Mentioning advertisers in staff evaluations was wrong, but hardly the scandal it appears to be

I love that we’re discussing both these topics: staff evaluation criteria, and advertiser influence in the newsroom. But I’m going to side with my old Wall Street Journal boss Norm Pearlstine – now the chief content officer at Time Inc., which owns – when he concludes that’s case isn’t the black mark it appears to be.

First, I concur with ASBPE national president Mark Schlack that were a publication to encourage writing on the basis of its appeal to an individual advertiser, it would indeed be on the road to perdition. The language in the staff evaluation, giving a rating of “beneficial to advertiser relationship,” wasn’t specific to individual companies. I read it to be quite general.

In fact, it reminded me of discussions that took place during my years at CFO Magazine, from 1996 to 2009, when it was part of The Economist Group. (CFO having such an ethical pedigree perhaps made me more tolerant of discussions about advertiser appeal — discussions I never heard as a Journal reporter. Nor, I reckon, did Pearlstine when he was managing editor, and later executive editor.)

At CFO, it was hardly off-limits, when proposing magazine or website feature concepts, to note that the features might attract the advertising dollars that were the life blood of the controlled-circulation publication. We conceived and ran a number of buyers’ guides, and I remember discussions of new guides — whether they covered the pros and cons of 401(k) vendor offerings or finance software — that definitely considered the benefit that would accrue from advertisers, in general, wanting to be associated with the guides.

Of course, there was never any suggestion that buying an ad would get the advertiser special treatment in a guide. Ad purchases never did. The writers never knew who was advertising and who was not. If an ad did happen to run next to a favorable guide recommendation, in fact, I remember that efforts were made to move the ad so there was no appearance of favoritism.

That is the context in which I see Pearlstine’s reply, in a New York Magazine interview, that the case may not have “anything to do with editorial independence and editorial integrity.”  In my own experience, by the way, Pearlstine himself was an executive with admirable integrity at the Journal. I believe him completely when he says he knew nothing of the question on the evaluation until he read about it in Gawker.

And I absolutely believe him that a “WTF” comment — followed by a quick pencil line through that part of the questionnaire — would have been his reaction to seeing the advertiser-benefit reference mixed in with “quality of writing,” “newsworthiness,” and “productivity/tenacity.”

I hope that all B2B publications, along with and other Pearlstine charges, can learn from the case. Move forward, and sin no more.

Roy Harris

Roy Harris is a semi-retired newspaper and magazine journalist who continues to write for, and to write freelance. Previously he was a reporter and deputy bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal from 1971 to 1995; senior editor at The Economist Group’s CFO Magazine from 1996 to 2009; and editor of IDG’s from 2010 to 2016. He is the author of “Pulitzer’s Gold: A Century of Public Service Journalism,” published by Columbia U. Press in 2015.

A longtime ASBPE member and former president of the ASBPE National Board of Directors, he helped found the ASBPE Educational Foundation, as well as the Stephen Barr Award, ASBPE’s top feature-writing prize. Harris was an ASBPE Lifetime Achievement Award honoree in 2016.

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