Why editorial freedom is worth fighting for

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Perhaps it is too soon to call it a trend, but there has been a recent flurry of events in one well known computer company’s marketing department that have left several of their well fed executives with their arms flailing in mid-air.

It was all because their favourite media outlet decided to adopt an independent and fearless opinion regarding editorial freedom and technical reviews. To compound the insult it happened just after the computer company had handed the publication a fat account worth tens of thousands of pounds in fees.

The marketing and public relation teams who had been promoting their candidate for “Best PC of the Year”, “Best Peripheral of the Month” and “Most Orgasmic Software of the Decade” were injured, at least in the tender zone of their pride.

Usually, and often before they have had the breath knocked out of them by impact with the ground, these marketers have squealed out condemnations at editorial teams who have failed to get the message, most often followed by the dire warning – promote us above all others…or else. Sometimes, sympathetic in-house marketing people have even protested on their behalf.

Some of their objections amount to no more than the oft-heard grumbling that the magazine’s editorial team is inhabited by louts and fools who have no idea how important advertising is to their business and to keeping their jobs. Others are ill-founded appeals against the law of gravity itself, aimed at softening the landings of ambitious egos. But there are complaints that deserve more serious attention, because they call into question not only journalistic methods, but also the key purpose of publishing, which should be to inform and keep the public abreast of news without fear or favour – the most enjoyable, frustrating and challenging part of editing.

In defence of advertorials

Since this spat became public last month, magazine buyers (aghast at the bad ways of marketing departments) are asking if independent product reviews are just that, or if they are really little more than clandestine product placements.

Defenders of this type of advertising say it is harmless and innocent, and anyway consumers make up their own minds and very few choose to believe all the hype.

‘The fundamental truth is that there exists free will on the part of people when it comes to purchases,’ explains Tom Webb whose company, First Round, promotes various clients’ brands to the media.

Any product placement, such as banner ads on websites or displaying favourable reviews about products, is not subliminal. I buy into the belief that when people decide to buy a product it is due to a combination of factors, rather than one fleeting appearance on screen or in print.

I feel all this talk about bad advertising is unfair because a lot of people outside the industry do not understand the way branding and PR work. If, for example, I see a bad word said about a client I spring to their defence. That’s my job and I want to do the best for them even if that means haranguing an editor to fire a contributor. I’ve done that several times in my career but that’s the nature of this business.’

The ultimate soft sell

The electronics giant Sony provided the most famous case of “soft selling” some years ago, when they launched a clever and rather unusual ad campaign called ‘Feature by Sony, to us’. In this campaign, they placed advertisements that looked like in-depth feature articles on 100 Web sites (including those of supposedly independent technical review magazines) both in Europe and the US. Instead of Sony peddling a story about its products they found people who were using their products in a variety of ways and let them tell their own story.

The $10 million campaign tried to deliver the ultimate, low-pressure method of selling. Put together by product users rather than public relations agencies, many of the stories didn’t even mention the company by name. Instead, the ads used everyday consumers to talk about their innocuous lives and how technology was contributing to that lifestyle. For example, one man shared his experience of travelling in his car and documenting his journeys on his personal Web site.

The punchline came in sidebars, which detailed the technology these people were using, under a heading called ‘Related Links’; all the gadgets just happen to be from Sony.

Sony’s logic was that the feature-like look helped avoid the sense of interruption and annoyance many Web surfers get from online advertising, and delivered much more information than a banner ad. The pieces were so readable and informative, in fact, that readers could be excused if they had mistaken them for actual feature stories.

Only the electronic version of the New York Times and the news station CBS turned down the campaign because the ads looked too much like editorial content and therefore didn’t meet their advertising acceptability guidelines.

‘When web users come to our pages, they can count on subjective and objective content that is produced entirely upon our own direction. Journalists write the paper not marketing people. We do not touch advertorials because our readers would query the value and independence of the newspaper.’ Chris Hughes, a spokesman for the New York Times told me.

