Editorial Wall, or Prison Wall?

There’s been some fervent debate in recent days about the risks of an entrepreneurial role for editors. (Note: By the term editor I mean any journalist, whether writer, reporter, or editor.) Does being involved in the business side of a media enterprise mean being involved in sales? And does breaking down the sacred wall between editorial and sales mean that editorial must be tainted?

What set off this latest skirmish was an article in the Guardian by Roy Greenslade (lately a fecund source of inspiration for B2B Memes) concerning UK editor and blogger Marc Reeves. In a speech last June, he argued that editors should get involved in all sides of a business, even if that meant selling advertising. The way Reeves put it was particularly blunt:

“And to all of you who are saying ‘Sorry I’m just a journalist, I don’t sell advertising or organise events…’ I say: tough: that’s just the way it will be from now on.”

I admire the plain speaking, but my first reaction was, Are you nuts? Realistically, the average editor is probably the last person you would want to sell advertising. Compared with the average salesperson, he or she is a relative introvert. Taking advertising orders is one thing, but actively selling is quite another.

But even if this practical objection is sound, the theoretical one—that any involvement by an editor in sales necessarily influences editorial content—is not. Is it really so difficult to honor editorial ethics and pursue business interests at the same time?

Historically, most publishing enterprises have replied that it is, and have discouraged editorial involvement in business. This was the point of a comment in an ongoing discussion of Greenslade’s article on in a LinkedIn group sponsored by The Media Briefing (you’ll need to join the group to see the discussion). Therein, Martin Cloake argued that content creators have been deliberately kept on the sidelines:

“Traditionally, it’s been people from the ad/sales side who have risen to top positions in media companies. They in turn have pushed the view that journalists aren’t commercially savvy. In many cases they are the people who see content as just the stuff between the ads.”

Indeed, you could make the case, twisted though it may sound, that editors did not so much create their codes of conduct as have those codes imposed on them by the business side; that those codes were not about editorial freedom as much as editorial constraint; and that the editorial wall is just as much a prison wall.

My point is not to disparage editorial codes of ethics. I’m a big fan. But we should think of them not as editorial codes but publishing codes. And editors can help make that happen not by remaining imprisoned in their ivory towers but by getting involved in business.

One commenter on Greenslade’s article argued that there is considerable appeal to editors in being able to tell pissed-off advertisers, “I’m nothing to do with advertising.”  I’ve used variations of that line in the past myself. But, really, it’s lame. The advertiser knows it and the editor knows it. Worse, it can sound weak, ignorant, and arrogant. As a representative of your company, you’re telling customers that you couldn’t care less about their business. Spoken from a business point of view, the gist of the answer should be the same (i.e., no bending to advertiser pressure on editorial). But that answer should also be informed by an understanding and appreciation of business, both the editor’s and the advertiser’s.

In another response to Greenslade, Jeff Jarvis argued that editorial codes and walls “turn out to be translucent and leaky moral condoms.” When journalists have key business roles in their enterprises, he said, “they can and must navigate” ethical conflicts and “are in a better position to do so” precisely because they are qualified in business. “Whether or not they sell the ad, the conflict and choices are the same.”

And though he didn’t explicitly make the same conspiratorial argument I’m toying with here, he seemed to suggest that the business deck was deliberately stacked against him in his editorial past:

“I learned this lesson when I started Entertainment Weekly in an industry full of standards and codes and walls and even so found my managers (editorial as well as business) trying to profoundly corrupt the enterprise for the sake of business ends and I did not have sufficient business cred to fight them down.”

I understand why editors have been shackled for so long. By their nature, they are disruptive. In a traditional media business, that was a problem. But in a new-media world that thrives on disruption, editors may at last be breaking through their prison walls.

Is a Blog Just a Container?

Photo courtesy Haags Uitburo

Today I came across a comment from Adam Tinworth on the reignited debate, in certain UK circles at least, over whether bloggers can be legitimate journalists. This debate—fairly one-sided in favor of blogs—was set off by the probably unscripted speechifying of British journalisthistorian Andrew Marr.

In reflecting on this latest blogger brushoff, Adam Smith approvingly quoted Tinworth’s comment on Twitter that “you can do journalism on a blog” and that Marr is “making a massive category error.” A blog, Tinworth said, is a container, not an activity. As he put it elsewhere on Twitter, Marr’s criticism of blogs as fine things for certain purposes but inadequate to the task of journalism is like saying that “magazines are fantastic, but won’t replace journalism.”

