ETHICS UPDATE / How to use vendors as sources and stay on the right side of the editorial-advertising boundary

JD Solomon will discuss similar issues at ASBPE’s May 10-11 National Conference in a talk titled “Navigating the Minefield of Editorial-Advertising Conflicts.” He also will participate in an Ethics Roundtable there.—Roy Harris, Interim Ethics Committee Chair

I began my journalism career when the smell of ink and cigarette smoke permeated newsrooms, when local newspapers were actually popular and highly profitable, and when young reporters earned just a little less than what they make now. But even at the small- and mid-market newspapers where I toiled as a cub reporter, there was a solid-steel roadway barrier separating the editorial and advertising departments, just like at the big-city newspapers where I someday hoped to work.

My career didn’t take me to a major metro. Instead, I’m now the editorial director at sister business-to-business publications; one covers the management of K-12 education for school district administrators, and the other covers the business of higher ed for college and university administrators. Without doubt, my toughest adjustment was learning how to navigate the editorial-advertising boundary in the B2B world, which at its clearest is a dotted yellow line—one you periodically have to cross, but with caution.

This dotted yellow line is the only guideline that can help editors navigate the fundamental ethical quandary for B2B’s—especially controlled circulation pubs like mine, where virtually all revenue comes from advertisers and event sponsors. And that quandary is this: We must maintain editorial integrity—and we must not bite the hands that feed us.

At my publications, we ran into a dotted yellow line problem with “company mentions.” This is a monthly report produced for the ad sales department that lists instances where vendors are referenced in the magazine’s editorial content. The advertising sales reps then send a touch-base note to their contacts at those companies, congratulating them for the editorial mention and suggesting that they amplify its value with a new or expanded ad campaign.

This company mention campaign always made me queasy because using vendors as sources is a quagmire for B2B editors. After all, which vendor do you reach out to: the most influential company in the field or the one that’s the advertiser? And if you reach out to one advertiser for comment on a story, how many others do you have to include? It’s a no-win situation, which is why a few years ago we significantly reduced the use of vendors as sources for our stories.

That move wasn’t popular with some of our ad reps, who view company mentions as a form of currency to reward big advertisers and entice prospective advertisers. They wanted to see more, not fewer, company mentions in our articles. So we came up with a new idea: a periodic sidebar to selected stories called Industry Insight, where we invite vendors with subject-matter expertise to concisely answer a short question relevant to the article, and then quote the responses.

Industry Insight proved to be a good compromise for both the editorial and advertising departments. Editors were relieved from the pressure of including vendors as sources in our main stories, and we could include virtually all relevant vendors in the sidebars because they jump from the print edition to our website. Moreover, the questions we posed to vendors for our Industry Insight sidebars actually did elicit insightful comments of value to readers. Meanwhile, our ad reps were happy because they could suggest vendor sources for inclusion, and the number of company mentions increased.

In this instance, at least, we’re all safely driving on our own side of the dotted yellow line. 

JD Solomon is editorial director at Professional Media Group, which publishes District Administration and University Business magazines.

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