How Amazon Ate Service Journalism

Tethered to the whims of a tech behemoth, product recommendations are looking less like editorial and more like e-commerce marketing

The Washington Post newsroom is not the only place where journalists feel like they’re working for Jeff Bezos these days. As product recommendations — that is, those shopping stories that offer a disclaimer about how the publisher may earn a commission if you purchase something through their links — have become a more important revenue stream for digital media, some editors tell The Fine Print they feel like it’s Amazon, and its ever-evolving and increasingly dominant affiliate marketing program, that is calling the shots.

BuzzFeed, which launched its product recommendation team in 2017, now has a shopping section dedicated to referral links to online retailers like Amazon, Target, and Sam’s Club, as part of a business strategy that one of its executives once likened to “an octopus climbing a tree.” One former staffer explained that BuzzFeed grades all of its shopping writers and editors on their individual performance at generating affiliate revenue. “Obviously, the more you linked to Amazon, the more your numbers were going to go up,” said the source.

The way Amazon’s affiliate program works is not as simple as collecting commissions on the sales of recommended products. If someone clicks an affiliate link to Amazon, the linking site gets a percentage of any “qualifying” items they put in their shopping cart on that same visit, whether they end up buying the recommended product or not. From a publisher’s perspective, this creates an incentive to look for ways to get people to make more Amazon purchases, no matter what they buy.

When BuzzFeed crunched the numbers on which products were converting the best for them, the source said, one, in particular, stood out — the TubShroom, a $13 piece of silicone that catches hair in bath drains. BuzzFeed’s product team made it easy for writers to copy and paste the TubShroom and other top sellers into stories and, conceivably, boost their individual performance scores. “So that just helped this continuous cycle,” the source said, “just like promoting the same products.”

In the four years since the TubShroom was featured in its own BuzzFeed article, it has been included in countless shopping listicles, including “37 Practical Items That May Not Be Fun To Look At But You Probably Need,” “32 Things Under $20 That Every Adult Probably Needs,” “25 Game-Changing Products For If You’re Finding It Difficult Living With Housemates ATM,” and “20 Cleaning Products You Need If Hair Is Covering Every Surface Of Your House.”

Product recommendations have long been a mainstay of service journalism, whether overt — like the venerable titles Good Housekeeping and Consumer Reports — or more subtle, like the fashion, beauty, technology, and other lifestyle pages in magazines and newspapers. And given the fundamental role such content can play in publishers’ bottom lines, it has long been a source of tension between advertising sales and editorial independence. For example, there’s an unspoken understanding at fashion magazines that editors are more likely to feature looks from designers who purchase a lot of ad pages than those who do not.

But just as modern e-commerce (which these days mostly means Amazon) has overturned the old rules of retailing, affiliate marketing is changing the nature of product recommendations, replacing winks and nods with more explicit industrial-strength marketing techniques. In February, Digiday reported that 66 percent of publishing professionals who participated in its annual survey identified affiliate marketing as a source of revenue, up from 57 percent in 2020.

“It lives in the back of everybody’s mind knowing that Amazon is this huge source of revenue for them, but you’re at their whims,” said one editor at Hearst. “If they have whatever terms they want to dictate, I don’t know who really has much power to negotiate with them.”

“There’s an ethical piece,” said a former Meredith editor of publishers’ choices to prioritize Amazon products. “But I think there’s the business piece where I don’t think this makes sense in the long run. It’s like we’re just digging our own grave.”

As the pandemic took hold last year and lockdowns spurred more people than ever to rely on online shopping, Amazon’s hold over publishers became abundantly clear. In March 2020, the tech giant (along with Walmart) temporarily suspended its commerce marketing deals with affiliate networks like Skimlinks, which helped major publishers optimize how they monetized traffic between multiple online retailers. Some in the industry interpreted the move as an attempt by Amazon to cut out third-party networks and make publishers work directly with it instead.

Around the same time, as Amazon experienced supply chain shortages and overwhelming consumer demand, it announced it would be slashing its affiliate commission rates. But after a brief industry-wide panic, large publishers breathed a sigh of relief when it turned out that only small-time partners, including independent publishers and individual influencers, would bear the brunt of the rate cuts.

