Monday, January 24, 2005

A Journalism Story: Editorial vs. Advertising (long post)

(all identifying details have been changed)

Recently, an editor at a news publication based in the US – we’ll call it the Big City Jewish Chronicle (I have relationships with several such publications, so don’t bother trying to guess which one I’m posting about here) – offered me a writing assignment about a certain group –let’s call it Charitable Organization. Sure, I said, but what is the occasion? The news hook? Why do you want this story now?

Oddly, the editor – I’ll call him/her Phil (hat tip to RenReb) – said “I don’t know. I’ll have to ask Les.” I had no idea who Les was, and thought it strange that the editor was assigning a story without knowing what was important about it.

Soon Phil forwarded me an answer from Les, saying that the founder of Charitable Organization was coming to Big City to do some fundraising. Phil asked could I write about the organization’s work and what Mr/s. Founder would be doing during his/her Big City trip? Could I find out whether people in Big City were expected to be open to the cause represented by this organization, who cares about it, what kind of reception Mr/s. Founder would get for his/her efforts? Sure, no problem. We agreed on a due date, word count, and amount of payment (let’s say $gazillion), and I got to work.

I called a person in Big City, uh, Loren, who was organizing the fundraising efforts there. I called Mr/s. Founder. I called communal leaders in Big City and other places to find out whether Charitable Organization had any competitors, or whether there was any controversy surrounding them. This is not to suggest that I wanted to write anything bad about Charitable Organization, but that I wanted to avoid writing a puff piece. Charitable Organization’s work seemed very nice to me, and the chances of anything negative coming to light about them was slim indeed, but how embarassing would it be if I wrote a puff piece and then we found out that Mr/s. Founder has been, like, listed on Amber Alert for the past 2 years? I needed to do some checking that there wasn’t anything obviously bad surrounding my story, at least nothing that was already known to those familiar with Mr/s. Founder and his/her work.

Anyhow, during one of my early conversations with Loren, Loren said that Loren would like to see my article before it goes to print, to “approve” it. People ask me this all the time. It is perfectly understandable. However, if I agreed to show my pre-publication work to everyone who asked, there would be no end to it. I told Loren that I could agree to read back to Loren all of Loren’s quotes before we got off the phone, and that if, as I’m writing the story, I’m confused about any information, I’d call Loren or Mr/s. Founder to make sure it was accurate.

This wasn’t enough for Loren. Loren now said that not only did Loren want to see the article before publication, but he/she insisted on seeing other examples of my work, to become familiar with my level of professionalism and way of writing. I said I’d be happy to email Loren my clips, but as a matter of policy I never promise to show someone the whole article before publication. Loren then said something that set off a red flag: “ . . . because after all, we are giving Big City Jewish Chronicle $gazillion to get this article in, and they promised me that I’d get to approve it . . . “

At the time I calmly told Loren that I’d call the paper and see what the situation was, but this was very alarming. I contacted Phil, and said “Um, excuse me, these people are paying for the article? If that is the case, then I’m not doing this assignment. I write journalism, and sometimes I’m hired to write brochures or other marketing material, but I never mix the two. I refuse to write advertising for this organization that will appear under the guise of a news feature. No way.”

Phil, who is known to me as a scrupulous person, as far as I know him/her, was horrified to hear what Loren had said, and answered that “Loren has it all wrong. There is no way that they are paying for an article. Perhaps they are buying an ad, but we would never promise an advertiser to write about them in the news section, and we certainly would never promise that they can approve what we write. He/she is 100 percent mistaken. You do not have to do anything Loren says. The only person you answer to is me, and I’m telling you to research this story however you think best and write about whatever you find out. Period.”

So I went back to Loren and Mr/s. Founder to try to set up interviews, but met with more roadblocks. Now Mr/s. Founder wanted to see the article for approval too. S/he, too, had been under the impression – probably from Loren—that they would have control over the content of the article, and the two of them were refusing to talk to me at all unless I agreed to their terms.

Back to Phil I went, to explain the situation. Much of our correspondence was via email. I do not remember now at what point Les started getting cc’ed on the emails. But I found out that Les was the Advertising head for the paper, and there was a point when Les wrote directly to me with information about what was going on and how to handle it. Advertising people, by the way, should never go over the heads of the editors. Les should have allowed Phil to deal with me directly, and just stayed on as a cc. But be that as it may, Les’ instructions were more alarming than Loren’s statement about having paid for the article, because now it was coming from an employee of the newspaper. Les told me that as long as the article is “positive” we are “accomplishing our goals.” Les also said “we are trying to help them out, as an advertiser with [our publication], and give them some good press . . . I realize this is slightly different than a typical assignment, which may be more focused on fact finding or presenting different sides of an issue. Our mission here is to present a positive view of their cause, and send some good publicity their way.”


Now, let me take a moment to say something about the relationships between the “Editorial” and the “Advertising” departments in newspapers and magazines. There is a well-known problem in journalism that a publication –any publication, Jewish or not—will be loathe to bite the hand that feeds it. That’s why you are unlikely to see an article in, say, Cosmopolitan exposing some sort of scandal at Revlon or Cover Girl. A cosmetics company would have to do something really, but really bad for one of the glossy women’s magazines to publish about it. They need the advertising revenue too badly to piss off the makeup makers.

