Matthew Wright, 2011 TABPI Young Leaders Scholarship recipient, reports on a panel discussion about the challenges faced in maintaining editorial ethics at the national ASBPE conference Aug. 4-5 in Chicago.

“It’s always a sign if you’re vomiting in the parking lot that it may be time to go,” said Abe Peck, director at Medill, Northwestern University.

Professor Peck offered some advice to participants on how to retain editorial ethics when they perceive their job to be on the line.

“Keep trying to make the case that things like transparency and ethical journalism are business arguments. . . . Pick your battles and really make a stand when you have to,” he said, adding that it makes sense to try building ethical practices within the organization rather than to fight individual cases.

Joining Professor Peck on the panel, Mark Schlack, editorial vice-president at Massachusetts-based publisher TechTarget, emphasized the need to be involved in training sales staff in the principles of editorial ethics. He also suggested that decision-making on content should be placed sufficiently high in the editorial ranks.

“A lot of times [such problems] proliferate through the lower ranks – by people who don’t know better, aren’t in a position to say no, or want to please the advertiser.”

Schlack said the business model in online publishing is changing. Until about four or five years ago the model was to get a lot of eyeballs and show them a lot of advertising. This was convenient from an ethics point of view because the ads were displayed randomly, he said.

“Now, by and large, unless you have one of those really large sites, your business will be changing to more of a ‘lead generation’ model,” he said.

Content, he explained, is then a way to attract a desirable audience who will register, provide some information on who they are, and then become “prospects” or “leads.” Although he believes that this model is not unethical in principle, issues arise when “topic  A is something that advertisers want to get leads for and topic B is something they are not that interested in getting leads for, [and] then the pressure is to publish a lot about topic A and nothing about topic B.”

It seems that, more and more, advertisers are expecting publishers to carry a version of “topic A” that is aligned closely with the message they want to impart. According to Schlack, this threatens the editor’s ability to create a mix of content to satisfy his or her audience.

He added: “The advertising community is very aggressive these days trying to rewrite the rules. In some cases they just don’t know the rules. There’s a whole new generation of people who have come into the online advertising and marketing world.”

Also speaking on the panel, ASBPE associate director Robin Sherman encouraged attendees to consider what is meant by editorial ethics, principles around which are set out in the association’s “Guide to Preferred Editorial Practices” – available at www.aspbe.org. One of the big problems,  Sherman suggested, is that, with a paucity of research that equates high editorial standards with increased revenue, editors are unable to quantify the return on investment for following such guidelines for their company’s executives.

Nevertheless, Schlack suggested that “there is a business argument to make, to say ‘we’re trying to get a certain audience so we have to serve them with quality content.’” He argued that editorial ethics drives high-quality content and a strong relationship with the audience, which is a good business goal. “The absence of ethics is a detriment to business.”

Professor Peck believes that editorial ethics should make sound business sense in the long run. “In the short term there is immense financial pressure to compromise,” he acknowledged, adding: “It is hard to measure but, if you can make a long-term quality argument, it’s going to make your material more engaging and improve loyalty – that is a good advertising environment.”

And avoid making an emotional argument, Schlack advised. “The freedom of democracy is not at stake in most of what we do [as B2B editors]. But the business is at stake. Publications that ignore their readers’ interests will disappear.”

Matthew Wright is editor of the UK journal Clinical Pharmacist, published by Pharmaceutical Press.