Editorial integrity, advertising appeal and being part of the solution (without selling your soul)

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.

ABM asked members of its Editorial Committee (which this fall will release an updated Editorial Code of Ethics specifically addressing native advertising and content marketing with an emphasis on labeling, design and context) to offer their opinions on the Time Inc. criteria for evaluating editors, as well as how editors can balance the need for journalistic integrity and independence with the need to be part of the business equation.

Willie Vogt, Corporate Editorial Director
Farm Progress
Ethics Chair of ABM’s Editorial Committee

I am concerned if management at SI is really using this measure on reporters. This tearing down between sales and editorial is a concern. Our role as journalists requires us to take on some tough topics, which won’t always please advertisers. But for me as a writer and editor my audience isn’t the advertiser, it’s the reader.

The addendum to our code of ethics is designed to provide a guide for new-media issues including native advertising and sponsor-generated content. This allows our members to take on these products online—which can be profitable—while still providing the readers the information they need to know the source of the content. That’s the essence of the update, define parameters for labeling and identifying this information.

Deborah Lockridge, Editor
Heavy Duty Trucking and TrickingInfo.com

On the surface, [the Time Inc. report] is pretty chilling.

However, it’s hard to know from the two articles I’ve seen the specifics of how exactly one defines “content that is beneficial to advertiser relationship,” as the SI spreadsheet puts it.

Serving our audience and being “beneficial to the advertiser relationship” are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

At our magazine, Heavy Duty Trucking, editors and the sales staff work together to come up with topics that are important to readers but also appeal to advertisers. That, of course, is not the same thing as giving advertisers favorable treatment or letting them control editorial in any way. Does it mean a salesperson might suggest one of their clients as a source? Yes. And I have gotten some very good sources this way. Does it mean a salesperson can promise the advertiser they will be a source? No.

I would have to say that this type of communication and cooperation between sales and editorial is generally looked upon favorably by management, but I haven’t seen anything official like the SI scoring.

The financial pressures aren’t just related to digital. It’s just more slippery with digital, because there are new ways being invented every day of presenting content and trying to make money on it. Traditional means of distinguishing between advertising and editorial may not be possible, which makes it more important than ever to make it clear to the reader where the content is coming from. That’s the goal behind the new ethics guidelines addendum we’ve been working on.

I don’t think very many editors have the luxury these days of barricading themselves off behind that “church/state” wall, whether B2B or consumer.

These days an editor must do much more than simply put out a quality magazine each week or month. We must be business partners in developing new ways to deliver the information our audience wants and needs. If our brand name is going to be on it, I want to be involved. If I’m not, the company could potentially develop products that reflect poorly on the editorial integrity of our brand.

It’s a simple fact that however we’re delivering content, whether print or digital or events or something we haven’t invented yet, they to be able to make money. You can’t avoid some consideration of advertiser needs and desires in that planning.

Bill McDowell, Vice President/Editorial Director
MTG Media Group

My reaction to the Gawker story was that it’s disturbing to see writers being scored this way, but I sense that the story is much more complicated than it looks on the surface. I walked away with more questions than answers. Who is scoring the writers’ advertiser relationships and how is this relationship being defined? Is it really about writers capitulating or offering quid pro quo? Or is that score more about the “brand clout” or audience draw that a particular writer commands that makes it easier to sell ad space in the magazine or the website? Those are two very different measures.

As for the second question, I think the business role for any writer or editor today is to deliver an engaged, loyal audience,. How to montetize that audience—thru ad sales, sponsorship, paid circ, premium paid content, etc.—is for each publication brand do work through.

But editors are doing themselves a big disservice if they don’t engage in that part of the discussion, because our ability to monetize the audience directly impacts the resources and tools we’ll have to serve that audience.

As dollars shift from advertising to other forms of marketing, editors need to be thinking aggressively about how their publication brands can make money from the great reporting and storytelling they’re doing. Over the past year or so, our company has made a concerted effort to encourage (and incentivize) our editors to specifically focus on developing paid content opportunties, like premium data products, ebooks, paid webinars or special reports that we can either sell on a pay-per-view basis or use as incentive toward some kind of premium subscription package.

It’s all a big experiment and the jury is out on what our readers will pay for, but the editors are pretty excited to really think like entrepreneurs because they stand to directly benefit from the results.

By Matt Kinsman

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One comment

  1. Howard Rauch

    Based on discussions I have had concerning the alleged Sports Illustrated skullduggery, it has occurred to me that perhaps we have been too hasty in our rush to trash SI’s editorial evaluation approach. Perhaps our outrage might be muffled if SI modified its job requirement description so that “produces content that is beneficial to advertisers” becomes something like “engages in activity beneficial to our marketing effort” or simply “beneficial marketing activity.”

    Sub components could include “consistently covers latest product developments in an authoritative manner” . . .”builds strong personal relationships with advertising decision makers” . . . “always delivers high-value editorial columns” . . . and other considerations that may come to mind. Regarding the “editorial column” bit, my experience with advertisers is that if nothing else, they always read the chief editor’s personal column.

    Also we should agree that advertisers are great sources of information. But this is “beneficial to the editorial and marketing teams” only if editors have had the resources required to build some strong relationships along the way.

    Last but not least, one of your panelists has questioned the methodology behind SI’s editorial evaluation scoring system. It appears this system is based on a range of 0-10 . . . with ten being best. I have always challenged the worth or systems where the scoring range is beyond something like 0-3. But perhaps that is an argument for another time.

    Howard Rauch, Ethics Committee Chairman
    American Society of Business Publication Editors

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