Commission has stepped in, issuing guidelines that require disclosure by bloggers who receive money or freebies in return for reviewing or endorsing products.

In theory, there’s nothing wrong with requiring this sort of disclosure. In the world of commercial speech, more information is almost always the best option. But I question how the FTC could possibly enforce these guidelines. With millions of blogs on the Internet, the only plausible outcome would be a few high-profile cases meant to serve as a warning to others. It would play out much the same way as in the recording industry, which sued a mere handful of the millions of people who downloaded copyrighted music without permission.

And what’s wrong with a blogger making a living, anyway? God knows there are few enough secure, long-term jobs remaining in our modern economy — it seems that we’re all contractors these days, with a duty to ourselves above all else. So if a mommy blogger in Toledo gets a few free boxes of Pampers because she’s got 10,000 loyal readers — well, isn’t that free enterprise at work? She built an audience — why shouldn’t she make a buck off her efforts?

And if the federal government is going to require mommy bloggers to disclose their free Pampers, perhaps it could also require bankers to disclose their next round of toxic investments waiting to wreck the world economy.