You can help shape the agenda for ASBPE’s next Ethics ‘Twitter Chat’

By Howard Rauch, Ethics Committee Chairman

What’s your biggest editorial ethics concern today?  Are you ready to speak out about it in a spurt of 140-character “Tweets” and get immediate reaction from your peers?  If so, you’ll definitely want to attend ASBPE’S next “Ethics Twitter Chat.”  Please mark the date and time:  June 28, 11:30 a.m.-1:00 p.m. [Edited to add: That’s Eastern time.]

Obviously there is much to discuss.  At the top of my list would be whether or not we’ve been successful in preserving the highest possible levels of editorial quality.  Another priority item that’s been glossed over in previous “Chat” sessions:  truth-in-hiring.  That is … how forthright have we been when describing promotional and financial outlooks to job applicants?

Some industry observers have issued alerts that advertisers will be pressing for more favorable editorial exposure in our digital content.  This possibility is an obvious sign that church/state disputes are still a regular event.  Do you agree?  How about freelancer relationships?  At one recent ASBPE LinkedIn discussion, anguish was expressed at how some editors were not playing fair with payment policies.  Is this process actually within your control or are you laboring under some budgetary mandate?

And the list goes on.  One promising difference in this year’s event is the level of participation by ethics committee members.  You’ll have the chance to seek input from several group editorial directors and two prominent educators.  Twitter Chat manager is Paul Heney, former ASBPE president and current TABPI president.

In advance of our session, I’d like to receive your suggestions concerning worthwhile agenda additions.  You can e-mail me: ethics.chair@editsol.com.  Or call (201) 569-7714.  I always welcome input from folks on the firing line.  And be sure to watch for more updates regarding our final agenda in the Ethics News Updates regularly posted at ASBPE’s LinkedIn site.

Ask ASBPE: When it comes to editorial quality versus revenue, what would you do?

ASBPE recently received this note from a member. On the heels of our National Conference and the recent ethics and editorial quality post, we thought it  helpful to see what our fellow editors could suggest for the note-writer.

I recently participated in a planning meeting where our sales team and editorial teams were discussing a project for next year.

I came to the meeting equipped with data that showed what topics had done well with our readers. My intention was to — like this year — create a project based on what our audience shows interest in.

The topics I suggested would provide the basis for good editorial quality; however, our sales team deemed them too difficult to sell sponsorships. Eventually, the group decided to develop a project series based on what sponsorships could be sold, not necessarily what has proven popular with readers.

I’m at an impasse with this concern over editorial quality. I don’t feel like I can talk to anyone at my company without seeming as though I was anti-revenue. In my role, I feel it is my duty to present things that are in the best interests of our subscribers and readers regardless of sponsorship.

I’m afraid I’m compromsiing my editorial quality and ethics if I don’t stick up for our audience; yet I’m risking my job if I do.

Any ideas?

Learning from the Sherrod Fiasco

By Maureen Alley

Anyone who has been paying attention to the news last week should be aware of the Shirley Sherrod mess that hit Washington. She was the U.S. Department of Agriculture employee who was fired for being racist, or so it appeared in an edited video. Beyond the politics of the situation, is a good example and lesson about journalism ethics.

Charlie Madigan, journalism professor at Roosevelt University and former editor at the Chicago Tribune wrote an editorial in Thursday’s paper. It’s a good read, and brings up a great problem in the world of media: sensationalism. The public has an increased desire for drama, and the media has turned to providing that fix at the cost of ethics.

The B2B world of publishing is not as directly affected by this demand as is the consumer media. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore these moments that bring up the importance of our journalism ethics.

You may not be pressured to push out stories about Lindsay Lohan every 1o minutes, or articles on what the White House is or isn’t doing right. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have boundaries and lines to watch.

The Shirley Sherrod fiasco presents a great opportunity to take a closer look at the ethics used with your publication. Do you blur lines of advertising and editorial? Could you be better about staying more focused on editorial and less on advertising? Are you providing content to your readers that they may not want, but need?

Don’t be fooled; this mess doesn’t simply affect the consumer media.

