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Do Readers Care Who Pays the Editor?

Hi all. Sorry for the dry spell in my blogging. Sometime life intercedes and sidetracks our well-heeled routines.

Today I’d like to consider the question of recently displaced editors selling their brand w/o full disclosure. I know how the editorial community feels about such actions, but do readers really care?

Here the problem: What’s an industry-recognized and -respected editor to do once he/she is laid-off by a major publisher? There seems to be one of three career choices:
> Become a freelancer
> Become an editor for a corporation, i.e., EiC for a corporate magazine and/or online site.
> Become an editor for a corporation but give the appearance of still being an independent journalist.

It’s the later case that concerns me. Aside from ethical questions and eventual damage to the editor’s brand, do the readers really care? Can anyone cite examples of the effects on less than full disclosure to the readers (not the editorial community)? Appreciate your thoughts.

21 Responses to “Do Readers Care Who Pays the Editor?”

  1. Joe Basques Says:

    John,
    This is a very interesting question and one we have been asking and addressing at New Tech Press since we launched. Can’t wait to see how your other readers respond.

    Far too often I hear people talk about the “wall” between editorial and advertising. The fact is, there is no real literal wall. Coverage in any publication is always paid for by someone be it directly or indirectly (advertising). The only question is who will carry that burden. It’s fairly easy for any editor to look through his / her own publication and know who pays the bills. So how do we know editors are fair, balanced, and offer an independent view? We simply take their word for it. That’s actually the way it’s always been. We’ve just fooled ourselves in to thinking something different. Sure sponsored content is a new way of doing things and feels different to people used to the old way of doing things, but things are changing and we’d all better get used to it.

    One of the great things about the web is that it now allows us all the ability to comment on pieces we read. If an editor is not fair and balanced readers have the right to call them on it. The writer must then defend their position. Sponsored content does not automatically equal not objective.

    Using New Tech Press as an example – feature stories are written the same way a feature story for any major tech publication would be written; a techno-business slant with a fair share of skepticism in it. In addition we get additional outside commentary from analysts to ensure what we’re saying is accurate. Sponsored content – YES. Fair and Balanced – YES. If we’re not fair and balanced then the content is of no use to our media partners or the industry. If the content is of no use to our media partners they won’t post it on their sites and NTP fades into the sunset.

    I don’t think readers care. I think most readers are skeptical anyway. It’s pretty easy to search the web and find two sides to every story.

    By the way, Lou is still waiting to set up a New Tech Press interview with you on this very topic. Shoot him a note when you have a chance.

  2. John Blyler Says:

    But can readers really tell, especially if it’s from an editor who has built up trust but now works for a corporation? Don’t know that readers can tell or – more importantly – that they care.

  3. Lou Covey Says:

    John, human nature is subjective. We choose to believe what we believe. Remember, there was an issue once on whether the earth was flat or round and it didn’t matter what either side had as proof.

    Today we have people who believe Fox News is a Republican media organ, yet there are independent studies that show Fox has the leased biased (note I did not say they were unbiased) broadcast news network on television. The people that believe their bias refuse to accept the studies.

    It all comes down to what you want to believe. The key is the value of the information presented, not the perceived objectivity. And if you believe your source of information, then you probably think it’s objective.

  4. Lou Covey Says:

    Make that “least biased.” Shouldn’t watch soccer while I write.

  5. Lou Covey Says:

    … and “they’re biased” rather than their… sheesh.

  6. Dark_Faust Says:

    Hi Lou. To view my query in another context, see Brian Fuller’s recent blog: Cadence Picks Up Richard Goering. [http://greeleysghost.blogspot.com/2009/04/cadence-picks-up-richard-goering-as.html]

    BTW: Fox as unbiased news? You’re kidding, right? Who performed the “independent” survey?

  7. Brian Fuller Says:

    My answer is Yes. Readers Care. They highly value transparency. I’ll invoke an example from the traditional publishing sector:

    -Contributed content is a staple of B:B publications. It sits near staff-generated content and usually uses the same type font and layout, so it conceivably could be confused with staff-generated copy. But the bylines always carry the company affiliation. So, in the case of the engineering audience, they take a contributed article with a certain filter on it (“i know this author is grinding some axe, somehow”). Hiding the affiliation will piss off readers.
    -Let’s jump to John’s second example: An editor becomes a corporate editor for a company organ. John’s comment in the GG post he reference is spot on: full disclosure. In the case of a Goering or a Santarini that corporate role actually can add credibility to a corporate organ. The reader knows full well, for example, that Xcell Journal is a Xilinx house organ, but the fact it’s run by an ex-B:B editor suggests it may case a broader net in its editorial choices. The content eventually will speak for itself.
    -It’s JB’s last point that really is the one we should be vigilant about. I can think of a couple of editors in our industry who work for corporations and also freelance or blog about industry issues for publications and sites. A few people may know their corporate affiliations, but most don’t, so they can’t place the B.S. filter in front of them when they read their independent copy.