I agree wholeheartedly with Tinworth’s position in this context—you absolutely can practice high-quality journalism in a blog. (And prior to indulging in what might appear like criticism, let me state for the record that Tinworth is one of my favorite and most respected bloggers.)

However, to dwell for a moment on the metaphor of container vs. content,  can we really say that the blog format doesn’t influence its content? Would we say that blogging and other forms of social media have not in fact altered the practice of journalism? Or that journalism as we knew it a decade ago can simply be ported into social media without undergoing some degree of transformation?

I don’t think so (and, again, I’m not saying that Tinworth thinks so either).

Now to some extent, your position on this matter will be determined by how you define a blog. If you think, as Mark Schaeffer put it in the course of  the  “great ghost-blogging debate,” that a blog is just a mechanism for publishing, you’ll argue that it can be used for any kind of content.  If, on the other hand you think, like Schaeffer’s opponent, Mitch Joel, that blogs imply a certain attitude and voice, you’ll have a more restrictive view of appropriate blog content.

Of course, no matter what you as the blogger think, your audience has the final call. A few years ago, when a magazine I worked with started its first blog, one of the first commenters called us to task for not being bloggy enough. The content we were posting, he said, was just like what we put in the magazine. That was fine, but it wasn’t, to his mind, what we should do in a blog. He wanted a little more liveliness, spontaneity, and opinion. I’d like to say that we immediately agreed and changed our ways, but, in those days at least, we thought that view of blogging was incompatible with journalism.

Look, though I won’t try to prove it here, the fact is that blogging has influenced the way we practice journalism, just as it has changed the attitudes and expectations of the consumers of journalism. Readers expect more immediacy, more transparency, more injection of the self, and more interactivity in their news content. I don’t think that means you can’t practice journalism in a blog.  But it does mean that a blog is not simply a sterile, inert container that has no effect on its content. And I, for one, think that’s a good thing.

Content’s Evil Twin: Advertorial

This morning, the Los Angeles Times passed yet another milestone on the road to ruin of what was once a great newspaper. When I opened it to section two (the awkwardly named “LATEXTRA”), I experienced the following sequence of thoughts:

  1. Wow, Universal Studios burned down yesterday.
  2. Hold on, it says “ADVERTISEMENT” above the photo.
  3. Oh, this whole thing is just an ad for Universal Studio’s new King Kong attraction.
  4. Unseemly expletive.

As explained in detail on Charles Apple’s blog, what I mistook for a real newspaper was in fact a four-page advertising wrap. In other words, an advertorial.

Los Angeles Times LATEXTRA Universal Studios advertising wrap

When I was in traditional publishing, I fought to set limits to advertorials, but ultimately had to tolerate them. In my liberated state, though, I can finally say it: Advertorials are evil.

When I say advertorial, I’m not talking about all sponsored content that appears in a publication. Rather, I’m referring to any sponsored content that attempts to deceive the reader, even briefly, into mistaking it for something it’s not.

I’ve talked here before about how publishing and content marketing exist on a continuum, not distinctly separate, but more like siblings. Well, advertorial is like an evil twin, lurking in a vague netherworld between or above or below journalism and content marketing.

Its modus operandi is deception, not transparency. Both publishers and content marketers should disavow it, now and forever.

Wine, Roses, and Oil: PR and the Truth

Days of Wine and RosesLast night I happened to watch  Days of Wine and Roses, a Jack Lemmon-Lee Remick movie from 1962 that, perhaps because of the overexposed theme song, I had resisted for years.

My mistake.  It is a powerful, compelling story of an alcoholic couple whose refusal to acknowledge their alcoholism destroys their relationship. For a movie made nearly 50 years ago, it remains remarkably relevant, not just for its treatment of addiction, but also, surprisingly, for its critique of corporate marketing and PR.

It’s no coincidence that Jack Lemmon’s character works in public relations. In his career, as in his personal life, he papers over the ugly truth until it’s too late. The parallel becomes clear when Lee Remick takes Lemmon to introduce him to her father, played by Charles Bickford. When Bickford asks what Lemmon does for a living, things go rapidly downhill.  Watching the exchange, it’s hard not to think of British Petroleum’s disastrous handling of the Gulf oil spill.

Charles Bickford: What kind of work you do?

Jack Lemmon: Um, uh, public relations.

CB: Public relations?

Lee Remick: Uh, you know, Daddy, um, well, uh, it’s hard to explain.

