Rethinking the Role of “Advertisers”

Quartz websiteWriting last week for the Nieman Journalism Lab, Ken Doctor analyzed “The newsonomics of the Quartz business launch.” It should be required reading for every B2B journalist and publisher.

In identifying the key aspects and implications of the business news startup from Atlantic Media, Doctor touched on a number of key points for any business-oriented publication. One in particular stood out for me:

Call it underwriting, sponsorship, or share of voice, Quartz is leaping over the littered landscape of impression-based display advertising and selling sponsorships. It will start with four sponsors, who are paying based on their association with The New. In a twist we’ll see more of — another reason Quartz is worth watching — these advertisers are creating their own content for Quartz readers, through something called “Quartz Bulletin.”

Atlantic Media seems to have accepted what Lewis DVorkin keeps telling us (most recently last Thursday): Content is content, whether it comes from an editor or an advertiser. As company president Justin Smith told Adweek, “We believe branded content is going to be an essential part of the site itself.”

Like Forbes, with its AdVoice product, Quartz recognizes that the old advertising model—limited to hermetically sealed ad units dropped beside editorial content—must change. Though the process is fraught with danger, publishers will have to start breaking down the wall that separates editorial from advertising and find a new model for sharing their media with their “advertisers”—a name that may likewise need to change.

Forbes and Atlantic Media may not have found the right model yet. But unlike too many other legacy publishers, they have at least recognized that the old one is broken and will never be mended.

Beware the Witch-Hunting Impulse

My experience today reading Joe Konrath’s “Writers Code of Ethics” was probably exactly what he intended. From points one through three—never write or pay for reviews of your own work—I was in complete agreement. From points four through six—don’t ask friends or fans to review your work—I was thinking, “wow, that’s pretty strict.”  By point nine—”I will never allow anyone to send out copies of my books to be reviewed”— I was suspicious. Long before I got to his twenty-third and final point of ethics, I realized he had veered into satire.

What spurred Konrath’s gradual escalation into ethical absurdity was a manifesto of sorts by a group of authors condemning other authors behind a recent rash of “sock-puppet,” or faked, and purchased book reviews. His aim, I take it, was not to defend dishonest marketing, but to warn us against mob instincts:

“All of you pointing your fingers and proclaiming your piety? Get back to working on your books, not judging your peers.”

In the recent uproar over the apparent multiple plagiarisms and fabrications by Jonah Lehrer and one instance of plagiarism by Fareed Zakaria, I’ve sensed a disquieting rush to judgment. In each case, the acts are indefensible. But for those of us striving to be ethical, unreservedly condemning them, as Barry Eisler puts it, is a dead end. That lack of reserve leads all too readily to overreactions and unfair accusations.

Viewing ethical mistakes in black and white makes life simple. But we can learn more, and become better people and better writers, by trying to understand the complex intentions and motivations behind those errors.

Lewis DVorkin: Content Marketing or Advertorial?

Photo of Lewis Dvorkin

Is Lewis DVorkin a visionary or a sell-out? I can never quite make up my mind. That’s never more true than when he writes about content marketing, as he did last Monday.

As Chief Product Officer for Forbes Media he’s done some impressive things to advance the publication’s online and social-media presence, and his “Copy Box” column is essential new-media reading. But whenever he explains AdVoice, the Forbes approach to mixing editorial contributions from advertisers with more traditional editorial, I start feeling queasy.

DVorkin describes AdVoice as an outlet for content marketing, which he defines as “brands using the tools of digital media and social sharing to behave like original-content publishers.” As he goes on to say, the “idea that a company—as a brand and marketer—can be an expert content creator and reach an audience by disintermediating reporters is confusing, threatening and scary to an entire profession that had its way for a century.”

True enough. But content marketing itself doesn’t worry me. As long-time readers of this blog know, I generally like the idea of content marketing.

Where I get uneasy with content marketing, though, is when it starts to look more like advertising.

I think of content marketing as owned media rather than paid media, as published by the originating brand itself, that is, rather than by and under another brand. So when DVorkin talks about integrating his advertisers’ content-marketing efforts into the Forbes brand, I worry that he’s really talking about advertorial.

His first line of defense against that charge is full disclosure. AdVoice, he says, is “a fully transparent way for marketers to publish and curate content on and in our magazine.”

But is transparency an adequate defense? When a publication buys content (from staff writers or contributors), that clearly counts as editorial. But when the publication is paid to publish it (by advertisers), is it still editorial?

For a traditional publisher, the answer would be no. In buying content, a publication is essentially saying that it is good, that it will serve the readers well. When the publication is paid to publish it, though, all bets are off. Good or bad, it doesn’t matter: it’s an ad, not editorial.

But, radically, DVorkin argues against such differentiation between an advertiser’s content and, say, Forbes’s own editorial: “content is content, and transparency makes it possible for many different credible sources to provide useful information.” To a traditionalist, that sounds plain wrong, if not evil.

But of course Forbes is in DVorkin’s view anything but a traditional publication. It is, rather, “a brand-building platform for journalists and expert voices.” In his model, the publisher does not differentiate and ordain content, but simply hosts it without prejudice:

For FORBES, everything we do cascades from a belief that there are five vital constituencies in the media business, each with a different agenda. FORBES certainly has a voice. So does the journalist, the consumer, the social community and the marketer. . . . AdVoice is organic to our experience, not an add on. Our marketing partners use the same tools to post and engage with readers that I do. AdVoice content appears on our home page; it breaks into the Most Popular module when rising page views push it there; it appears dynamically in our real-time stream and channel streams.