Maureen Alley is editor for Woodland Management magazine, and freelance writer/editor for other business-to-business publications. She was previously managing editor for Website Magazine and Residential Design & Build magazine. She can be reached at malley13@gmail.com or visit www.maureenalley.com.

Ethics Nemesis Report: Outside Interference and Supplier Puff Pieces

By Howard Rauch

If you think you have it bad when it comes to editorial ethics intrusions, you are not alone. Here are two examples submitted to ASBPE’s ethics committee. The first deals with an association publication where the noneditorial liaison overstepped bounds and attempted to dictate policy on every aspect of content. The second instance addresses a typical situation where a B2B publisher insisted on the regular inclusion of “Meet Your Supplier” columns.

(1) Meddling with competitor’s copy. Sticky ethical situations are not always spawned by editor/advertiser clashes. There are cases where the editor-in-chief of the magazine must contend with an ethical adversary who is neither editor nor publisher/sales manager. The nemesis can be chair of an association’s editorial committee or the corporate point guard for a contracted magazine.

I remember one case where one of my clients landed a contract to publish a magazine for a major hi-tech manufacturer. We fought bitterly with the editorial liaison over just about everything. Our publisher backed his editorial team to the hilt. Result: We turned out some great issues, but eventually lost the contract because we were not “cooperative.” Sound familiar?

Anyway, my source for the current case described how a new editorial liaison began efforts to overrule the staff on basic editing technique and almost everything else. The low point occurred when the liaison insisted that copy be changed in an article focusing on a company that happened to be competitive with his employer.

The besieged editor fought the good fight – even referring to ASBPE guidelines in the process – to no avail.

The only lesson we may learn is that ethical guidelines should be in place that anticipate every situation. Even then, sometimes it seems that the best written guidelines get ignored, especially when times are tough. Often, says ethics committee member John Bethune, the problem “is not a gap in the guidelines, but the lack of interest in them by the person in control. The bigger question may be how to expand concern for ethics beyond editors.”

(2) Coping with “Supplier Spotlight” columns. Speaking of “when times are tough” brings us to the focus of our second case. Unfortunately, it’s a common practice at many B2B magazines, because of publisher insistence, that a regular Supplier Spotlight column appear. Typically a one-page event, the article becomes an exercise in puffery. In essence, it is of no value to either readers or advertisers.

In the case in point, my source advised that the publisher wanted the Spotlight report to be in the news section. The article layout, including a special heading, was designed to imply the information was sponsored. (Note: In this case, the heading simply should have carried the “advertisement” label, but sales types usually prefer euphemisms.) The wrinkle in this approach is that editors were required to write the copy.

The one thing in favor of this approach is that at least some effort was made to distinguish the article from regular editorial copy. What happens more often is that such articles are treated as regular editorial copy. Some top editors attempt to dump these assignments on staff. Other times, the publisher demands that a senior editor do the deed.

Unfortunately, because the article is clearly an advertising ploy, assigned editors don’t exert effort to make a decent story out of the assignment. But in my experience, if I tried hard, the meet-the-sponsor stuff turned out several cuts above the usual “puff” piece. It all depends on whether or not the editor has built a past relationship of his or her own with the supplier in question.

Establishing that relationship, perhaps, is a worthy discussion for a future blog. Meanwhile, I welcome your comments pertaining to the above two situations or any other ethics dilemmas. Write in confidence to ethics.chair@editsol.com or call me: (201) 569-7714.

Ethics Committee Has New Vision

By Howard Rauch
Chairman, ASBPE Ethics Committee

Debating the precarious outlook for the traditional church-and-state doctrine preoccupies most discussions when the subject of editorial ethics arises.

Advances in the Internet, however, require additional B2B attention on ethics. Long-held principles are being shaken.

This is the situation confronting the ASBPE Ethics Committee. In response, the
committee is planning a dramatic expansion of activity this year (see news story for details).

Challenges to consider

Let’s now consider a partial list of noteworthy ethics challenges:

  • Church and state remains at the top of the list, but not in the usual way. As one group editorial director told me recently: “We have tried to tear down the wall and replace it with a smaller fence.”