    The answer here I think we all agree on: Full disclosure. And much of that responsibility lies with publishers. A tag line at the end of a freelance editor’s article perhaps.

    If a lot of us journalists are toiling in the Gig Economy right now, we have to be completely open about the companies we contract for. It’s the right thing to do, and poor ethical practices will bite us in the ass at some point.

    And it’s something that as my freelance work spreads, I need to be mindful of. I’m creating a new Web site that will have a disclosure page on it, but I also pledge to drop a tagline into freelance stories that highlight possible conflicts and previous work relationships.

    It’s easy to be ethically lazy. If we don’t take it on ourselves and be diligent, this brave new world of editors morphing between working for companies and publishers is going to get uncomfortably fuzzy.

    Great topic, John.

  8. Paula Jones Says:

    Those of us who have been around a long time and have great memories of a truly investigative press would like to believe that the actual engineers care. However, over the past 10 years the quality of the press has really degraded (editors stretched too thin to do much more than reprint press releases). And I’m just not sure… I know the engineers are getting older (average age for Tensilica’s audience is 48) and much more jaded about information – they want to check a lot of facts themselves.

    I think that more and more engineers are going directly to company web sites for info – but if they don’t have awareness that company X has product Y, then companies have to build that awareness on industry publication web sites.

    As far as disclosure goes, yes, it’s important. But as more things come out that blur the lines between advertising and editorial, it’s the quality of the work that matters. And editors who take on freelance work often can add to the quality level. Often they can’t control the way the company distributes the info (often putting a VP’s name on an article, for example). But that’s OK – it’s been done for years and at least some editors are getting freelance work. We need to keep this industry thriving!
    Paula

  9. Mike Santarini Says:

    I agree with Brian. It’s all about disclosure. Don’t agree at all with Joe. Back in the day, I had no idea who advertised with EET. I remember Anthony Cataldo screaming at a sales lady becasue she dared to come over to our side of the building to tell Anthony that one of her clients loved a story he wrote…he reported her to the publisher (who was a former editor)…she got a talking to…that is a wall. Is it like that today? Should be…most publishers don’t have the nads–that’s what’s changed.

  10. Joe Basques Says:

    Mike,
    While you may not have had any idea who advertised it would have been VERY easy for you to figure out had you chosen to. I’ll just have to take your word for it that you didn’t. That’s really my point. Much like I have to take your word for it, I also have to take the word of every other editor who claims fairness and balance.

    Even your own example above is from “back in the day.” Paula makes a great point. Times are changing. Readers will begin to care less because there is simply less independent third party validation for them to read. They have no choice. That’s where their own skepticism an filters will come in.

  11. Lou Covey Says:

    John, The Project for Excellence in Journalism and Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy announced in November 2007 that Fox News was the LEAST biased of all the broadcast media. That doesn’t mean they did not exhibit bias, but in terms of dealing with both sides of the issue and making the greatest effort for balance. Fox came out ahead. Conversely, MSNBC came out most biased and unbalanced.

    That same study, however, showed broadcast news to be more balanced on the whole than newspapers. Newspapers got bogged down in the politics while broadcast dealt more with issues.

    Now to the point: Disclosure IS the thing. And it doesn’t MATTER if the readers CARE. Ethics are ethics. Transparency MUST be important enough to the journalist that care is taken to make sure that intended bias is or is not part of equation. And they have to be ethical enough to walk away when the client pushes for something else.

    One of the more important adages I’ve adopted in my life is: We are what we are in the dark. I’m not as concerned about what others THINK about my integrity as I do what I KNOW about it.

  12. JB’s Circuit » What do Engineers Want from Corporate vs Technology Press websites? Says:

    [...] post is a follow on to my earlier question: “Do Readers Care Who Pays the Editor?” I was curious to see if our readers (engineers and technical professionals) really care who [...]

  13. Mike Santarini Says:

    I haven’t been following the progress of your new tech press but when you publish a piece in a pub, does it start off with a disclaimer that this piece has been payed for/financially sponsored by xyz company?

  14. Joe Basques Says:

    If you’re concerned about payment influencing coverage, it’s pretty simple. If we’re not fair and balanced then the content is of no use to our media partners or the industry. If the content is of no use to our media partners they won’t post it on their sites and NTP fades into the sunset. The concept is pretty simple really: A company pays a modest sum of money to have a feature story written about them (rather than paying for an ad…because someone always pays. The only question is who). It’s written by an established journalist, and the company gets a look-see but not veto power. Yes, there’s some give and take in the process. But ultimately the journalist has a reputation to protect, and the company wants to get covered.

