Editorial integrity, special features and publishing independence

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Downtown Bulawayo 2010 — this image from Wyatt Smith shows a city little changed from 1980

My career path has been somewhat unorthodox. Most publishers evolve to their business ownership roles through the sales department. This isn’t surprising, because all of the journalistic ideals in the world won’t produce much revenue to establish and sustain a business.

However, I’m a writer/journalist by trade, who decided to start and own publications. This proved to be a natural career evolution.  After achieving my foreign correspondent dream by living through the end of the Rhodesia/Zimbabwe war, I “sold out” and became a federal government public relations officer, before quitting that financially-secure but emotionally haunting job to sell real estate for a couple of years.

Then I decided to start the publishing business, which has become the Construction News and Report group of companies.

My journalistic experience coupled with public relations and sales knowledge set the framework for the current business, resulting in its strengths and challenges.

Publicity booklet cover

Publicity . . . another marketing resource (free copy on request to buckshon@cnrgp.com)

Journalism, media/public relations and advertising sales co-exist in an uneasy and often conflicted partnership to define media relationships and responsibilities. The different disciplines have their own rules and quite often interests clash. These issues are becoming even more complex with the advent of social and electronic media, where large corporations are becoming “independent” media publishers to generate social media content, professional journalists are being replaced by bloggers (some independent, some in the pay of those corporate content-generators, and some who fail to adhere to conventional journalistic ethics.)

Then we need to mix into the picture the fact that most people outside of the specialized industries/communities don’t really understand how everything works — resulting sometimes in marketing/PR meltdowns, lost opportunities and crazy misunderstandings and legal battles.

I’ll outline some thoughts on the different aspects of this complex puzzle here, and give you some direction on how you can more effectively work with the media to achieve your business objectives.

Money talks

While journalists might wish to proclaim their editorial independence, and truly independent writing can attract readership and “eyeballs” (and thus advertising revenue), if the journalism is too strident or offends relevant special (advertiser) interests, the media outlet will suffer a serious loss of sales, and struggle economically.

Great journalism influences

The counterpoint to “money talks” is that when a media outlet decides to take a risk and tell the story as it is, it can influence/change things far more than the puffy advertising feature writers would ever hope to achieve. This results in media power far greater than might seem reasonable considering the journalistic organization’s limited financial resources. It explains how a blogger can cause real havoc for a major corporation; or an amateur video of ill-deeds or bad customer service can seriously harm a carefully manicured brand.

Integrity is vital

Faking, cheating, and trying to pull wool over the eyes of others results in possibly short-term success, but long-term harm. This is why, when corporate organizations engage in social media and “journalism,” they must not hide the story-behind-the-story; who is funding the operation. People can see through the lies and those independent (financially poor but socially powerful) bloggers and amateur journalists can truly shake up things when they dig out the truth.

brighterlife.ca site

Brighterlife.ca — Corporate journalism at work

These points explain how I seek to manage this business. I allow our sales representatives lattitude in setting up advertising features (which the companies/organizations sponsoring the feature either financially or influentialy support) but draw the line on allowing this sort of control in our publications’ news sections. Here, however, we break some conventional rules by allowing organizations to review stories-in-progress before publication for accuracy and fairness. On the other hand, if they truly want to “control” the message, we’ll make sure to brand the stories as “special features” so readers will know they aren’t 100 per cent independent.

Clearly, as well, we don’t handle all the stories we could, nor do we seek to rub the wrong people the wrong way. You’ll never see the Ministry of Labour press releases announcing specific fines for health and safety violations in our publications, for example. Nor are we going to try to investigate high-level corruption. We’re satisfied that other media outlets are better resourced to handle this sort of content.

Does this mean that we won’t take any journalistic risks or investigate stories that could cause hardship to our advertisers/business? The answer is nuanced. Clearly, if we encounter a story which we know about, but no one else has, and is vitally important to our readers, we’ll have an ethical and business challenge. Thankfully, this sort of situation happens rarely, and the last time it occurred, we succeeded in handling things properly. (As the story is now old and it serves no value to identify specific participants, I’ll not disclose the specific details.)

I discovered in the annual report of a local construction association, important in one of our market areas, that the association had spent an inordinately large amount of money on legal fees. However, no one would explain why. So I dug deeper, calling several people, and finally getting one association representative to describe a small aspect of the story on the record. This allowed me to pry deeper — leading to a somewhat surreal experience where one of the story’s major particpants handed me a couple of bankers boxes full of legal documents, walked me over to the copy machine, and gave me the factual data to explain a complex and truly surprising story.

We published the story over four pages in a following issue. A key person resigned his job, and we had done our “public service” — but we didn’t get the whole story. Later, I learned a sexual scandal lay beneath those bankers boxes of legal documents; but by then, the matter had been solved, at least from an industry-impact perspective. We never published the juicy details; they would have served no greater good and harmed our relationships with the association and offended advertisers.

The message here is that journalistic integrity, from a business perspective, needs to be tempered with respect for money and sustainability, yet money and power, in themselves, can only go so far in covering things up and denying the truth (and when really bad things happened, the “outing” will be costly indeed.)  Things are not black-and-white in the media world.

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