    The dictate that editors should avoid marketing involvement hasn’t been practical for years. Maintaining high editorial quality is vital, but marketing activity need not stand in the way of quality.

    On the other hand, we must resist efforts to compromise quality that would result in an irretrievable loss of credibility.

  • Cost controls have put a damper on quality. Editorial staffs do triple duty managing print, Web content, and other digital platforms. Travel is curtailed. Editorial page counts are way down; traditional depth is more difficult to deliver. With salary freezes typical, what picture do we paint for applicants looking for a promising career?
  • Social media dominates much editorial planning. The major players in newsstand business media are appointing social media content directors. Some ethical do’s and don’ts are already floating around. Obviously, more concrete guidelines for B2B staffs are required.
  • Documenting ethics policies has never been our strong suit. Aside from the guidelines already available to you from ASBPE, every company needs at least two written policies:
    1. covering ethics,
    2. covering complaint-handling.

    With the latter, the policy must emphasize the need for prompt response and describe possible recourse when the mistake is ours.

  • Content marketing is another issue. An associate of mine, a former editorial vice president who blogs from his own site, says content marketing will pose a new wave of ethical issues.

    By the way, content marketing is not new. When I was a working editor, we used to call that PR.

    Anyway, the alleged coming deluge of proposals we receive from content marketers requires creation of ethical guidelines that anticipate pitfalls.

Clearly, our committee has much to accomplish.

Contact me at ethics.chair@editsol.com if you have suggestions.

Howard Rauch is the chairman of the ASBPE Ethics Committee and president of Editorial Solutions.

Don’t Have Formal Ethics Guidelines Yet? Here Are Two Ideas

By Howard Rauch

B2B editors unhappy with the state of ethics at their companies have yet to create written policy statements covering their concerns. Arising disputes are handled from scratch, on a case-by-case basis. For those of you seeking a better way, here are two approaches I found during some recent research.

Computerworld posts its policy online. Yep, you can’t miss the “Code of Ethics” link on the Web site’s “About Us” page. Visitors who connect see a modified listing of ten principles excerpted from a more detailed internal policy:

1. Computerworld’s first priority is the interest of its readers.

2. Editorial decisions are made free of advertisers’ influence.

3. We insist on fair, unbiased presentation in all news and articles.

4. No advertising that simulates editorial content will be published.

5. Plagiarism is grounds for dismissal.

6. Computerworld makes prompt, complete corrections of errors.

7. Journalists do not own or trade in computer industry stocks.

8. No secondary employment in the IT industry is permitted.

9. Our commitment to fairness is our defense against slander.

10. All editorial opinions will be labeled as such.

“The issue is not the code itself but how it is interpreted for a type of publishing that wasn’t in existence when it was written,” says Computerworld editor-in-chief Scot Finnie.

Before moving on to my next example, here is some additional advice about complaint-handling policy. In my preconsulting days, when I was VP/editorial of a leading B2B multipublisher, proper complaint handling was accorded high priority. We had a written policy in place. What’s more, periodically we would run a complaint-handling workshop for new editors and/or salespeople. The session usually was led by our executive vice president. Here are a few policy excerpts specifically directed to editors:

  • If you receive a complaint via telephone, take down all the information – and make the caller aware that you are doing so. Do not argue, and don’t constantly break in to pass the buck to your printer, the advertising department or anyone else. For the moment, you are the magazine to the complaining party – and that party expects results from you.
  • The very same day, a letter should be sent to the aggrieved party confirming the conversation, offering a solution, or indicating a deadline by which you will get back to that person with a solution. If appropriate, attempt to resolve the problem by offering to print a prompt correction, a letter to the editor or “compensatory editorial” in an early issue.
  • Your readiness to resolve the complaint may in itself be the ticket to neutralizing the anger of the person at the other end of the line. Before you end the call, always ask the complaining party whether there are any other concerns that should be addressed.
  • If the complaint is serious to the point that you can’t arrive at a solution, try bumping the matter up to your boss. Attention from a superior often scores points with the complainant.
  • A conciliatory approach may make a friend and avert a crisis!