In other words, the publisher is no longer a gatekeeper for content, but just one of several equally privileged voices. The publisher’s role now is to provide and share a common platform for community voices.

I’m old enough to find this vision troublesome, and radical enough to see its potential. So I guess I still can’t answer my opening question. What do you think?

A Look Inside a B2B Editor’s Head

ASBPE Twitter Chat on Editorial Ethics

If you want to understand the state of mind of the typical journalist today, or to dig into the challenges they face in managing their careers, you don’t have to look far—as long as you mean the typical newspaper journalist.

Although there is plenty of online debate and discussion of journalistic issues, the mass of it concerns the daily press. To learn about how these issues affect the typical magazine journalist, you have to look harder. And if your interest is in trade journalists, well, good luck: they are the profession’s obscurest members.

That’s what makes a recent Twitter chat among B2B editors and writers a valuable resource. Sponsored by the ethics committee of ASBPE, an association for trade press editors and writers, the chat showcased the issues that particularly worry them.

Despite its length, I urge you to read through my Storified archive of the chat. The discussion is frustratingly fractured and incomplete (it’s Twitter, after all), but it will give you a good sense of the issues that keep trade editors up at night:

  • Preventing undue influence by advertisers (given the nature of B2B publishing, this topic was front and center).
  • Dealing with insufficient staffing and hiring.
  • Finding the proper level of involvement with marketing (particularly in sponsored webinars, a medium uniquely popular in trade publishing).
  • Managing freelancers, particularly with respect to expectations regarding plagiarism and attribution.
  • Effectively using ethics guidelines like ASBPE’s Guide to Preferred Editorial Practices.
  • Understanding the proper relationship between professional and personal use of social media.
These concerns are not unique to B2B journalists, of course. But the way they play out in the trade-press arena is in some ways very different from the rest of journalism. This twitter chat only gives a hint of that important difference—but it’s a start.

Let’s Not Confuse Morality with Quality: Jonah Lehrer and Plagiarism

Jonah Lehrer at PopTech 2009

Jonah Lehrer

For reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, I’ve been deeply bothered for the last few days by the uproar over Jonah Lehrer’s reuse of his writing in various publications. I know almost nothing about Lehrer other than what I’ve read in the many stories about his so-called “self-plagiarism,” and have no position on his work to defend. I also agree with the idea that reusing bits of your previously published work in new articles is pretty lame. But the suggestion many writers have made that his practice is akin to plagiarism is simply wrong. It confuses quality standards with moral ones.

The controversy began with the Romenesko story last week that in a number of blog posts for the New Yorker, Lehrer had reused some paragraphs he had written for an earlier article in the Wall Street Journal. Subsequently several more instances of similar recycling from other publications were uncovered. (Steve Buttry, in the course of reflecting on his own (transparent) habits of repetition, provides a good summary of the matter.)

These are interesting findings, well worth public discussion. But they are more the material of literary criticism than of ethical analysis. They tell us that Lehrer’s range as a writer is less broad than we thought, perhaps, and that he doesn’t always have fresh insights. But they don’t tell us he’s a thief.

And possibly no one is saying that, quite. In his Slate piece on Lehrer, for instance, Josh Levin uses the phrase “self-plagiarism” somewhat jokingly. “Writing the same words twice” may not be a moral offense, he seems to say, but “it will piss off your editors” and “disappoint your customers.” Such “self-plagiarism is bad for the brand,” he concludes—not, as we might expect from real plagiarism, bad for the soul.

Similarly, while using the P-word liberally, Poynter‘s Kelly McBride suggests that Lehrer’s sin is less than mortal: “Had he stolen words from someone else—plagiarized-plagiarized rather than self-plagiarized—we’d all be calling it quits.” Instead, his readers are merely disappointed; their “enthusiasm wilts.”

Fine. If I’d been a Lehrer reader, I might be disappointed too. But to use the word plagiarism even jokingly or ironically in connection with what he did veers perilously close to character assassination. The damage it does exceeds any done by Lehrer’s recycling.

When this careless or invidious habit spreads to the New York Times, which wrote that Lehrer “has become the latest high-profile journalist to be caught up in a plagiarism scandal,” you know it’s excessive. It doesn’t matter that Times reporter Jennifer Schuessler immediately added that the scandal included “a counterintuitive twist that could come right out of his own books: The journalist he has been accused of borrowing from is himself.” What many readers will take away from this overly clever sentence is the false notion that Lehrer is a plagiarist.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this story is how many of the commenters on these critics’ posts reject the association with plagiarism. Some don’t even object to Lehrer’s reuse of his writing. In contrast to the critics’ high dudgeon, their attitude seems to be, “big deal.”

Is the critical reaction to Lehrer possibly influenced by the fact that he is very young, very smart, and very successful? Well, consider this. If a journalist we’d never heard of, like Paresh Jha, accused of fabricating sources and quotes, had instead been accused of recycling his own sentences, would we be reading about it now on Poynter? I think not.

I’m leaving open the possibility that I just don’t get it. Maybe there is a portentous ethical and moral issue in repeating yourself. But even if there is, its magnitude surely falls well short of plagiarism, and the term shouldn’t be used even humorously or ironically to describe Lehrer. It’s reasonable, given what he did, to call him a bad writer. But that’s no basis for calling him a bad person.

Photo credit: Kris Krüg/Pop!Tech