The Link Economy

What are the ethical issues involved in paying for traffic?

In a recent entry at his Web site,, the journalist Greg Beato writes about what he calls the “bizarre love triangle” between Andrew Breitbart, the Drudge Report, and the newswire Reuters. According to Beato, in October 2005 Reuters approached Breitbart with a proposal: rather than charging him to publish their stories at his eponymous news portal,, Reuters would pay him to link to those stories at its site,

After the deal was struck, Beato writes, Reuters was for a period also given priority over other newswires on Breitbart’s site, which carries all the stories produced by various wire services (this is no longer the case). At the same time, the Drudge Report, the agenda-setting site where Breitbart works as Matt Drudge’s second-in-command, dramatically increased the frequency with which it linked to from twenty-nine times between Jan. 1 and Oct. 14, 2005, to 229 times from Oct. 15 to Dec. 31 of that year.

The facts of this case aren’t fully known, and may be subject to change. Beato says that Breitbart declined to comment, Drudge didn’t respond to an interview request, and Reuters would not discuss many elements of the arrangement, including whether the Drudge Report links are formally part of the deal.

More broadly, though, it raises some interesting questions about how aggregators select content, and how news producers distribute it. For wire services and other producers of content, are there pitfalls—either ethical or practical—to paying for traffic, rather than charging for content?

And for aggregators, are there dangers to accepting such payments? Might they undercut the premise that editorial judgment is driving the selection of links? Does it matter whether a reader sees, for example, an AP or Reuters account of the same story? Or is this just part of the new news marketplace?

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.