Consumer Power

While Chris Hughes’ stance is admirable, and while there may be many readers and journalists who hark back to an Arcadian age when all magazines and newspapers were similarly unsullied by advertorials, the line is not as clear-cut as he makes out. It seems unlikely that many commercial heads of companies would support a newspaper or magazine editor who tried to turn the clock back to that era, simply because advertising would dry up. In truth, with so many sources of information available to the public, many media outlets have little choice but to reflect the views of marketing departments: to do otherwise would be regarded as commercial suicide.

Some industry figures suggest that the concern expressed over product placement in some areas of the media is wrong, and that all media is simply answering the demands of their clients. They argue that reviews that too closely resemble ads jeopardize not only the independence of the publication that runs them, but ruin the title’s credibility and that, ultimately, people are not gullible and will “vote with their feet” if they don’t like what they read.

Chris Murray, creative director and chief executive of Fox Branding, a media branding company whose clients include three large IT companies, argues that context and honesty is all. Get that right and there shouldn’t be a problem.

‘Complaints might be justified if the review argued in favour of a useless computer, for example, and the writer had genuinely persuaded people to part with their money instead of buying a better machine elsewhere.

But as advertising largely funds most mainstream publications, it tends to be self- regulating – in that it is only of value to the brand if it matches or exceeds expectations and that has to be evaluated without nepotism. Any company would have to extremely foolish if it paid a magazine more money, or exerted pressure to give its second rate gear a good review. There would be absolutely no point in cheating because readers would desert the magazine and any company, however large and well heeled, would lose its reputation.

In some areas product placement might be getting a little out of hand but there is also a new corporate awareness about how people perceive a company, particularly since the advent of weblogs. The consumers are the ones with the power and publishers know that. If they don’t like what they read they will go elsewhere.’

However, most in the industry can still understand those poor souls who are beginning to wonder about true editorial freedom, especially when assorted media display large ads featuring the very company’s products that are being reviewed in the same issue. Can the reviewer still write about a product and say it has the whiff of failure about it if ad revenue is partly paying his salary?

Editorial freedom versus the bottom line

A leading marketer recently made the comment that ‘It may be regrettable that the publishing industry is more interested in the bottom line than editorial freedom but that is partly the failure of the medium to attract more readers, and therefore rely less on advertising, and it is this that puts so many online publishers on the skids.’

Of course a print media editor stands or falls on sales, but proprietors of e-publications seem to get an equally hard time of it from advertisers. On the day Red-Gate released the news that they had bought out SQLServerCentral, a small number of advertisers queried the company’s motives. What did Red Gate seek to gain from buying a community site? Were they trying to brainwash the community? Censor all opposing opinion? How could it be a community site if it banned all advertisements for rival software? It was almost as if they were unable to see how SQLServerCentral could be anything other than a sales tool.

A degree of scepticism is perhaps understandable, yet surely there is a chance, with continued editorial freedom and content that is insightful and immediate, for websites to take risks, thereby attracting both revenue and readers without resorting to the prevailing fashion for pop-up ads?

An efficient advertisement sales director is a great asset for a publication but, frankly, compared to the huge and varied disciplines required of an editor, they are ten-a-penny. The absence of a good editor is easily the most significant problem in any title’s equation – one that cannot be hidden by increasing the number of adverts, hiking up the ad rates, or giving away CDs. Before very long, interest will start to dip at a nerve-jangling rate. Confidence will be challenged throughout the entire company and the bottom line will start to look distinctly bleaker, especially as circulation impacts seriously on advertising.

There are no short cuts to producing a great publication. You need three vital ingredients: a great editor, good content and editorial freedom. If you have that precious mix you will succeed; if not, you will fail no matter how much cash from advertising is thrown into your lap.

About the author

Richard Morris

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Richard Morris is a journalist, author and public relations/public affairs consultant. He has written for a number of UK and US newspapers and magazines and has offered strategic advice to numerous tech companies including Digital Island, Sony and several ISPs. He now specialises in social enterprise and is, among other things, a member of the Big Issue Invest advisory board. Big Issue Invest is the leading provider to high-performing social enterprises & has a strong brand name based on its parent company The Big Issue, described by McKinsey & Co as the most well known and trusted social brand in the UK.

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