Gawker made a splash this week with a report that says in addition to criteria such as “Quality of Writing” and “Productivity/Tenacity,” a Time Inc. spreadsheet used to evaluate writers and editors also contains a column titled, “Produces content that is beneficial to the advertiser relationship.”
The report was given to Gawker by the Newspaper Guild, which has filed an arbitration demand against Time Inc. to dispute the use of these criteria as a basis for writer lay-offs. While there’s probably more to it than a seemingly outrageous violation of ad/edit ethics (a Sports Illustrated spokesperson tells Gawker that “The Guild’s interpretation is misleading and takes one category out of context”), this story comes on the heels of a report that Conde Nast tried to recruit big-name writers in the food industry for a custom video series for seed giant Monsanto—without telling the writers that the project was an advertorial. On the surface, August hasn’t been a good month for editorial standards in the magazine industry.
At the same time, the survival of quality journalism may depend on editors playing a bigger role in the financial success of their companies. The two extremes of the edit/ad relationship fall into camps of “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” when it comes to business considerations, and pay-for-play. As is usually the case with extremes, both are wrong.
Historically regarded by publishing executives as a cost center, content creators who can help propose and realize programs with significant revenue derived from either advertising/sponsorship (while staying away from pay-for-play) or paid content can help raise their value exponentially. “Engaging with the business side does not automatically mean compromising professional integrity,” said Bill McDowell, vice president and editorial director of MTG Media during a session at ABM’s Regional Training Series in Chicago called “Raise Your Business IQ and Get a Better Seat at the Table.” Instead, McDowell urged editors to look for opportunities to create content that users will pay for.