ASBPE Ethics Advisory: An opinion from the American Society of Business Publication Editors

ASBPE Ethics Advisory 2011-10-10:
Be Realistic When Addressing Sales Department Requests For Stronger Editorial Hooks

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Issue: Editors increasingly are being pressed by salespeople to schedule articles that have “advertiser appeal.” In some cases, the desired “hooks” are not perceived to offer the highest reader value. To what extent can editors defend quality and ethic concerns without jeopardizing their careers?

Response: ASBPE’s Guide to Preferred Editorial Practices stipulates that an editor has primary responsibility “for selection of editorial content based on readers’ needs and interests.” There is no question that maintaining top editorial quality deserves the highest priority. However, a knee-jerk negative reaction to including hook material could be unrealistic. Actually, so-called hook content may have significant reader appeal. All it takes is an adept editor to fashion a high-quality article covering the subject matter in question.

Background: A recent blog posted on our National site described a situation where the author participated in the selection of an editorial focus for a special project. At the planning session, the editor presented data showing which high reader interest topics would be appropriate focus choices. The sales team rejected the proposed recommendations in favor of a series based on what sponsorships could be sold. This thinking process was not an isolated instance. The editor admitted being at an impasse. “I don’t feel like I can talk to anyone at my company without seeming as though I am anti revenue. I’m afraid I’m compromising my editorial quality and ethics if I don’t stick up for our audience; yet I’m risking my job if I do.”

The author agreed that after allowing the blog to run for a few weeks, the concern expressed could be submitted to ASBPE’s ethics committee for additional comment.

Recommendations: All committee members acknowledged the importance of editorial quality. But as reflected in the following direct quotes, responses usually advocated the need for realism when evaluating the merits of content seen to be primarily advertiser-oriented.

Mike Antich: “Editors create a monthly product to meet the needs of readers, but they also simultaneously create a product for salespeople to sell. If a trade magazine editor truly knows his or her market, then there are not enough pages in a magazine, no matter how large, to accommodate all the stories that could be (and should be) written about your industry. A trade magazine has two levels of readership: The primary targeted readership and the secondary supplier base, which serves this targeted audience. On a monthly basis, editors practice a form of “editorial triage” in determining which legitimate stories to run and which to hold.

“Editors need to take an extra step to determine how to meet the needs of both primary and secondary readers. Editors need to be more creative and imaginative in addressing these needs without feeling they’ve betrayed their ethical standards. It’s not easy, but it can be done if you make the effort to do so. There are many legitimate articles that can be written for your primary readership, which also have a marketing/advertising potential for salespeople to leverage.

“Too often editors have an ‘us vs. them’ mentality. The entire magazine staff needs to work as a team to produce a profitable magazine. Editorial integrity and profitability must not be viewed as contradictory goals. Just as editors identify the needs of their primarily readers, they need to invest the time to also learn the needs of their secondary readers. At first blush, these ‘needs’ may look different, but, in reality, they are simply two sides of the same coin. I would admonish editors to be more creative in developing articles to statisfy the needs of both their primary and secondary readers, which do not compromise editorial integrity. When an editor accomplishes this, then you minimize salespeople meddling with the editorial product.

“But more importantly, when editors accomplish this, their ROI to the company becomes immeasurable.”

John Bethune: “Though I am deeply sympathetic to the editor, my immediate reaction to this issue is that it’s framed with a false dichotomy. As an editor myself, my instinct is to say that salespeople just don’t have the brains and creativity to sell good content. But that’s not fair. The problem really is not that one side champions editorial quality and the other does not. What both sides feel but can’t or won’t say is that they have no clue how to make money anymore.

“As the old advertising model that powered trade magazines for so many decades withers away, it’s getting harder and harder to sell independent, reader-oriented content. What ad sales staff is reduced to doing is essentially selling marketing materials – it’s the only thing left that makes sense to advertisers.

“And that approach, of course, is a dead end for third-party publishers. In the era of search-based inbound marketing, advertisers no longer really need third parties and their lists of subscribers. Nor in a digital world do they need publishers’ hulking print production and distribution apparatuses any longer.