There’s also the issue of what cosmetics are recommended inside the magazine articles. When Seventeen tells you that Bonne Bell has a great new lip gloss, to what extent is that recommendation based on the fact that Bonne Bell advertises heavily in Seventeen? To answer that, we’d have to know whether they’d be recommending the same lip gloss if it weren’t for the advertising. And maybe they would. After all, Seventeen is for young girls, and young girls like to get makeup tips, and that lip gloss really might be terrific. They do, also, recommend plenty of products that are not advertised in their pages. And perhaps Bonne Bell isn’t one of their main advertisers. Perhaps Seventeen could afford to piss them off if there was enough justification to do so. So, how much are you going to worry about it? That’s up to you. Unless, of course, you believe that, say, Maybelline has some terrible dark side, and want to publicize that fact to other women in a glossy magazine. Good luck.

I’ve heard of publications that cross the ad/edit line in blatant ways. I once met a writer whose work for a Haredi publication is so journalistically unsound that he refuses to have his own name put on it. This paper basically takes payment from Jewish organizations to run their press releases verbatim, as if they were reported news stories that had been judged to be newsworthy. And even in the non-Haredi papers, and non-Jewish papers, the Advertising-Editorial relationship can often be “problematic,” as one former editor told me.

After getting the email from Les, I called editors of Jewish publications similar to Big City Jewish Chronicle, people I’d worked with before whose judgement I trust. Perhaps I was being naive? Perhaps this sort of ethical boundary-crossing happens everywhere and I’m being overly fastidious? But they all agreed that no matter how “murky” the waters may be at their own papers sometimes, the Big City Chronicle had crossed the line.

In my own work, both for Jewish and secular publications, I’ve very rarely heard any sort of hint of the Advertising-Editorial relationship, and when I have, it never crossed any lines for me, until now. There was one time that an editor asked me to write an article about a certain entertainer who had a really interesting line of work, and when I asked the editor s/he got the idea, s/he said “Oh, this person took out an ad a few weeks ago, and I thought it looked really cool. It could be a fun story.” When I called the entertainer, s/he was surprised that I called, and s/he, too, asked how in the world we’d thought of writing about him/her. It sounded genuine to me. As far as my intuition went about it, it didn’t seem like the entertainer had ever been given any funny ideas about what “perks” s/he might get for his/her ad, and the interest by the editor really had been because the entertainer's work was cool (which it was).

There was another time that I was writing a story about a certain medical condition, say a certain form of cancer, and the editor said “Look, part of your job is to find out if there are any world experts on this particular condition. If there are, try to interview them. However, if it turns out that every oncologist in the world can speak about this topic in an informed way, it would be great if you could interview doctors at Hospital X and Medical Center Y, since they advertise with us. It will make them happy. You don’t have to though – only if it makes no difference.” That was fine with me; the editor was asking me to make the advertisers happy only on the condition that doing so had zero impact on the content of the story.

One newspaper editor told me that the ad/editorial relationship can often get “difficult.” (This is true of most publications, particularly small ones that rely heavily on the same advertisers over and over again. It’s not just a Jewish thing.) The example he gave is that, let’s say Hebrew Academy of Jewish Suburb advertises all the time in their local Jewish Post. And then the Jewish Post decides to do a special edition all about Jewish education, and includes articles about every Day School in the metro area – except the Hebrew Academy. The Hebrew Academy will be very, very upset. They will say “Why did you write about the Talmudic High School and the Pluralist Primary? They never advertise with you!” So, very likely, the Jewish Post will find some excuse to include Hebrew Academy – perhaps by writing about some event they had, or a nice project going on in their fifth grade. It doesn’t mean that the story is inaccurate. It also doesn’t mean that if the principal of Hebrew Academy is indicted for embezzling school funds that the Jewish Post won’t write about it. But . . . the relationship is, like one editor said, “difficult.” By which he meant “not exactly always 100 percent journalistically sound.” And it’s possible that, for some publications, it is not always exactly journalistically ethical.

Whatever the case may be behind the scenes, unbeknownst to us freelance writers . . . this situation with Big City Jewish Chronicle and the Charitable Organization was the first time that bells were ringing all around me that something was rotten in the state of Denmark. Whatever delicate balancing acts other publications need to perform constantly, this was the first time someone at a paper had used the words “mission” and “put a positive spin” in the same sentence to me. Never had anyone else in the journalism industry ever said that my work was not to be the “typical” role of “fact-finding,” but rather to give “good press” to an advertiser. It made me sick.

To give credit where it is due, I do not think that Phil knew what the Advertising head was promising to clients. Phil still insists that this was not a matter of the Charitable Organization paying for the story, but rather for an ad. But Phil obviously has his/her head in the sand about what’s going on in the office next door. I told Phil that I categorically refuse to be a part of this situation, and I’m dropping the assignment. When I forwarded Phil the email from Les, highlighting the damning phrases, Phil said that he/she “understands.” I wonder what kind of conversation Phil and Les had after that. I imagine it wasn't pretty.

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