ASME native ad fracas may reflect added squeeze on editorial integrity

New York – Practices undermining editorial integrity, whether deliberate or not, seem to surface at a never-ending pace. The latest development in this respect was the media uproar following an American Society of Magazine Editors announcement of new “integrated guidelines covering all media platforms and formats.”

At the heart of the matter were apparent relaxed advisories that journalists feared would result in editors being required to create native advertising content.  But perhaps the ASME fuss was a symptom of a more far-reaching trend. The headline for an authoritative column written by noted author Bob Sacks said it all: “Do new ASME Rules Damage Magazine Industry’s integrity?”

Let’s first examine the relative merits of what the ASME guidelines included as well as the possible omission at issue. After that, the article will describe B2B patterns clearly connected to Bob Sacks’ assertion.

 What’s actually changed?

Early last year, ENU reported ASME had added a Marketer-Provided Content and Native Advertising section to its Editorial Guidelines document. Covering three points, the section was not greeted warmly by the advertising community:

  1. Marketer-provided content, including native advertising, should be prominently labeled as advertising, and the source of such content and the affiliation of the authors should be clearly acknowledged. The term ‘Sponsor Content,’ already in use on some websites, can be used to label native advertising.
  2. Native advertising should include a prominent or “What’s This?” rollover at the top of the advertising unit explaining that the content has been created by a marketer and that the marketer has paid for its publication.
  3. Native advertising should not use type fonts and graphics resembling those used for editorial content and should be visually separated from editorial content.

All of the above points were immediately acceptable to ASBPE’s Ethics Committee. Similar language pertaining to sponsored content already existed in ASBPE’s ethics code. The newest ASME native ad guidance seems only slightly watered down. Two of the three original points have been combined:

“ASME also recommends that native advertising on websites and in social media should be clearly labeled as advertising by the use of terms such as ‘Sponsor Content’ or “Paid Post” and visually distinguished from editorial content and that collections of sponsored links should be clearly labeled as advertising and visually separated from editorial content.”

An additional reference attempting to define editors’ involvement in any form of sponsored content amounted to a single sentence: “Editors should avoid working with and reporting on the same marketers.” Press reports took issue with this statement, pointing out that previous guidelines contained a much stronger admonition that editors not work on advertising projects

“ASME does not endorse editors working on advertising,” chief executive Sid Holt assured ENU. The purpose of the guidelines is to ensure transparency in magazine media editorial coverage, not prescribe employment policies to magazine publishers. The guidelines concerning conflicts of interest and differentiating between advertising and editorial content address what ASME considers to be the most important challenges arising from the practice of editors working on advertising.“

Is guidance insufficient?

Holt’s assurances did not convince ENU executive editor and Ethics Committee member Robin Sherman, who maintained that a critical omission existed in ASME’s revised guidelines:

“The ASME Guidelines say: ‘Don’t deceive the reader.’ Listed are a few ways one should not deceive the reader, but nowhere does it say an editor must not write or edit advertising-related copy.

“Despite Sid Holt’s personal assurances that ASMEdoes not endorse editors working on advertising,’ why doesn’t the ASME Guidel specifically say an editor must not write or edit advertising-related copy?

“In these digital days of slack behavior and highly competitive advertising, the absence of this declaration in the ASME Guide is tantamount to allowing the behavior. Thus readers are deceived because no statement is offered that editorial engagement in creating advertising is a conflict of interest.”

Sherman continues: “Of course, ‘no one set of guidelines can answer every question,’ states the ASME advisory. But the writing question has always been one of the top 2 (OK, maybe top 3) concerns when anyone considers how to separate editorial from advertising.”

ASBPE’s ethics code section focusing on Special Advertising Sections or Supplements clarifies editor involvement in marketing activity as follows: “A senior-level editor may work with sales personnel to ensure that no conflict exists between the advertiser-sponsored content and editorial content. Thus, the editor may suggest topics for the sponsor, but the publisher or the sales staff should be the ones to communicate these suggestions to the sponsor. (In other words, the editor should not directly communicate with the advertiser.) A publication’s editorial staff should not write, edit, design or lay out special advertising sections or supplements. This role should be handled by

  • “a freelancer hired by the sales staff or publisher or
  • a separate non-editorial department.”

The latest version of the American Business Media Code of Ethics also clearly draws a line in terms of editorial staff advertising involvement:

“Editorial staff members and freelancers used by editorial should not be involved in any production of paid content, whether print, online or fact-to-face, such as advertorials, paid conference sessions, e-mail sponsorship material, etc. Editors can place paid online material within online media products but should not participate in collecting it from the advertiser or sponsor. The chief editor may review contents of such sections before they appear. These guidelines apply to digital media and face-to-face events as well as print.”

