Conventional media businesses generally are careful to ensure that the editorial (news) operations are separate from the advertising sales organization. The concept of “editorial integrity” is that, when the news and writing are free of advertiser-influence or control, the publication has credibility. This enhances trust (branding!) and, most importantly, attracts a large audience of qualified readers or viewers, who then see the advertising.
Of course, the world is never so pure, especially in the business-to-business media. Public relations professionals earn their pay by pitching and encouraging news section editorial coverage for the businesses and organizations they represent. There is nothing wrong with this strategy, but it leads to some real odd business inconsistencies. That is, a media business, which earns most of its revenue from advertising, gives its most valuable “free advertising” (news section publicity) to organizations who don’t pay the organization providing the publicity — but a third-party agent receives the compensation.
I’ve always scratched my head and wondered why anyone in the media would be so dumb to allow this sort of thing to happen, but of course my perspective is rather unique. I’m the editor — and own the business, so am the publisher, as well.
This attitude has resulted in me being quite straightforward about our editorial policies. As a rule, businesses never receive positive news publicity in our publications unless they are advertisers. (We virtually never report negative news about individual businesses or organizations, no matter whether they are advertisers or not.) I do not generally take or return calls from public relations persons pitching stories, unless they represent advertisers.
Yet there are still nuances in these policies.
For example, we are quite careful to manage the flow of advertorial and advertising-related editorial content to ensure that this stuff doesn’t dominate or overtake the publications. Few people want to read publications that are wall-to-wall “advertorials”. We’ll cover issues of general interest to the community without worrying about advertising support, and we are absolutely careful to be fair in our news section on controversial issues. (As an example, many individuals and associations in Ontario have strong feelings about the Ontario College of Trades. We’ll report both sides of the story, reflecting one-sided perspectives only in special features where one side or another has a clear mandate. In other words, we’ll obviously reflect the “anti” perspective in a feature sponsored by Merit Ontario, but would equally report a positive story in a feature sponsored by the provincial government or the labour movement.)
And, yes, public relations people can still break through the “you must advertise” crack by providing relevant, useful stories, unavailable elsewhere and specifically of interest to our readership. One guy I know does just that — he always “pitches” stories that are on-topic, not overtly commercial, and ensures they don’t read like puffy advertisements.
Finally, we have a contract publishing service where we produce association newsletters and magazines. Here, we face another layer to the editorial integrity/business challenge, because obviously the official association publications should only contain content approved by the associations, but these are greatly enhanced when we can touch on controversial topics — and report the “other side” in sensitive issues. (The associations report this balanced approach causes the association-sponsored publications to be one of their most valuable membership resources.)
These guidelines underline the challenges of overseeing and leading a media/publishing business. Some 25 years ago, when I set out to start this enterprise, business start-up experts warned me that “nine out of 10 publishers fail within their first year,” and over the years, I’ve seen why.
Some are started by advertising sales people, who think they can be successful by pandering to the advertisers, without considering writing/editorial quality, relevance and the importance of taking on sometimes controversial issues. They fail.
Others are started by idealistic editors who seek the truth. They write exciting publications or websites, but crash sooner or later when the advertisers back off, and not enough people are willing to pay for subscriptions.
Most successful publishers tread a careful line; they’ll cover sensitive issues and occasionally risk offending their advertisers; they’ll allow public relations persons some access, but not enough to control the operation, and they’ll always listen to the fine balance of integrity and business that are essential to be a viable and successful publisher.
That is what we seek to do, and we are succeeding.