Eight issues to consider when a proposed article involves an advertiser

Here is an interesting list I came across that at one time had been used by an association publication.

1. Where did the proposed story originate? If from the advertising department, is the motivation to inform the reader or to curry favor with the advertiser?

2. Is the article’s subject legitimate news or information regardless of who originated the idea?

3. Assuming the article is journalistically valid, is the editorial department free to pursue it independently regardless of where the story leads? Will the advertising department have any voice in determining sources to be interviewed? Will the advertising department have any censorship powers over the final version once the article is written?

4. Will publication of the article benefit one advertiser primarily or competing advertisers generally?

5. Will publication of the article give the appearance of weakening the editorial credibility of the publication? Can competing magazines use the article against you as evidence of a sell-out? Can competing advertisers claim foul or unfair influence?

6. Will publication of the article adversely affect morale among your own staff?

7. Taking all of the above into consideration, is there a way the article can be published that both the editorial and advertising departments can live with? Can the editorial focus be shifted in a way that permits editorial independence and still gives the advertising department something to take back to the advertiser?

8. Using your best journalistic training, experience and judgment, does publication of the article “feel right?”

If you have interesting examples of ethics policy statements that you are able to share with other ASBPE members, please give me a call at (201) 569-7714 or e-mail ethics.chair@editsol.com.

Why New Publishers Need Quality-Driven Editorial Agenda

By Howard Rauch

You may have noticed that I am now chairing ASBPE’s ethics committee. As part of an orientation program, I read copies of all ethics guides posted in our site’s Industry Links section. What most guides have in common is an initial emphasis on a mandate to consistently deliver the highest possible level of editorial quality.

Reading through the guides, I was reminded of the reality that quality is more easily achieved when publishers enthusiastically endorse that goal. In today’s tough market, there clearly is concern that such support has been waning. So editors must take positive steps to re-enlist publishers, especially those new to the position, in a vital cause.

One possible solution materialized during a recent consulting assignment. My client and I had been discussing how to provide guidance for new publishers with relatively little editorial background. In those cases where a newly appointed publisher has such background, the supervisory challenge is easily met. But suppose we’re talking about a star salesperson with limited involvement on the other side. What then in terms of making appropriate decisions regarding matters of editorial content and/or performance? Sometimes the issues involved prove elusive even for experienced editorial managers.

After some additional mulling, I submitted a list of challenges – an editorial agenda of sorts – that could be followed, no matter what the new publisher’s background:

  • Maintain or increase the frequency with which authoritative content appears. In this case, “authoritative” includes statistical reports. Also explore possibilities for conducting more Q&A interviews with top authorities from all industry segments (yes, that includes advertisers). Organize executive roundtables at conventions where publisher and/or editor functions as moderator.
  • In conjunction with the editorial staff, create at least one A/V presentation that can be delivered at important conventions or during executive sessions at advertiser/agency premises.
  • Write a regular column that is authoritative in its own right. The column should be totally different in direction from the editor’s page. However, it must reflect an excellent grasp of industry issues that stems from insider contact with leading movers/shakers.
  • Explore possibilities for additional special projects in the form of quarterly supplements, one-shot white papers and/or webinars.
  • When it comes to e-news, resist the temptation to load up with all the obligatory vendor-sourced stuff that has traditionally burdened many print sections. Web visitors are looking for the highest-value, insider-like reporting. That means plenty of originality and enterprise, elements that seem to be missing from many sites.
  • Last but not least, defend the editorial budget so that efforts to maintain existing high-quality content are not discouraged.
The points raised here are merely the tip of the iceberg in a very complex area. One implied strategy is that salespeople should become more involved in editorial matters well before any sudden promotion to the publisher ranks. Of course, by the same token, editors should become more clued in on marketing strategy in the event they become the next choice for publisher responsibilities. It could happen!

Howard Rauch is president of Editorial Solutions Inc., a consultancy focusing on B2B magazines. Rauch is the 2002 recipient of ASBPE’s Lifetime Achievement Award.