Integrity dilution seems forever

After reviewing ASME’s guidelines, columnist Bob Sacks offered a much broader, more ominous view of how the publishing industry persists in undermining integrity principles:

“As an industry we seem to keep diluting our once unimpeachable integrity, whittling at it here and there, until before we know it, we have none. Native advertising, ads on the cover, editors working hand in hand with advertisers – where does it end? Oh, I see there actually is no end, just a slow whimpering slide into total duplicity. Yes, you can fool all the readers some of the time and some of the readers all of the time, but you absolutely can’t fool all the readers all of the time.”

Lately it seems that integrity dilution has taken stronger hold among consumer media.  Meanwhile, pressure on editors to cooperate with advertisers has prompted most requests for guidance received by ASBPE’s ethics committee.  The ongoing glitch with native advertising is that the distinction made vs. content marketing remains unclear

Another common inquiry when guidance is requested is how to repel sales department efforts to promise advertisers that their messages will receive front-cover plugs. In some cases, we hear about editors who have been assigned advertising responsibility that includes making calls and pitching for business. The most extreme blots have been instances where editors have been ordered to allow their bylines to appear on articles written by advertisers.

(Editor’s note: ABM’s ethics code attempted to deal with the latter practice via this advisory: “To protect the brand, editors/producers should not permit their content to be used on an advertiser’s site or otherwise syndicated without an explanation of the relationship {e.g. “Reprinted with permission}.)

To obtain a timely reading on the status of B2B editorial integrity, ASBPE’s Ethics Committee will survey attendees at the upcoming national conference this July in NewYork. Anyone not attending that event who wishes to comment about integrity concerns can arrange to be interviewed in confidence. If interested, submit a request through our contact form.

Local publisher makes case for editors writing native ad copy

Faribault, Minn. – While assigning staff editors to write native ad copy is opposed by B2B publishing industry ethics codes, at least one local publisher believes it is the most logical way to build additional revenue. And it can be done without undermining integrity if the publisher controls the content.

That’s been the experience for the Faribault Daily News, according to Jaci Smith, native advertising coordinator, APG Media of Southern Minnesota. Smith currently is winding down her participation in a native advertising fellowship at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute. She described how her newspaper has built native ad revenue in a recent post on the Reynolds site.

In a follow-up interview with ENU, Smith responded to questions about key ethical concerns the American Society of Business Publication Editors ethics committee has in terms of native ad involvement:

ENU: The main ethical concerns about any sponsored content we address in our code is the need to clearly label the message as an ad . . . and that content graphics treatment should not simulate regular editorial content in any way. What is your practice?

Smith: We do label our native advertising as sponsored in a variety of ways.

Digitally, on our home page all native advertising has a green box with the word “sponsored” in it that runs right next to the headline so people looking at our home page know right away it is sponsored content. While the content does sit in the same sections as regular editorial (news, sports, features, etc.), native advertising is also posted on our home page under a separate module labeled “sponsored content.”

When visitors open the asset (story, graphic, photo, video, etc.) they are taken to a separate page under our umbrella site that’s called “ sponsored content.” Finally, as they look over the asset, they’ll see the first sentence always reads “from our sponsor” with the sponsor’s contact information and embedded hyperlink included.

In print, we differentiate our native advertising by boxing it in gray, placing black bars with the sponsorship in reverse type above and below the content, and by using different fonts for both the headline and the text.

ENU:  Our code approves editors being involved in planning native advertising strategy with their marketing team . . . but staff editors should not be involved in creating content . . . unless they are employed in a separate department focusing on sponsored content fulfillment. It sounds as if your regular staff members write native ad copy. Isn’t there a conflict somewhere along the way in terms of relationship with advertisers?

Smith: Currently, I am the only staff member that generates native advertising for APG Media of Southern

Minnesota. But I do believe sponsored content can be created by certain editorial personnel. However, business reporters/editors would not be among those I would include because of the perception of a conflict of interest that would result. Not all beats in a newsroom deal directly with the business community, however. City government, education and some types of features reporters are in that category. As long as those folks are not reporting or writing about any native advertising client, I believe it is ethical.

Keep in mind, that in our native advertising program, editorial controls the content, not the advertising department nor the advertiser. We decide what to write, how to write it and where to place it. While we work in partnership with the advertiser, it is different from traditional advertising in that the client does not get the final word on content. To me, this is a key point that defines true native advertising.

I think it is critical, particularly for small-market publications, to find ways to make native advertising work with existing resources because it is going to continue to grow as a revenue stream. Few publications of our size can afford to have/create a separate department purely for the native form.

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