Ethics and the Net

A friend, Steve Wildstrom, raises some important questions. Do the Net and the creative destruction under way in journalism change our traditional journalistic ethics? Are new business arrangements journalists are making with sponsors crushing the tenet of independence that reporters have long lived by? At times we have taken up this question in classes and I suspect we’ll do so far more.

Steve, a former BUSINESS WEEK columnist who wrote expertly about new technology each week for many years, will be writing about emerging technology again next week at the Consumer Electronics Show. Instead of doing so for BW or another pub, however, he’ll write for a blog run by Nvidia, a big chipmaker.

Steve says the company is putting no constraints on him but requiring only that he keep the posts relevant to Nvidia’s areas of interest. He’s comfortable with the arrangement, he says, but adds that “it sure is different.”

Further, Steve writes:

I do have one suggestion for journalism schools as a consequence of my ongoing career exploration. The old rules of journalism have to change if anyone is going to make a living in this business. We’re all turning into entrepreneurs of one sort or another. What are the ethical rules for this new world? No one seems to know. They sure can’t be the old world, where we lived off advertising support and pretended that it had no relationship to what we did. Now we have to get up close and personal with the people who pay the bills. The old rules don’t work and it’s everyone for [himself] figuring out the new ones.”

Other friends, such as Howard Wolinsky, a long-time veteran of the Chicago Sun-Times, have similarly struck out on their own now and are writing for various outlets. Howard is doing some interesting work for Ancestry magazine, for instance.

For those of us who long labored at arm’s length from the advertisers, getting so “up close and personal” with sponsors is a challenging idea. On its face, it seems the “church and state” separation that governed at such mags as BW is eroded by personal sponsorship arrangements. Do we censor ourselves in such deals? Do we not write critically, for instance, about the sponsor? Or, do we not write at all about the sponsor’s competitors (or do so only damningly)? Just how long is the leash the sponsor puts us on, and that we put ourselves?

It would be naive to think that a writer’s independence is not curtailed by such arrangements. To a larger degree than was the case at a place such as BW, it seems the one who pays the piper will call the tune. Certainly, a sponsor might deem some topics inappropriate, such as glowing references to competitors. So, too, will writers deem topics inappropriate or too risky to address in such columns. No one will want to bite the hand that feeds them.

But the new one-on-one sponsorship arrangements need not be corrupting or unethical. So long as the work that does appear is untainted by the sponsor and reflects a writer’s best reporting and judgment, how is that any different from work we would have done for the old pubs? Certain topics or organizations may be taboo, but if the writer remains free to praise or damn those he writes about, is he not serving readers well?

At big pubs such as BW, such concerns were rarely an issue. For most of the time I was there, the magazine had so many advertisers that if one pulled its pages in a huff over a critical piece, the magazine could rely on others to fill the space. Reporters were told simply to do their best work, without fear or favor. In fact, some reporters would joke that they were members of a “million-dollar club,” a club filled by those whose critical reporting had cost the magazine a million dollars in ad revenues.

Over 22 years, I was involved in only two incidents where deference to advertisers affected our coverage. Many years ago, soon after I joined BW, we ran a critical story about an advertiser and used its logo to make a point — instead of a healthy tree, the company’s symbol, we ran an image of one that was half-shriveled. The advertiser’s execs said they could live with the story, but they were so furious about the logo-tampering that they pulled their ads. We also had a high-level lunch at which they made their case to me and my editors about why they were not doing as poorly as we suggested in the text. (Such meetings were not unusual and in fact helped our coverage). My editor ruled that in the future we would not satirize or otherwise demean company logos, arguing that the companies had invested too much in them for us to take cheap shots. (Struck me as arguable at the time, but so long as the words were untainted, that was fine).

In the second case, during the hard-pressed last couple years, an advertiser had signed on as a sponsor for a recurring feature. When I alluded to one of the sponsor’s rivals in a piece for that space, an editor quashed the piece. We were free to write about competitors in other parts of the magazine, she said, but not in that recurring feature. This struck me as tolerable, since it is akin to the issue of “adjacencies,” where we wouldn’t want to write about an advertiser in a space next to the ad (something that raises obvious questions).

I am sure that Steve’s work for the Nvidia blog, or wherever else it appears, will be straightforward, ethical and useful to his readers. That’s the sort of guy he is. I don’t believe he would tolerate meddling, and he’s talented enough that he’ll find another outlet if it occurs. Readers will learn a lot by checking his work out. Same goes for Howard, who did some remarkable investigative work for the Sun-Times.

Still, the new one-on-one sponsorship arrangements do put new demands on readers and writers alike. Readers, for instance, need to be aware of who is paying the freight and stay alert for bias. And writers, of course, need to be cautious about muzzling themselves to the readers’ detriment. The Net is forcing us into a brave new world, but the deal we make with readers still must hold true — we will tell the truth as we see it. If that changes, we’re lost.

3 thoughts on “Ethics and the Net

  1. Joe, I think that friction between a news company and its source of revenue is inevitable. It existed at BusinessWeek and at other pubs. But the top editors and publisher took pains to buffer us from it, giving us the illusion that church and state were separate. Now, as we represent ourselves, we have to come to the agreements that our higher-ups used to manage at bigger publications. Like Wildstrom, I'm considering writing for a sponsored blog. I think the important thing is to disclose this relationship and to mention it whenever writing about the sponsor or its competitors. One more thing about McGraw Hill: I think the company's ownership of Standard & Poors prevented BW from covering the ratings industry with its usual vigor.

  2. Steve, thanks for your thoughts. Please let me know what you wind up doing. I'd like to follow your work.
    I must take issue with you on the idea that the separation of church and state was illusory at BW. For me the proof that this was no illusion was my own experience. The editors repeatedly stuck up for sound reporting even if it offended advertisers, at least in cases I was involved in. It's remarkable to have just two incidents of friction in 22 years, and they were tame affairs. (There were a couple other high-level rancorous lunches with offended PR folks and execs, but that was just good journalistic interchange.)
    However, I believe the church-state separation could be credited to three sadly transitory things. First, Steve Shepard's stature and influence with M-H was enormous. Second, the rich ad base meant we could offend one advertiser and the sales folks would find others to fill the gap. Finally, BW's prominence was such that advertisers were loath to stay away long (typically the tenure of a grousing CEO). In the last four years or so, we saw all three go away: Shepard left, mag advertising dwindled as the Net and the recession took hold, and (possibly) an erosion of BW's standing.
    As for S&P and the conflict with M-H, I agree that BW didn't pursue the ratings industry anywhere near as vigorously as it should have. Like you, I suspect conflict of interest was involved. It was a natural Cover Story topic and, conflict or not, might have been treated that way in less depressed times. Unfortunately, the Great Recession guaranteed kid-glove treatment.
    Please do stay in touch. I used one of your columns a couple months ago in a class discussion about ethics and the Net (a piece you did about the idea of writing provocatively about one's employer). I'd like to use still more such pieces as you produce them.

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