Existing editorial ethics standards deserve top management support, says Knudsen

Calendon, Ont., Canada – “I have always believed in standards as a business plan, not a moral position. Integrity is the stock-in-trade of communication. I have argued this position in school, I have written about it in editorials, and I have posted standards on websites for a long time. If you have standards, you must be willing to take it in the teeth, even if it costs you money.”

The voice you read is Kerry Knudsen, publisher of W.I. Media. Located in a Toronto suburb. Knudsen has worked with wood industry publications  since 1997. In 2005, he started Wood Industry and recently launched an online newsletter distributed in the USA.

Kerry Knudsen
‘Magazines have lost value because integrity has been undermined,’ says W.I. Media publisher Kerry Knudsen.

I made his acquaintance via occasional discussions posted on a LinkedIn group site. I found that we shared views on several controversial issues and that he was always ready to speak out. At some point, I knew that this was an executive I would want to interview some day for Ethics Updates.

The belief was confirmed one day when I was conducting a newsletter review and decided to include a W.I.Media site. There I beheld a rare scene in the form of an “endorsed standards” declaration on his home page:

“Wood Industry magazine takes its responsibility in serving Canada’s wood processing industry seriously. As a result, we endorse and follow the publishing standards listed below” . . . after which he identified 15 organizations including the American Society of Business Publication Editors.

It was with that point that we launched a recent interview. Please read on. I hope you will let either me or Kerry know what you think.

‘Magazines are in trouble’

ENU: What led you to prominently endorse several publishing industry ethics codes on your Web site? There seem to be only a handful of B2B publishers willing to do so now.

Knudsen: I often wonder why other publishers do not. Let’s face it. Magazines are in trouble. Everybody wants to blame the internet, but the internet is only a format. We saw three huge industry convulsions over the past 40 years. One was the internet. The second was the amalgamation of small, independently owned, reader-centric magazines into mega-corps.

The third, related to the second, was the ushering out of the professional, sector-savvy editor or editor/publisher and the ushering in of the top-producing salesman as the editor-in-fact of multiple titles, and, hence, the loss of editorial contact with, and the loyalty and responsiveness of the audience.

Most people want to credit the internet with the loss of value in magazines. I attribute the loss of value to the loss of editorial integrity. If you look at the standards, they all drive toward editorial integrity and protecting the audience. As the standards slipped and magazines became more advertiser-focused, the readers became less enthused, saw the wandering focus as a function of editorial bias and the value began to seep out of the titles.

It is no wonder therefore that advertisers are seeing no return on investment, and it is no wonder the social standing of editors has fallen from that of pastor and counsellor to that of car salesmen, as reported in polls.

ENU: Beyond editorial concerns, what ethical challenges have you faced in the publishing arena?

Knudsen: My current situation is made more difficult by the coalition of a definable gang of want-to-be magazine controllers. In this case their goal is not to control or diminish Wood Industry magazine, but to kill it. In that situation, the decision to fight is not a matter of options.

ENU: What reaction has this prompted from your industry colleagues, especially advertisers?

Knudsen: My actions seem to scare editors and publishers to death. Most seem to wish they could do the same, but most seem to think they would die if they tried. As for the advertisers, the one group hates our policies anyway, so they don’t advertise. However, their competitors understand that our readers both love and support our magazines.

ENU: In the past, you have barred advertisers. How many of your colleagues have followed suit?

Knudsen: I don’t know. Some do. Most, however, are not playing with their own money, and it is far easier and more comfortable to appease and rationalize. The standards have not dissolved, but rationalization, the demotion of the editor and the introduction of commercial speech is hard.

However, if money is the only thing that has meaning in publishing, you will lose it. Take a look around and tell me if that is not true.

ENU: What is your policy in terms of editorial involvement in marketing activity – such as making input on annual calendars, participation in some way in developing of sponsored content?

Knudsen: Our position on sponsored content is simple. We label it as advertising, and the owner of the page can do anything he or she pleases, except it cannot mirror the format of our editorial and it cannot be libelous, plagiarized or violate the privacy of others.

In surveys we do, readers like advertising; they want to know what’s available to make them more profitable. But 90 percent of respondents want a clear delineation between editorial and advertising.  Native advertising is viewed by many as an attempt to camouflage advertising.

ENU: Do advertisers grasp the importance of preserving editorial quality?

Knudsen: People are starved for information. I exist to advance the interests of the industry we serve. If we have lost sight of providing that information, advertisers will notice the loss of value and see that as a poor return on investment.

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