Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Seeking guidance in ethical guidelines

My fellow B2B media blogger David Shaw has exactly the sort of post on his site that I like to see -- a transparent look at a how a B2B publisher handles a controversial issue.
I won't say much more here than this -- David is maintaining his professional ethics amid a challenging sales environment. Everyone in the press should take a look.
In recent weeks I've had two disconcerting conversations with B2B journalists about ethics. In the first, a group of editors sought my advice because they were having a hard time resisting pressure from advertising sales staff who wanted promises of frequent, positive coverage of advertisers. In the second conversation, a B2B editor I work with argued that he was free to run in-house ads about conferences and new products as news stories, not as ads, because such pieces are "BIG news for our customers."
The common denominator in those tales of journalistic immorality is the mistaken belief that a business need trumps an ethical requirement.
That's why I'm always pleased by people such as David, who don't think the trade magazine business model gives us some sort of free pass on ethics.
If you're in doubt about what is, or is not acceptable, take a look at ABM's guidelines on professional ethics. The ASBPE also publishes ethics guidelines, although they are not as clear and are in need of an update. They are available on the group's Web site.
If you are being pressured by advertisers, publishers, fellow journalists or ad sales people to do something wrong, this is my advice:
First, explain why their request is unethical. It's my experience that many an ethical slip happens because people on the editorial side assume everyone knows the rules, but are choosing to ignore them. But there are many folks on the business side of a publication who are simply unfamiliar with journalism ethics. Be courteous. Strike up a conversation. Odds are you'll find that your coworkers are uninformed, not unethical.
Second, don't budge. Giving even a little bit on these issues always ends in disaster. Fight early, fight loudly and fight in public. Get other journalists from your company involved. Take your complaints to the publisher, to the board and to your readers.
If that fails, tell the offending party that you're willing to forsake your ethics and imperil your career if they will do the same -- you'll give them the coverage they want, if they give you sex and cash.
That usually shuts them up.

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  1. Paul,
    Business needs vs. journalistic ethical integrity seems to be an issue that always has plagued trade magazines, at least since I have been working as an editor in the industry. I recently have been named editor for three small trade publications. Although we don’t have a policy of promoting specific companies in editorial, we do know who our best advertisers are and will do an occasional “company profile” piece or allow them to contribute a non self-promotional article. My conscience has not been affected in this case, though, because these three publications had suspended publication earlier due to lack of enough advertising to cover the costs of the magazine. Perhaps I am na├»ve, but I told myself when I started in this position that I will do what I have to do, because it’s either this way or my audience doesn’t get a magazine at all.
    Matt Mullen

  2. Hi Matt,
    Thanks for your comment.
    I assure you, you're not the only person to decide they must do what they have to do to keep a magazine alive.
    But I would urge you to adhere to the guidelines that protect our integrity. Selling out on ethics can destroy your career, and the careers of everyone around you.
    I'm not saying that you have, in fact, done that. Because it's not yet clear to me that you have crossed a line.
    For example, you say that you allow advertisers to "contribute a non self-promotional article." That's fine, I think, as long as it's clear that the piece was written by someone OUTSIDE the magazine. Tons of trade magazines use industry executives as freelance writers and columnists. I only object when the article doesn't include their names, titles, etc. In other words, it's unethical to mislead your audience. Transparency is the way to protect your readers and your reputation.
    I'm less comfortable with doing company profiles. My experience has been that these things are clearly tied to advertising content...and everyone -- including your readers -- senses it. If a company is worth a profile, do it. If not, don't. One easy way to test is to ask yourself if you would do a profile of one of that company's non-advertising competitors. If the answer is no, then don't run the profile of your advertiser.
    On one last note, I'd urge you to ask the tough questions about your magazines. Is it possible that the reason your three publications had to suspend publication for lack of advertising was BECAUSE you have practiced something less than the highest standards? When I talk to B2B advertisers, they sometimes talk about the trade magazines in their industries with contempt. And when I ask them about it, they tell me that they don't respect the publication. I've heard B2B advertisers talk about "whores" and "fake journalists" -- things I never heard when I worked in the consumer press (although I heard other insults: "partisan hacks," etc.)
    When you allow your advertisers, sales staff and/or publisher to push you beyond the ethical boundaries, it is the advertisers who will turn on you.
    In closing, please think about this: when a trade magazine cannot sell advertising, it can be because a) the advertising staff is simply not good enough, or b) the magazine's market is shrinking, or c) the economy is awful, or d) the magazine is awful.
    It is NEVER because the magazine is too ethical.

  3. Excellent points. This is a new position for me, and I have been given broad authority to take the magazines in my own direction.

    In regards to your comments, we're still OK for the most part. If we take a non self-promotional article, it must be useful and timely for our readers, and the author’s name and company always appears.

