On Saturday, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews had a blunt message: mask up, or face a $200 fine.
For retailers, the order was a big boost. Reusable masks sold out, websites crashed and shoppers stripped shelves of fabric and sewing machines in a rush to create DIY alternatives.
But for news.com.au, one of Australia’s most-read news websites, the latest health order was more than a news story. It was a commercial opportunity.
With its top story on Sunday focusing on Victoria’s new mask rule, the Murdoch-owned website was also running a listicle featuring reusable masks for sale — but you had to read the fine print indicating news.com.au “may receive an affiliate commission” if readers bought a mask via the link.
Flicking through the article, it was hard not to feel like it was one long advertisement.
After running through the announcement, and why wearing face masks was important, it listed available masks, their prices, available discounts and a helpful “shop here” link.
Affiliate links provide a small commission to the publisher when a reader clicks through and makes a purchase.
Such practices are increasingly common in a media industry where advertising dollars have fallen away and times are increasingly tight. At BuzzFeed, affiliate links have become core revenue.
When asked whether it was appropriate to be making money off the new mask order, news.com.au editor Kate de Brito told Crikey the affiliate links had been added to the story in error.
“This story was incorrectly added to our affiliate content section. This has been reassigned to lifestyle. It still contains links but there is no revenue attached to these,” de Brito told Crikey.
By 11.32am on Monday, more than 12 hours after the story was originally published, and after Crikey’s inquiries, the story had been amended, and the affiliated content label gone.
On top of the affiliated content issue, the masks question seems to be causing a little confusion in the world of News Corp. In its Monday editorial, The Australian got behind masking up, and, unusually, tried to pre-emptively avoid a silly culture war:
Masks are a health issue, not a political issue, and should be treated as such. Victorian authorities must ensure masks are readily available to all.
But not everyone at News Corp got the memo. Over in the Herald Sun’s funny pages, columnist Andrew Bolt preached that the mask order was “lousy science”.
“Making Victorians wear a mask looks like taking action without killing more jobs,” he wrote.
With masks now set to become a key part of the next phase of our virus response, expect more bad takes, plenty of culture warring, and a side serve of sponsored content.