‘Pay to Play’ OK in the Digital World?
I recently attended the conference for the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE) in New York. In addition to attending the awards banquet, where our columnist Jan White was presented with the ASBPE Lifetime Achievement Award, I went to a few educational sessions. One session, in particular, fueled a fire that has been smoldering in my brain. The session, called “Web Ethics: A Different Ball Game,” examined the separation of church and state in digital publishing.
I realized that this is a turning point in publishing history, as editorial standards are being stretched to fit the growing and amorphous digital domain.
Many companies today sell webinars to single sponsors, who often run the entire webcast or, just as often, the webcast is directed by the publication’s editors, and the sponsor is exclusively interviewed by an editor or given a seat on a panel.
Some editors (including those with high editorial standards), say, “As long as the content is useful for my audience, I’m OK with this.” After all, the sponsorship enables the content to be provided to the audience free of charge. Plus, some salespeople have said that “sponsors won’t pay to produce a whole webinar themselves—they want the magazine’s brand and editors behind it.”
As long as it is transparent to the audience that the webinar is paid for by the sponsor(s), putting that sponsor on the panel seems to be an accepted practice among many reputable companies. If the content is useful, what’s the difference? In other words, if the content is useful, then ‘pay to play’ is OK, right? A lot of editors could (and do) create some really useful print content based around their print advertisers, too. Does that make it OK?
Another example: Many editors are being pushed to produce video content, and a prime opportunity for video coverage is at trade shows. So, the publishers sell pricey sponsorships of the show coverage. The sponsors, of course, are exhibitors at the show and expect to be in the video. Because it’s video, the editor doesn’t think to question it (granted, others would and should); he is just excited to offer online video content to his readers and bring in revenue to help offset his diminishing print revenue.