The steady decline of Amazon commission rates in recent years is a sign of its increasing dominance in affiliate marketing, with some editors saying the pressure to promote Amazon links in product recommendations is only increasing. “You’re having to butt heads with a centralized team that mostly wants you to use Amazon or these big, big, big, big retailers. And so it doesn’t feel as if your editorial choice is valued in e-commerce as much as it might have been a few years ago,” said a Hearst editor.

This editor said it is not uncommon for staffers to see links in their stories changed without their knowledge after they’ve been published. “I can understand one substitution here or there. But when a product is on Amazon for a significantly greater cost than it is from an independent retailer, for example, that doesn’t do our readers any service.”

“In media, your most valuable resource is your editorial, right?” said the former Meredith editor, “And you’re giving Amazon just reams and reams and reams of free editorial.”

Not all the recommendation editors we spoke to said they felt this kind of pressure. One Condé Nast editor said the beauty industry is relatively unconquered by Amazon—and those recommendations are still held to high testing standards at the publisher.

Emma Wartzman, a kitchen and dining writer at The Strategist, said that she and her fellow staffers strictly recommend products that experts stand behind. “It’s me calling ten chefs or food people and being like, ‘What is your favorite olive oil?’ Or, ‘What is your favorite pot?’ It’s real reporting in that sense.” She said she makes an effort to provide links to smaller retailers for people who try to avoid the e-commerce giant. But she also knows that Amazon is where many readers find it most convenient to shop and includes those links if products are available on Amazon. “In a certain sense, it’s just like that’s where a lot of stuff is sold,” she said.

The Strategist also devotes entire posts to products based solely on Amazon reviews, often headlined as “According to Hyperenthusiastic Reviewers” and with a byline of “The Editors.” A spokesperson said those guides are written by “members of The Strategist’s regular editorial staff” and that they “are treated with the same editorial rigor as a reported roundup or a gift guide.”

Amazon’s reliance on publishers to create content for them may also be changing. In recent years, Amazon has poached editors from publications like Esquire and Vogue. And lately, it’s begun integrating the publisher recommendation content directly onto its site through an “Onsite Associates Program” as an extension of the affiliate marketing program, which “brings product-related content from third-parties onto Amazon to help customers research and discover products.”

One of the forefathers of the affiliate marketing revenue publishing model is Brian Lam, who founded the recommendations site The Wirecutter in 2011 and sold it to The New York Times in 2016. In the early days of The Wirecutter, Lam recalled, “We really gave a shit and we just kind of treated it as art by being crazy and doing things that would never make sense to a business person. You know, like doing a 10,000-word review of a five-dollar ballpoint pen. Like, those economics don’t work, but that’s not really what it’s about. It’s kind of like, we’re crazy to do this thing. It’s so fun. And, you know, it helps people.”

Now, though, he said, “It’s just absolutely disgusting out there.” (He did, however, give Wirecutter credit: “Their work is still so valid. And I get nothing for saying this.” He no longer owns a stake in the site.) Lam suggested that the declining trust in the field might allow those who choose products based on rigorous testing and expertise, rather than bowing to affiliate demands, to stand out.

“There’s a competitive advantage to just being an editorially-minded person, in actually trying to do the service right,” he said. “Because every one of those publications that is cutting corners and changing picks because they can get more money, it’s always just the business person making that call. And it just comes down to: Does the person in charge care more about finding something that’s going to help someone who’s reading the publication? Or are they looking to exploit that person?”

Meanwhile, when it comes to finding products he trusts, Lam said, “I’ve gone back to asking friends.”

But the trends in the affiliate marketing landscape appear to be going in the opposite direction. Even the mainstay Consumer Reports, which has long taken pride in the fact that it shunned advertising and relied solely on subscription revenues and grants in order to maintain editorial integrity, has begun collecting online commissions.

“I think it’s just a classic case of you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket,” said the former BuzzFeed staffer. “Amazon’s entire business model,” said a Hearst editor, “is like setting people up to cut their own throats.”