Who’s Paying for the News on Time’s Website?

More and more news organizations use links to recommendations to keep people on their sites. Recommendations like these would seem to add value for the audience. But are these links being used to embed fake news and pay-for-play content?

While reading an article on Time’s website the other day, I noticed a few boxes under the articles labeled: “You Might Also Like,” “We Recommend” and “From Around the Web.” The fonts and layout matched the rest of the site, but the articles — featuring a woman in a Wonder Woman costume, a review of a fancy oven and a list of the “Most Worthless Players in the NBA” — seemed out of place.

It turns out that Time did not recommend these links. Instead, they were organized and compiled by two other companies Time contracts with, Taboola and Outbrain.

Clicking on Taboola’s very small logo in the corner of the recommendations takes you to a popup box that reads “These video picks are recommended for you by Taboola and our other video publisher partners, some of whom pay to include their videos here.”

Similarly, Outbrain’s popup informs us that “Our platform provides publishers a service for recommended links to increase traffic and generate revenue, and marketers a way to distribute their content alongside [the] publisher’s own editorial recommendations.”

Time isn’t alone in using these services. Taboola lists Bloomberg, CNN, Fox, the New York Times, USA Today and many others on its site. Outbrain’s clients include Allstate, GE, MarketWatch, NBC News and Reuters.

Time includes another set of links in the sidebar labeled “Sponsored Links,” which makes the undisclosed sponsorship happening via Taboola and Outbrain even more problematic. In the 2011 Federal Communications Commission report on the information needs of communities, the agency noted that “one of the most worrisome developments in local TV journalism is the rise of ‘pay-for-play’ business deals in which news coverage is directly shaped by advertisers.” Do the widgets on Time’s site amount to pay-for-play news? Will most readers be able to tell the difference?

You be the judge —below is a slide show of screen shots from Time, Taboola and Outbrain.

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