Sharpening the editorial – advertising divide

The heat is on: Faced with a need to fatten revenues, publishers are pressing editors for marketing assistance. Blurring the line between content and advertising, though, can erode a reputation for impartiality valued by readers.

Magazines can avoid damage to their brands by establishing ethical guidelines. What should they be? Editors and writers attempted to answer that question during an Ethics Virtual Roundtable held by the ASBPE on June 12. Moderator Howard Rauch, Editorial Solutions, Inc., led a discussion on issues such as labeling sponsored sections, establishing suitable advisory board restraints, and dealing properly with freelance writers.

Mr. Rauch's report appears below.

Ethics News Update: At ASBPE's debut Ethics Virtual Roundtable, marketing involvement clearly was an important concern

rauchby Howard Rauch
Editorial Solutions, Inc.


"I need ideas how I can reorganize the role of the editors to focus more on revenue generation. How is that possible without crossing the line between editorial and advertising, which already is blurred by more advertorials, cover tips, belly bands, etc?."

The above question, posed during ASBPE's Ethics Virtual Roundtable on June12, is a reflection of similar concerns on the minds of many attendees. This inquiry and many others involving a variety of issues were fielded by Ethics Committee members during the three one-hour conference calls scheduled that day. The following brief summary of information shared cannot replace the value of actually having attended the event.

There was extensive discussion about ethical issues pertaining to editor engagement in marketing activity. In the upcoming revised version of ASBPE's Guide to Preferred Editorial Practices, we will indicate that it's okay for senior editors to be engaged in planning advertorials or supplements. But when it comes to actual copy creation and source interviewing, such tasks should be executed by qualified freelance writers. At no time is it deemed acceptable for an article carrying a staff editor byline to appear as part of a sponsored content page or section.

We also spent some time on the issue of editorial quality deterioration — not as much as I would have liked due to time constraints — especially when it comes to digital content. In one recent poll conducted by my consulting company — Editorial Solutions, Inc. — several editors admitted that quality slippage had occurred due to to rapidly rising workloads.

I polled Roundtable attendees concerning ethical issues involving freelance/writer relationships because we wished to devote more space to that area in our Guide. The primary point of dispute appeared to be contractual agreements offered by publishers insisting that all rights to articles written by freelancers be surrendered.

Several registrants inquired about how sponsored sections with an editorial flavor should be labeled. Our ethics code already addresses this matter. For one thing, "advertorial" is not considered a proper ID. "Advertisement" or "sponsored section" are more appropriate labels. And of course, the content involved should use a graphic format clearly different from regular editorial content.

A point raised during a brief discussion about digital media was the need to establish a policy anticipating requests to "unpublish" content. If you've not yet had to deal with this matter, you can be sure the day will come when a prompt response will be required.

Several inquiries were posed by editors of association publications. The most controversial question addressed relationships with editorial boards and the best way to educate them on the value of editorial excellence and independence.

Two aspects of this dilemma were addressed by ASBPE Ethics Committee representatives: (1) Advisory boards are just that; in no way should members be allowed to dictate editorial policy; (2) sometimes disputes with board members can only be resolved via a readership study. In one case where this step was taken, results showed that some coverage board members were pressing for was of the least interest to survey respondents.

Attendees submitted several questions immediately following the event. The most interesting inquiry: Should editorial staff give its sales team a pre-publication list of vendor sources mentioned in upcoming product-oriented articles?

The answer provided was based on my consulting experience and does not necessarily reflect ASBPE policy: Of course, procedures followed depend upon the circumstances. For example, let's say you have a round-up feature focusing on product category X. At some firms, before interviews begin, editors confer with the publisher in terms of vendor sources that should be approached, sources that might be approached, and sources to be downplayed.

Mosf of the time, this is not a troublesome practice because industry leaders you'd want to interview would fall into the "should be" category. On the other hand, it's tough to ignore a top company not an advertiser that lands in the "might be" or "downplay" category. When that occurs, the publisher's directive should be disputed.

Then . . . it also is practice in some firms that when all sources have been interviewed, a list of those mentioned in an upcoming article should be provided to the publisher so the companies identified can be pitched for advertising.

As you can see, the above remarks reflect today's reality that many issues preceived as ethical dilemmas overlap with traditional marketing practice. A few B2B editors have chosen to address these matters via written policy covering a variety of situations under the banner of staff relationships with advertisers.

Moving away from the marketing area, two useful information sources deserve follow-up:

(1) Business Travel News Editorial Guidlines. This very useful list covers news gathering and reporting, external relationships, gifts and travel as well as an interesting "embargo" practice. View this list at

(2) Best practice guidelines for editors crafting social media policies. This excellent report prepared by the American Society of Newspaper Editors was referenced in a previous Ethics News Update. "Best Practices . . . " includes a list of ten key takeaways plus social media excerpts from several dailies. Go to, hit the resources link and then the "social media" link.

I'd like to thank Ethics Committee representatives who helped me field attendee inquiries: Paul Heney, Roy Harris, Abe Peck and Robin Sherman. Attendance at this initial Roundtable was excellent. Those of you who missed the event really should try harder to set aside an hour for future Virtual Roundtables.