A planned strike at a popular product review site has journalists around the country abuzz. Editors and reviewers for Wirecutter, a New York Times website, are planning a strike over the Thanksgiving holiday. The dispute raises some thorny issues about how product reviews are financed.
Many journalists look down on consumer review sites because they consider them basically frivolous. After all, who wants to write about toasters when you could interview the ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Something?
That view may be reflected in a drama now playing out at Wirecutter. The site may not be what many would expect from the Times, that once-staid bastion of journalism. Instead of dense texts on esoteric but important subjects, Wirecutter quite enthusiastically reviews all kinds of things, ranging from office chairs to pajamas.
This would not be too surprising, except that the Times takes a cut on anything consumers buy through links on the site. “Wirecutter is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission,” the site advises in small type at the top of each review.
Contrast this with the Wall Street Journal, which reviews products in some of its weekend sections. “The Wall Street Journal is not compensated by retailers listed in its articles as outlets for products. Listed retailers frequently are not the sole retail outlets,” the Journal sniffs at the bottom of each review.
Product reviewers pan the Times
To those who worry about unbiased, credible journalism, the Times policy may not smell too rosy. And now, added to that is a nasty labor dispute about to boil over as Black Friday, the annual display of retail excess, nears.
“We are planning to strike this Thanksgiving through Cyber Monday, November 25-29th, as the Wirecutter and the New York Times Company have refused to come to the bargaining table to avoid our strike despite us offering multiple dates to do so, including nights and weekends,” said a GoFundMe.com statement signed by Nick Guy, unit chair of the Wirecutter Union.
The News Guild, a unit of the Communications Workers of America, represents about 1,300 other NYT staffers. It secured recognition of Wirecutter staff members about two years ago. More than 90% of Wirecutter staff voted to authorize a November work stoppage, the NewsGuild said earlier.
As of Wednesday evening, the effort had raised $29,043.
A Times spokesperson said earlier this month its compensation proposal was more generous than the union had described and that it would continue to work toward an agreement, according to a Bloomberg report.
Mostly positive product reviews
While the employee journalists may be feeling grumpy about their pay, you wouldn’t know it from the reviews. All of the recommended products are described in jaunty language making them sound almost too good to be true, a notorious warning sign in consumer protection circles.
“It’s one of the most comfortable, supportive, and durable office chairs we’ve ever tested,” a staff reviewer gushed about the $1,000+ Steelcase Gesture office chair, one of four the site recommends. Each review has one or more links, complete with prices, that consumers can click to order the product, with the Times getting a commission for each sale.
Other reviews are for less expensive items, including one for Santa Claus hats. The top pick? A $43 version from Etsy.
Most news organizations make a careful distinction between news and advertising. News is supposed to be produced solely on the basis of merit – meaning that stories should be written because they are of public importance, not because they are paid for – with careful attention paid to accuracy and fairness.
Writing news stories in the hope that they will generate a sale is, in the view of many journalists, the peak of a very slippery slope.
“If you’re willing to bend your editorial product to the desires of a ski manufacturer today, you may bend them tomorrow to the will of a political party,” the Online News Association warns its members. “Ultimately, there’s the danger of gaining a reputation as a bought-and-paid-for publication, untrusted by readers and unable to attract quality staff.”
Getting paid on the basis of sales generated by reviews is by no means unique to Wirecutter. US News advises that it “takes an unbiased approach to our recommendations. When you use our links to buy products, we may earn a commission but that in no way affects our editorial independence.” ConsumerAffairs, a major review site, has a similar policy.
Most newspapers follow the Wall Street Journal’s policy that product reviews are news and should be treated as such.
The grandfather of product reviewers, of course, is Consumer Reports, a non-profit organization that makes its reviews available to its 6 million members and does not charge the companies whose products it reviews.
[Disclosure: The author of this story is the founder and former top editor of ConsumerAffairs.com.]