“As a result, legacy editorial and ad-sales jobs are among those imperiled. Meanwhile, the type of problem our anonymous editor describes is not going to be solved. Rather, it is going to be replaced by some system so new, so unrecognizable, that we can’t see exactly what it is.

“In the meantime, watch out. Though the outcome may please us, the process of getting there will be very messy.”

Jim Black: “I don’t see that the sales team is doing anything wrong (if I understand what’s being said). They simply want a topic that will attract advertising. They, if I’m interpreting this correctly, are not asking for the material to be written to any specific outcome. They aren’t asking that information or conclusions be modified. They aren’t even asking that specific businesses be named. I certainly would question the value of an editor or reporter who could not work within those confines. Furthermore, I assume sales is not asking that content be limited to their subjects, so the editor still would have space to write what is more important to readers.

“I would add that if the publisher only looks at profits coming from sales and does not keep his/her eye on reader satisfaction, everyone will lose in the end. That should be the editor’s message.”

Roy Harris: “Editors are often in the position of bringing editorial special-project ideas to the publisher with the idea of getting a sponsor. Sometimes the editor doesn’t make the ‘sale,’ for whatever reason. And if he/she doesn’t, then be prepared to push the editorial package without sufficient sponsorship.

“It’s okay for advertising or marketing to propose story ideas – including ones that could have a special-section-type sponsorship. More than ever, editors and marketing folks need to work in a spirit of cooperation, if they can (a key proviso here). But if editors don’t think the pitches from marketing are newsworthy, those editors should explain the reasons, and withdraw. That leaves the marketing folks to come up with an “advertorial” approach (I know, I hate the word, too) and to pay a freelancer to produce it.

“From the broader perspective, the editor needs to make sure that all parties at the publication (publisher and marketing and all folks included) understand that the editorial product is what gives the publication value to the readers. An editor has to be able to sell that value to all internal parties. If the publisher is not sold – and thinks the editor is not proposing newsworthy material that helps establish the publication’s reputation with readers – then it’s time for the publisher and editor to part company.”

Robin Sherman: “We don’t know for a fact that ALL advertisers are NOT interested in the editor’s topics. We only know that the salespeople believe they cannot sell it. Why is that? Why are they lazy? Have advertisers told them they are not interested in the editor’s topics? If so, how many advertisers said that? Perhaps the sales force has only spoken with three advertisers. Perhaps some advertisers would love the topic if only they were approached.

“Just because the editor thinks his/her list of topics are the popular ones doesn’t mean the readers would not like another topic that would also be of interest to advertisers. Perhaps there are other topics that the readers did not think of or didn’t have the chance to comment on. So exactly how good is the reader research that the editor is relying on? What is the confidence level of the research? What is the response rate? What is the margin or error? And so on. Or was it information from a focus group? If so, that is for sure only anecdotal, not applicable to the readership as a whole. The research question is not frivolous. There’s a lot of bad reader research out there. And many editors and publishers are making decisions based on that poor data.

“Popularity of a topic, by itself, is not the sole/good measure of editorial quality.”

Howard Rauch: “When considering the issue of selecting content based on advertiser value rather than reader value, there are cases where many topics offer equal value potential for both factions. Being an editor is truly a dream job on a B2B magazine serving such a field. On the other side of the coin, editors have good cause to despair when employed by publications where the mandate is to provide cover-to-cover hooks for advertisers. Unfortunately, there still are some of those around. Based on my own experience as an editor, the best environment we can hope for is one where senior management accords top priority to editorial quality. I was fortunate enough to spend 21 years at such a company. Sure, we always had hooks on the editorial schedule. But that never prevented us from providing a regular coverage flow of acknowledged high-interest topics.

“But as your ethics chairman, the point I really want to leave with everybody is that the preceding discussion occurred because a peer had the courage to initiate the conversation. Other ASBPE members wishing to address a concern are invited to use your ethics advisory service to state their case. All inquiries are treated confidentially! For further information on how to proceed, please e-mail me at ethics@asbpe.org.”

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