New York – B2B top brass can involve editors in marketing activity without undermining integrity concerns. However, they should confine such so-called “dark side” projects to senior level staff.

This view was expressed by Harry McCracken, the veteran B2B editor who recently left the post of Time Magazine editor at large to become technology editor of Fast Company Magazine. McCracken, who also was the 2008 recipient of American Business Media’s Timothy White Award for editorial integrity, took time out from a busy schedule to share with Ethics News Updates some thoughts about current integrity challenges.

Harry McCracken

Harry McCracken was the 2008 recipient of American Business Media’s Timothy White Award for editorial integrity.

“When you are the editor-in-chief, you are the firewall between your staff and the business side,” he said. “The biggest problem is that if you have a staff where editors are constantly switching hats back and forth, you are sending a difficult message to advertisers. If you are a high-level editor, there’s nothing wrong about having marketing involvement. But that’s not okay for associate-editor level personnel.”

In fact, added McCracken, the business side should not be shaping marketing projects involving editorial content. “I would rather have a hand in what’s going on,” he said.

(Editor’s note: Last year‘s ASBPE ethics code revision included softening the restrictions formerly recommended on marketing involvement, and suggesting greater leeway for editors, especially in formulating sponsored content.

The “Editorial Role” advisory in the revised code’s sponsored-content section reflects this view, saying, “A senior-level editor may work with sales personnel to ensure that no conflict exists between the advertiser-sponsored content and editorial content,” but adding that publishers and sales staff “should be the ones to communicate these suggestions to the sponsor.”

The code also says, “A publication’s staff should not write, edit, design, or lay out special advertising sections or supplements.” This role should be handled either by a special department or a freelancer hired by the sales staff or publisher.)

Readers deserve top consideration

“I’ve been lucky with working at companies that were deeply serious about editorial integrity,” said McCracken. Such support facilitates “putting yourself in the place of the readers, doing what you think the reader would prefer. Integrity is good for the business side. If readers lose trust, you have nothing.”

McCracken received his Timothy White Award in 2008, toward the end of his 10-year stay at PC World, when he was the magazine’s VP/editor-in-chief. The award reflected McCracken’s resignation to protest the pulling of a news feature that the publisher believed would cast an unfavorable light on an influential advertiser. McCracken eventually was reinstated, and the entire episode was the talk of the B2B industry.

Among the criteria considered by Timothy White judges is the recipient’s standing up to outside pressures – “whether from advertisers, industry executives or upper management – that threatens to interfere with the goal of placing readers first and maintaining independent, honest and ethical journalism.” (Editor’s note: For more information about award criteria and past winners, read the “Does editorial integrity have a bright future?“article in the May ENU.)

“The goals of integrity have not changed, but with digital media, the challenges have changed,” said McCracken. “For example, in the print version of PC World, we could not place a news article mentioning an advertiser adjacent to an ad about the same company. But when it came to online considerations, reader surveys found a preference for that sort of editorial/advertiser adjacency.

Sometimes something that we believe presents an integrity quandary is not a quandary at all.”

Regarding possible integrity challenges posed by native advertising programs, McCracken offered this response: “B2B readers may not be resistant to native advertising or content marketing programs, but it’s always better if they are clearly labeled. If readers believe they are being fooled as to whether or not they are reading advertising content, the more likely they will blame that concern on the publisher.”