    Take a look at one of our stories – http://www.newtechpress.net/?m=200805

    The story is written the same way a feature story for an major tech pub would be written, including a fair share of skepticism in it. In addition we got some additional outside commentary from analysts in there to ensure what we’re saying is accurate. This is not just another “contributed article full of marketing fluff.”

  15. Lou Covey Says:

    Mike, in answer to your question, yes, the sponsor is clearly stated. You will notice the series of videos of Scottish companies in January was sponsored by Scottish Development International, IT Techmedia, DMB Associates and Cox Castle Nicholson.

  16. Dark_Faust Says:

    No, Lou’s sponsored articles don’t start off with a disclosure – it’s located at the end. I’ve run a couple on Chip Design.

    BTW: I started to write a response to all the comments but it got too long. So I wrote a new blog: What do Engineers Want from Corporate vs Technology Press websites?

  17. Friday Freak Out Says:

    [...] “What’s an industry-recognized and -respected editor to do once he/she is laid-off by a major publi…“, asks John Blyer, a blogger who proudly calls himself an editor. [...]

  18. John Blyler Says:

    For the sake of completeness, I’m including the comment trail from SemiNeedle:

    Submitted by Françoise Von Trapp on April 26, 2009 – 7:59am.

    I believe you’ve left out a fourth career choice, and that is to be an independant journalist running an independent, sponsor supported, online publication. In this scenario, a journalist (or blogger) must be very careful to maintain the line between editorial and advertorial. However a savvy reader can surely root out journalistic bias. It may be more difficult balancing act to maintain editorial integrity by cutting out the middle man (the publishing house). But at the end of the day in the world of trade publications, editors salaries have always been paid by the corporate advertisers. It’s up to the editors themselves to establish their integrity as fair and honest reporters, regardless of who pays the salary.

    Submitted by John Blyler on May 3, 2009 – 10:06pm.

    Hi Francoise. Ah, the “independent, sponsor supported, online publication.” Say, like SemiNeddle or perhaps System-Level Design portal (www.sldcommunity.com). But securing meaningful sponsorship for such community portals is tricky.

    One might argue that the more sponsors, the more diluted the bias the editor would face. Such an assumption would lead to an additional set of criteria with which to evaluate the “integrity” of an editor. Which leads back to the model of the trade journals for which the past advertising business model no longer works.

  19. Mike Santarini Says:

    The point I’m making here is that in full disclosure it should be at the beginning of the story ala “This article was sponsored/payed for by xyz company” or the piece should be labeled on top ADVERTORIOAL–there should be no degreed of deception involved (such as placing it at the end of the piece). There is a huge difference between advertised in and payed for by. Really, when an editor writes a story in an indy pub and someone asks, can we have a look at the article before you send it, the answer should always be “no.” So a vendor asking “can we have a look at our article and have the editor change this bit and omit that bit” isn’t journalism. Say Synopsys pays you money to write about Design Compiler and logic synthesis, can the editor do the first logical thing and go interview logic synthesis competitors like Cadence? Does Synopsys get to decide what Cadence material goes in? Does the author write cautiously and omit things they would normally include so as not to tick off the sponsor?

  20. Jeff Muscatine Says:

    We can certainly smell the hot breath of the self-serving in parts of this thread. Gimme a break!

    Mike S is perfectly right: forthright disclosure is the only logical and proper choice. We can all deal with people and outlets quite well when we understand their affiliations and priorities. As Brian points out, readers value transparency and quality; the failures will ultimately sift out where either one is lacking.

  21. Ed Says:

    Hey John,

    the comments here re: the need for transparency are right on the mark.

    Geez, I did not know we have a couple of editors being paid by companies but acting as if they are indie? Can I ask who those are?

    I totally agree: as long as editors-turned-bloggers show their company affiliation, we can easily work with them: their specific interests coupled with their company responsibility to promote their companies. After all, the companies sign their paychecks.

    But we can’t do that if we don’t know the affiliation. With one editor who’s now in the employ of a major EDA company, we just know not to send him any product announcement news on embargo. But he’s forthright and obviously up front about who he is working for.

    In the same way that we would view any contributed article with some degree of skepticism, any sponsored article is justifiably open to questions re: its objectivity. I don’t understand the offense basques takes re: the quality and bias of his published articles. All contributed articles can be questioned if not vetted by an editor…and even if they are, we still have o be rigorous readers. Santarini is right on the mark: tell us who’s sponsoring the article…that way, we know and can read the article accordingly.

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