Why being reader-centric = ethically unimpeachable

By Mark Schlack, ASBPE president

When I think of the editors I work with now or have worked with and who are ethically unimpeachable, the most common trait I see is that they are reader-centric.

If you spend your day talking to readers, asking them what they think and what they are trying to learn, and you use that to guide your actions, you are going to tend to want to do things that may offend advertisers. I’m referring to writing stories that are critical or skeptical (at least) of advertisers actions and claims.

But if you are doing it because Joe at Acme Widgets and Suzie at Global Stuff impressed upon you that they really need to know that, you’ll more likely take the risk. Make no mistake, even at the best publishing companies, it is a risk.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that writers and editors are writing stories because two people asked them to. What I am suggesting is that writers and editors develop a vivid sense that they have a relationship to a specific community (their readers) that’s not just an abstract idea.

They’re not serving some anonymous community of readers. They know dozens of actual readers (even 100s over time), have spoken to them, listened to their rambling accounts, joked around with them over lunch and so on. These are real people with real needs. This fleshes out (literally) the notion of a community and gives editors strength to stand up to pressure.

Being ethical means playing the ‘long game’

The second thing I notice is that most editors who meet the test of being ethically unimpeachable have a deep understanding that they’re playing the “long game.” Being ethical may not benefit them today or this month. But over time, it will absolutely result in them being seen by their peers, managers and the media industry in general as someone who has a rock solid connection with the audience.

The editor who is aware knows where the bodies are buried and knows who has fingers on the pulse of an audience. That is an extremely valuable capability for any media company to have in its ranks. Most people tend to believe it can be translated from one publication to another, even from one market to another.

You can understand that by contrasting it to another style of advancing your own career – wheeler-dealer, opportunistic climbers. These people look for openings and take them. They have no other persistent behavior. Maybe today they make a name for themselves by breaking an expose of a big vendor, but maybe tomorrow they cozy up to some CEO at a vendor because they want to ride that wave (see: a zillion puff pieces about Steve Jobs). Eventually they burn out, having screwed their readers too many times to be trusted.

The integrity stars, IMO, tend to be the people who have rejected that and opted for being consistently pro-reader.

Alert marketing types have seen the light!!

On the business side, the publishers, marketers and sales people who have been the best partners with ethics also understand that the reader is the source of revenue. I worked for an exec at Cahners who used to say “Nothing happens until the first quarter page is sold.” He was wrong – nothing happens until a reader reads the other ¾ of that page that is editorial and sees the ad.

The best publishing execs understand that having a site or magazine where an audience absolutely feels they must go because they’re most likely to get the real scoop is the best insurance against commoditizing themselves. They will look an advertiser in the eye and say, “sorry, I can’t help you there.”

If you have that knowledge and confidence, either as an editor or a publisher, you can deal with pressure from vendors. You can be calm and not feel threatened and not yell and scream. You can spend the 15 minutes (ok, 45 minutes sometimes) on the phone defending your story; you can blandly spell out to an advertiser or to a sales guy in your own company why the story was right and necessary.

(In addition to his ASBPE leadership role, Mark Schlack is Tech Target Inc. senior vice president/editorial.)