JL: Well, err, I, I suppose you might say my job is, uh, to sort of help my client, uh, create a public image, uh, by—well, for an example, um, let’s say my client—Corporation X!—uh, does some good. Or something of, uh, benefit to the public, or something that could conceivably be conceived as, uh …. benefit to the uh… Well, my job is to see that the public, uh, knows it.

CB: And what if this X Corporation does something bad?

JL: Well . . . . [chuckles nervously] Well, theoretically they don’t . . . um, theoretically. Well, uh, part of my job is to, uh, help my client to, um, to think of ways to operate, uh, in a way that the public would, you know, approve.

CB: But if your X Corporation makes a mistake, and the thing turns out bad?

JL: Well, uh, haha! I guess I try to make it look not quite so bad. [chuckles nervously]  Well, there’s more to it than that, sir, actually—

LR: It’s terrifically complicated, Daddy.

CB: I don’t understand that kind of work.

The movie holds out hope for alcoholics through the intercession of Alcoholics Anonymous. It offers no similar shot at redemption for corporate PR. This was, after all, the 1960s, the zenith of corporate marketing and advertising (think Mad Men). PR was about controlling the message, not addressing the truth.

Now, though, in the era of social media and content marketing, corporate communications is increasingly less about “control over your messaging,” as Frank Reed put it recently, and more about “telling the truth and being accountable.”

As the movie shows, and as, one hopes, corporations are learning, the failure to face up to the truth and acknowledge your mistakes only compounds and delays your day of reckoning.

Is Your Content Putting You at Risk?

For B2B companies embracing their new role as publishers, the content marketing community has produced a huge archive of valuable advice. There is at least one topic, however, that is rarely discussed: the legal risks and responsibilities of publishing.

The silence is understandable. Most of the time, the kind of publishing that content marketers do isn’t very risky. But that doesn’t mean there’s no risk, and the more publishing you do, the more likely you are to encounter that one-in-a-hundred legal issue. So you may want to think about this sooner rather than later.

My purpose here is not to offer legal advice, but to suggest a framework for reviewing these issues, along with some resources for further research. The following three questions, based on your relationship to your content, your audience, and to the people and companies you cover, should get you started.

Who owns your content?

If the people that create your content are employees of your company, it’s pretty simple. Your company owns the content. But what happens when you use freelancers or other nonemployee contributors? Unless you specify otherwise in writing, you most likely don’t own that content. That may not be a problem, but if you plan to reuse the content in any way (let alone five ways), it could be.

Even if you create your own content, you should ask yourself how much of it you borrow. If you quote extensively or borrow images from other blogs, do you have the right to do so? Is what you’re doing copyright infringement or fair use? Are you giving appropriate credit to the creator of what you borrow? A basic understanding of copyright law will help.

How open is your relationship with your audience?

Though ethics is not a frequent topic of discussion among content marketing thought leaders, a key principle that is widely accepted is the importance of transparency. Likewise, openness and disclosure will serve you well in legal areas, whether in observing FTC guidelines or in deciding whether you need to include a privacy policy and terms of service on your Web site. (Did you know, by the way, that if you use Google Analytics, you are expected to have and post a privacy policy?)

How much do you write about other people or companies?

In 25 years of publishing, I’ve had to deal with claims of defamation five or six times. None of the instances went much beyond the accusation stage, and all were quickly resolved. Even though my employer in each case was on solid ground, the experience was pretty ugly, and wasted a lot of time.

The risk of committing libel in a content marketing context is pretty low compared with a general news operation. But if you talk about people or companies other than yours, the risk is not zero. No matter how benign your intent, people will be sensitive to their reputations. You owe it to yourself to minimize your risk—without crimping your freedom of expression—by understanding the basics of libel law.

Resources: Where Can You Go for Help?

Unless you face an immediate threat, you probably don’t need a lawyer. But if you do consult one, make sure he or she specializes in publishing law.

When you can, use experienced journalists to create or edit your content. Although it’s true that they may tend to push things in the interest of getting the story, they usually are finely tuned to legal risks.

Two valuable reference works I’ve used for years are the Associated Press Stylebook, which includes a 40-page “Briefing on Media Law,” and The Copyright Permission and Libel Handbook: A Step-by-Step Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers by Lloyd Jassin and Steve Schecter.

An excellent online resource is the Citizen Media Law Project’s Legal Guide. Although its focus is on citizen journalists, it is useful to anyone new to online publishing.

If this discussion has sensitized you to legal issues, great. But beware of going overboard. It’s easy to worry so much about your risks that you don’t publish anything interesting. Aim for a middle ground: understand the legal issues but don’t obsess about them.