Times are tough for traditional publishers, particularly print publishers. Thanks to the internet, print revenue is down and content is, in many markets, increasingly little more than an abundant commodity.

But that doesn’t mean publishers aren’t trying. Companies like MediaNews Group, for instance, which is the second largest newspaper company in the U.S. as measured by
circulation, are trying to capitalize on the digital
opportunity by experimenting with new models and investing in new ideas. Underneath the surface, however, things don’t look so good.

Case in point: a tipster alerted me to the fact that a number of the newspapers owned by MediaNews Group appear to be blatantly selling links.

Look at, for instance, the footers of the websites of the San Jose Mercury News, the Marin Independent Journal and the Oakland Tribune — all newspapers owned by MediaNews Group — and you’ll notice something sketchy:

It doesn’t take a veteran SEO to recognize what these are: links, presumably paid for by advertisers, in the hope that the PageRank generally thought to be associated with reputable, quality websites (like those operated by newspapers) will provide some powerful SEO juice for their online properties. 

Caught. Red handed. What other explanation could there be? 

This, of course, is not the first time a major publisher has been caught selling links, a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. Here in the UK, the Express Group was caught last year selling advertorials designed to help advertisers with their SEO, but in that instance, a devil’s advocate could make the argument there was actual content which might be relevant to someone. In the case of MediaNews Group, there’s little more than a shameless ‘stick-a-bunch-of-links-in-the-footer‘ approach, which in my opinion, reflects a total lack of respect for readers.

Stuffing a bunch of links in the footer of every page of a newspaper websites to websites peddling everything from psychic readings to payday loans says a lot about how much MediaNews Group values its readers. It also looks desperate. After all, why would a newspaper with a large, valuable audience resort to hawking ads for the most questionable of websites? 

Consider the paid link on the San Jose Mercury News website promoting “Charity Shopping.” The site it links to — dogoodtoolbar.com — encourages users to install a toolbar that will supposedly generate revenue for charities. According to the website, “at least 50% [of profits] will go to charity.” But no specifics are provided, and there’s no contact information for the people behind the toolbar. The domain registration information is hidden, and even though one can’t always judge a book by its cover, the website hardly inspires confidence. The link on the San Jose Mercury News website, of course, is there for search engines, not real people, but the mere fact that a reputable newspaper would place a link in the footer of every single page of its site to another website that that screams “RED FLAG!” is just mind-boggling.

There has been a lot of talk about paid links and questionable SEO strategies in light of Google’s recent crackdowns on major retailers and content farms. But for traditional publishers struggling to survive and thrive in the digital age — particularly newspapers — a Google penalty is not the top concern. The bigger concern: finding legitimate long-term business models that are sustainable. If the MediaNews Group’s links are any indication, some of the largest traditional publishers have a long way to go.