Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Ziff Davis crosses the ethics line again

(Note: My policy is not to use foul language on this blog. But I'm making an exception today. I apologize in advance to anyone who is offended. )

There's no reason to pretend any longer that Ziff Davis is a reputable company.
Regular readers of this blog know that I complained earlier this year when Ziff Davis inserted ads in the text of stories -- perhaps the clearest violation of professional ethics I have ever seen. Executives at the company failed to return my emails or phone calls. But ethical journalists from Ziff Davis kept sending me emails asking for help. So I kept writing and writing.
And eventually, Ziff Davis pulled the offensive ads.

But now my inbox is filling again with complaints from journalists at Ziff Davis.
Because the company is once again placing ads inside stories.
If you've never seen one of these things, take a look at this story. You'll see that the second word in the lead paragraph -- "software" -- is a link to an ad for Adobe.
If you have the stomach for it, you can find similar ads in Ziff Davis' CIO Insight (take a look at this guest column, where the advertising department now controls the content.)
But if you want to see the single most ridiculous, most offensive, most disgusting and dimwitted thing in the entire history of B2B publishing, then take a look at the Editorial Mission statement of Baseline magazine -- the Editorial Mission statement, for god's sake!!! -- where ads have been inserted in the copy. (Screenshot is below.)

Look. I have nothing against advertising. But this is not a negotiable issue. The ethical standards of our industry are as clear as can be in this area. The editorial department controls editorial. It's that simple. Here, in fact, is what ASBPE says: "Whether for editorial or advertising information, hypertext links should be placed at the discretion and approval of editors. Also, advertising and sponsored links should be clearly distinguishable from editorial, and labeled as such ... Contextual links within editorial content should not be sold, and generally should not link to a vendor’s Web site, unless it is pertinent to the editorial content or helpful to the reader."
There may be a place for ads such as these, but that place cannot be in any publication that claims to adhere to the standards of professional journalism.

Years ago, when I was a young and impressionable reporter, an ad salesman took me to lunch to explain his side of the business. I remain forever grateful for what he taught me that day. He told me that he made his living by marketing my integrity. As long as I was pure, he could sell ads. But if I forgot what made for professional journalism, then he couldn't tell advertisers they were buying space in a credible publication.
There was, of course, a downside to his approach. There were always advertisers who would pay higher rates for puff pieces, fawning profiles of executives and "investigative" pieces aimed at competitors.
"Paul," he told me, "the truth is that guys will pay a lot more for a blow job than for a handshake. But blow jobs ain't what we're selling."

As I said at the start of this post, there's no reason to pretend any longer that Ziff Davis is a reputable company. There's no reason to pretend anymore that Ziff Davis is selling handshakes.
So let's all stop pretending.
I'm urging the senior staff at Ziff Davis to admit that they can't live by the standards of our profession, and to thus stop claiming to be part of our profession. I want Ziff Davis to resign its membership in American Business Media.
I'm urging organizations such as ABM and ASBPE to cut the crap and cut ties to Ziff Davis. Don't accept their applications for awards. Don't invite their executives to speak at your conferences. Stop letting them cheapen your reputation and our profession.
I'm urging everyone who competes against a Ziff Davis publication to take advantage of the current morale crisis there. Companies such as Reed Business, IDG and CMP all have magazines that compete directly with Ziff Davis' magazines. Surely the folks at the legitimate companies know at least one or two talented Ziff Davis' employees at rival books. Today is the day to steal them away. Call them now. Many of them are miserable at Ziff Davis. Get them out of there.
Most importantly, I'm urging every professional journalist at Ziff Davis to refuse to whore. Stop pretending that things will get better.
Grab a few coworkers, head to a nearby coffee shop, and plan a rebellion. They can't fire all of you. Don't report. Don't write. Don't edit another word for people that think you're a whore.
It's time to get all "Norma Rae" about this.
It's time to make your bosses miserable and to make yourselves proud.

Click here to read Folio magazine's new profile of Ziff Davis.

tags: , , , , , , , , advertising


  1. Paul, A commenter on my blog pointed out that Firefox users who have the "adblock" plug in can go to the >Tools >Adblock >Preferences menu and add "+" the following filter: http://** and it will block the text-ad links from appearing in your browser, no matter what site they appear on. This does not address the ethical issues you raise, it's merely a nice hack to know. I tried it and it works for me.

  2. Thanks Rex!
    I am a Firefox user. So perhaps I'll block the offensive ads at some point in the future. But for now, I want to monitor them. I'm hoping that Ziff Davis will come to its senses and decide its reputation is worth more than the links.

  3. AnonymousMay 08, 2007

    I don't like the in-text ads either. I'm not sure how they malign the authors' integrity, though. I write for ZD, and I'm oblivious as to which word I type is going to be linked to an ad. This is obviously the marketing department picking hot words to which to link ads. How exactly does that influence what we write? They certainly aren't getting on the bullhorn to make sure we write about xyz company. Let's get real. ZD has far more integrity than the pubs where stories are being assigned based on companies who are advertising. Look at our unnamed competitor who lost a senior editor because of the tinkering of marketing. Why aren't you calling for them to be excommunicated? Are you *insert ominous music here* influenced by your links with that pub?* C'mon, I know you want hits, we all do. But let's get a bit more professional here and stop the flaming.

  4. Anonymous,
    The issue isn't whether or not the writers are influenced by the links. The issues are:
    a) do the links mislead readers, and b) do the links violate the ethics guidelines of our industry.
    The answer to both questions is yes. And don't take my word for it. ASBPE has come forward to clarify that the answer to both questions is yes.
    So it's simply beyond me why anyone would have a difficult time understanding this.

    As for the issue you mention at PC World.
    Don't be ridiculous. I haven't written about it yet. But I almost certainly will. And if I do, I'll disclose, as I have roughly 50 times in the past two years, that IDG is a client.
    But if you take a look at my site you may notice that I don't write every day, nor do I write about every issue. Since the Ziff scandal broke ABM has named a new board and begun its annual meeting; Google and Yahoo have announced deals that could alter the online business; I've signed up with a new client; etc. But I haven't mentioned any of those issues yet either. This isn't Folio magazine. This is a blog. Think of it as a column that runs once or twice a week.
    And lastly, please, resist the urge to hide behind anonymous comments.

  5. I am a biz guy but side with the stricter editorial side of this debate. As a technologist I believe that this is the tip of the iceberg and the coming privacy battle will be intense. Please see my blog entry at: