Time Inc.’s ethical lapses require B2B attention

Mark SchlackASBPE has long worked to be a strong voice for editorial ethics. We’ve heightened our activity in response to two things: the economic crisis in publishing has led an unfortunate number of publishers towards unethical practices and the emergence of new media has led advertisers to push boundaries and to try and rewrite long established ethical practices.

In that light, our ethics committee has weighed in on the recent flap around the disclosure that Sports Illustrated rated editors for “produces content that beneficial to advertiser relationship” [sic] among seven other criteria in deciding who to keep in a recent layoff.

Why does Sports Illustrated (or for that matter, parent Time Inc.) matter for B2B editors? Consumer publishing is another world, right? Not exactly:

  1. Advertisers cross this boundary. Might the same sneaker companies, for example, advertise in SI and athletic retailer pubs?
  2. Sometimes consumer media sets the tone for B2B. Many B2B publishers are trying to ape broad consumer media online. Reasonable observers might feel that’s foolish, but it happens, nonetheless.
  3. Consumer media, theoretically, has a weaker link to product advertising than B2B. If consumer media crosses this line in highly visible ways, the pressures on us will be that much greater.
  4. Readers don’t make these distinctions. We all get tarred with the brush of “the media.”

I’m going to disagree with the premise of my own point 3. Consumer media has become rife with product placement and various flavors of advertorials. What’s significant about the SI case is the leakage from the marketing department into the overall role of the entire editorial staff. Some editors were rated 10 of 10, some 2 of 10. So some editors were definitely marked down and others up for this criteria.

We don’t know how these criteria were weighted, and SI officially downplayed the whole thing. Chief content officer Norman Pearlstine’s rationalization was less than convincing. I am left with the distinct feeling that this is exactly what it appears to be: an attempt to pressure and mold the editorial staff to produce “nice” content for advertisers.

We all know that “visibility in the market” or the more informal “everybody knows her” are factors that any of us with a reporting or outward-facing role are evaluated on. As reporters, of course we want to be visible in the market and known by everyone who should know us. It’s what we’re known for that’s at stake.

And “beneficial to advertisers” is not it. If Time Inc. really goes down that road, it will fail and even more people will lose their jobs. Readers want us to be tough and fair. If they don’t see that, they’ll go elsewhere. ASBPE wants to make sure there is an elsewhere − a skeptical, independent press.

“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss” wrote Pete Townsend in “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Time Inc. is just replaying the same old self-serving BS that every publisher without the imagination to innovate or character to do the right thing falls back on.

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