Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Ethics survey points to B2B media's failings

I'm torn.
A new survey by the American Society of Business Publication Editors says B2B journalists have "serious" concerns about how publishers handle ethics issues.
Obviously it's good news that journalists are worried about ethics issues. But just as obvious is that it's bad news that there's so much to be concerned about.
According to the survey:
-- At B2B publications that have a formal ethics policy, nearly a third of the editors said their company "only sometimes" backs them up for taking an ethical stand.
-- 40% of respondents said they were aware of sales staff engaging in unethical behavior.
And what sort of unethical stuff is happening out there? The journalists in the survey suggest that publishers blur the lines between advertising and editorial content, let advertisers review copy before publishing and force editors to make sales calls.

I applaud ASBPE for its work in this area. (FULL DISCLOSURE: ASBPE is planning to issue a new ethics policy this year. The group asked for my input, and I was glad to provide it.)
I have applauded ABM, ASME and TABPI for their work on ethics too, while condemning the Newsletter and Electronic Publishers group for failing to behave ethically.
But look...the simple truth is that B2B publishing is still riddled with inappropriate behavior. And it's routine for many trade journalists to put up with behavior that mainstream journalists would never tolerate. Heck, I regularly see trade reporters do things that no newspaper reporter would ever dream of doing -- running in-house ads as editorial copy or failing to report on the parent company, for example. And in my entire career I have never heard of a mainstream publisher requiring reporters to sell advertisements. But that does happen in B2B.

Take a look at the survey results (visit the ASBPE home page and follow the links or read Folio magazine's take on the survey.) Make sure that your coworkers take a look too. Know that as you struggle to behave like a professional, there are others out there just like you.
For my advice on how to handle an ethics lapse at your publication, see this earlier post.

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  1. Paul,

    I agree with your comments. Thanks for contributing to the dialogue. I think this is a huge issue for ASBPE and for B2B editors in general.

    I'd be interested to know what you think is the cause of differences between ethics at mainstream publications and some B2B magazines. Is it the narrowness of the B2B niches (and consequently small pool of advertisers to draw from)? Part of the way of doing business in specific industries served by B2B pubs? The controlled-circ model? Some combination of the above?

    Martha Spizziri
    Vice President, Boston/New England Chapter

    P.S. When I tried to follow the link I get an error message:

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    You might not have permission to view this directory or page using the credentials you supplied.


    If you believe you should be able to view this directory or page, please try to contact the Web site by using any e-mail address or phone number that may be listed on the home page.

    You can click Search to look for information on the Internet.

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  2. Hi Martha,
    Sorry about the error message. There have been a lot of strange problems at in the past day or so.
    As for what causes the difference in how B2B handles ethics vs. how the mainstream press handles ethics....The ugly truth is that ethical lapses are fairly common in B2B publishing because people in B2B editorial put up with them.
    Partly this is a function of how many people enter B2B publishing from outside of journalism. Those folks were never exposed to the "culture" of journalism. And central to that culture is the idea of remaining untainted by commerce.
    But the bigger issue is that far too many B2B journalists don't think of themselves as "real" journalists. They view themselves as some sort of half-assed compromise -- partly a journalist and partly a member of the industry they write about. That's a mistake -- a huge mistake. A journalist can never be part of any industry other than journalism. That doesn't mean we must always be adversarial. But it does mean that we can never become part of someone's marketing function.
    The answer to the ethics problem in B2B is in getting those people who still think of themselves as journalists to know that they are not alone. The ASBPE survey helps in that fight. ABM's Timothy White award helps in that fight. Every short-tempered editor who screams his head off when a publisher suggests something inappropriate helps in that fight. I'd like to think this blog helps in that fight.