    Company profiles are trickier. I think the key point you make is transparency. I don't present them as editorial, but perhaps I don't do enough to make a distinction. I limit the promotional content, but at the same time they are only somewhat useful for our audience, and they tend to be somewhat boring. Perhaps I shouldn't do them at all.

    In regards to lack of advertising revenues in the prior version of these magazines, I would think the answer is (b) “the magazine’s market is shrinking” in combination with a lot of consolidation in the corporate advertisers that usually advertise in our magazines. (Our magazines are for U.S. farmers of rice, peanuts and tobacco.) Regardless, I’m doing my best to make them the best publications I can for our audience with limited budgets and personnel. Then, I hope, (d) “the magazine is awful”, won’t be a factor.

    Thanks for your comments. I enjoy the blog.

  4. Matt,
    One thing I know in my heart is this: the editorial staffers who can succeed even in difficult times are folks like you -- willing to think about what's right, able to consider new ways of doing things and unafraid to talk openly about their challenges.
    Thanks for sharing. Guys like you give us reason to be proud of our role as B2B journalists.
    Thanks again for reading the blog. Please keep me posted.

  5. Jeez, will we ever decide if we're journalists or just marketers of information. Even well-informed editors disagree.

    Why is there more of a church-state separation in newspapers than in with business and trade mags. Why should it be a different animal?

    Plus, more than one organization has a code of ethics, which how manny publishers adhere to? And why can't we standardize these codes and have just one for business, trade, and association mags? Alas, they are just voluntary anyway, and you know what that means. Are we going to kick anyone out of work or the profession like the AMA MIGHT do with doctors?

    It's not journalism, Sonny. It's business -- so much publishing and marketing.

    What are we going to do? At ASBPE one of our goals is to provide continuing education on these issues, which we discuss on our member's only discussion forum and at meetings. We try to provide arguments editors can use. Look us up at www.asbpe.org.

    "Like a steam locomotive, rolling down the track, he's gone, he's gone and nothing's gonna bring him back."

  6. Robin,
    Thanks for your comments.
    I'm not sure that your group or the other associations in B2B publishing will ever reach the point where someone would be thrown out for violating an ethics guideline.
    But I'd certainly applaud such a move.
    In the meantime, I'm pleased that you offer support to those people who recognize that they are journalists, rather than public-relations pros, copy writers or information salesmen.

  7. The tough thing about editorial ethics is not their ability to be understood. Our trade's guidelines are essentially very simple, with a single, basic concept at their core -- everything you do as an editor and all editorial content should be chosen and created solely on the basis of its value to the readership. Keep that in mind always and adhere to it and you won't go astray.

    Over my tenure editing trade journals, I've gained some pretty good insight into why maintaining editorial ethics is often such a challenging trick. Almost never does the issue reside in an unwillingness on the part of an editor to uphold them. After all, those of us who choose to enter this field tend to be a rather moral, altruistic bunch. Rather, the difficulty most commonly stems from business-side pressures, like those Matt seems to be dealing with.

    It's not that our colleagues on the business side are inherently unethical. Having spent time on that side, I learned rather quickly the hefty level of incessant pressure brought to bear by advertisers on their magazine space reps. Since their entire job revolves around selling space, there's little incentive for sales reps to fight that pressure. It's easier to refocus it on the editors. In doing so, reps actually feel they're doing the right thing, i.e. advocating for their clients.

    I once had a vice president who described this phenomenon as "waves breaking against the shore," with the waves being the reps' requests to bend the rules and the editor being, you guessed it, the beach.

    What is most important in that is the support of the magazine's executives for the ethics guidelines. ABM, in its newly revised policy, uses the Neal Awards for this purpose. Any magazine that violates the policy is disqualified from the competition.

    At VNU, in our new corporate policy, we've been able to go a step further. The policy has been endorsed by the CEO with language written in to provide for dispute resolution. This is critical since sales reps can often be quite eloquent in their arguments.

    Of course the goal is to be able to resolve issues at the editor/publisher level. And what this often calls for is a very strong editor, at least one who is willing to be a vocal advocate for ethical practices. That, perhaps, is often the most difficult part of our job.

    The upside, however, is that following the rules -- when combined with editorial quality -- elevates the credibility of the publication. Then, the advertising dollars in the market will migrate toward you as the best context for delivery of their message.

    Hope all this doesn't sound as stuffy as it does to me in reading it over. As a side note, the major change in the updating of the ABM code is the addition of language from the American Society of Magazine Editors covering specific rules for distinguishing paid from editorial content. This is an area much of the Editorial Committee had wanted to firm up in the code for quite some time. But it also comments on the increasing interest on the part of marketers to find ways to blur the line.

  8. Whitney,
    Thanks for your comments. They don't sound stuffy to me. To my editorially focused ears, they sound like music.
    NOTE TO READERS: Whitney knows what he's talking about. He's had to fight the good fight, and ABM has honored him for his efforts.
    See here for more info: