Reviewing And Selling Books And CDs: Conflict-of-Interest?

Last week, science writer Barbara Strauch talked to Morning Edition about her new book on how the middle age brain can actually flourish rather than falter as people age.

One can also find the interview on NPR.org along with a transcript. Also on the same page as the interview is a link to buy The Secret Life of The Grown-up Brain on Amazon.com or the Independent Booksellers.

NPR's decision to provide links making it easy to purchase CDs or books that NPR highlights is an issue that occasionally troubles some in NPR's audience.

"I was wondering about the practice of sponsoring links to books that shows like Morning Edition have reviewed," wrote Robert Blaskiewicz a while back. "If nothing else, it seems like a conflict of interest, and especially without disclosure on air of the fact that NPR has a stake in how people purchase copies of the reviewed book."

Here's how it works: If listeners purchase the book, a "portion" of the purchase goes to NPR. [Book links don't tell you that; music purchase links do.]

"NPR has agreements with independent online retailers that enable visitors to npr.org to purchase books, music and other related merchandise mentioned on NPR through third party sites," according to a music link. "A portion of that revenue is designated to NPR."

To some listeners, it looks like NPR is promoting an album or author and then offering a purchase link as a way to bring in revenue.

"Somewhere somebody at NPR is going to have to address the tough question - you get revenue sharing on books and music like this, and at the same time you never give books or music hard reviews," wrote Tom Hendricks, editor of Musea, an online music magazine. "For me, that is not fair journalism. That seems to be dangerously close to payola and kickbacks."

On its face, it might appear that he has a point since 12 percent of NPR's audience purchased music online in the last 30 days (although not always through NPR.org), according to the latest NPR audience research.

In the last 12 months, 24 percent of NPR's audience bought books online, according to the same research.

But Hendricks is not correct about NPR's main motivation, says Sarah Lumbard, senior director of product development and strategy. "We only do it as a service for readers or listeners," said Lumbard.

NPR tested the concept three years ago on a few user-groups to see if they found the links ethically problematic.

"When we asked people would these links bother you, they said quite the contrary," said Joe Matazzoni, who edits the Arts & Life section of NPR.org. "We'd fault you if you didn't provide the convenience."

NPR's chief counsel, Joyce Slocum, said that the terms of NPR's contracts with Amazon and other online retailers are confidential and she can't provide details. It is "a welcome, but tiny, part of NPR's revenues," said Slocum.

Here are the standard agreements for Amazon.com, Independent Booksellers and iTunes, though NPR may have special deals.

Anya Grundmann, executive producer of NPR Music, said it's not even a line item in her budget.

Hendricks is correct that NPR tends not to do negative music reviews.

Grundmann said NPR Music is not trying to be a comprehensive music guide. "Reviews are not our primary goal," she said. "We are likely to do a thoughtful commentary but we leave it to sites like Pitchfork.com for comprehensive reviews of new releases."

Some NPR on-air shows present music reviews, but they're more likely to report about or interview musicians than to feature serious criticism.

"There are more than 10,000 CDs released a year," said Grundmann, explaining why they don't do many negative reviews. "Why spend time on things we don't think are worthwhile. We've chosen to be a filter for good stuff rather than negative criticism."

The books section operates similarly but is more likely to include unflattering book reviews.

NPR shows compete with each other for author interviews, particularly with famous authors. NPR.org tries to complement on-air choices with its book reviews and other Web-only offerings.

"Our philosophy is evolving with our success," said Matazzoni. "We started off a few years ago thinking our job was to try to find good books rather than cover the whole publishing world. We've gotten more ambitious about covering publishing and are doing more negative reviews."

He noted Alan Cheuse's recent negative online review of Ian McEwan's Solar, and Susan Jane Gilman's review of David Remnick's Obama biography, The Bridge, on All Things Considered.

Matazzoni said that if a book is popular or getting a lot of buzz and the staff thinks it will interest NPR's audience, he's increasingly trying to look at it, whether the review is critical or not.

NPR's radio shows tend to do more author interviews than the website. While these interviews are not specifically endorsements, they can become de facto recommendations since the hosts almost always read the books beforehand – and if they don't find them worth finishing, it's less likely they will pursue the interviews.

"Interviews are a gray area," said Matazzoni. "I think the audience sometimes perceives them as endorsements. And it's often the case. But we also interview authors – especially for nonfiction — because they are experts on a subject or because they just have a great story to tell. Or because they've written the book of the season, and that's news."

I did a quick check to see if other major news sites, such as the Washington Post, the New York Times and NBC's Today Show, link online to buy books they have featured. They often offer links to an artist's website but don't provide the ability to easily purchase the book or CD. [Although the NYT provides links to buy books on its Bestseller Lists.]

"We are doing this as a service," said NPR CEO Vivian Schiller. "We are happy with whatever revenue it generates. But it's not a get-rich quick scheme."

Is it a conflict-of-interest for a news organization to make a profit (however small) from sales of products that it also reviews? Not necessarily – IF the news organization is upfront about the fact that is both providing a service and earning revenue from that service.

NPR now makes such a disclosure only on its music web site. A similar disclosure also should be given to those who buy books through npr.org.

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