‘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.
While the trade-show video example is more obvious as ‘pay to play,’ is it really much different than other practices that are becoming the norm?
If you keep looking, the water just gets murkier. Let’s say your sponsor is on the panel, but your editors direct the content. In trying to do their jobs, the editors line up third-party speakers to present a balanced view of the topic, and one of these third-party speakers mentions another vendor (not the sponsor). You can see a whole new set of problems emerging, with sponsors demanding more control over the webinar content, and relationships between salespeople and sponsors being damaged if “the sponsor’s” webinar mentions any competitors. Mixing editorial control and advertiser control is like mixing oil and water.
But, as ASBPE noted in the name of its session, digital products are “a different ball game.” Most editors know print. In print, the ethical separation of church and state has had very clear guidelines for eons. That’s not the case with digital.
CAN PRINT’S STANDARDS APPLY?
Step back for a minute and look at your print publications: Every issue has sponsors. Do they get placed in your articles just because they are sponsors? And, look at the controversy that arose when Target sponsored an entire issue of The New Yorker, running cartoon ads throughout the issue … and Target wasn’t even given editorial coverage (no “seat on the panel”).
While the ASBPE has some great guidelines in its “Guide to Preferred Editorial Practices,” it doesn’t yet address church-state issues in video, webinars or podcasts.
This is a new frontier, and the sooner the industry can come together to set some standards, the better our digital content will be and the stronger our position in the diversifying media world.
How are you defining your digital separation of church and state? Is ‘pay to play’ OK, or is it just not so black and white in the digital world?
For some of us, these questions are understandably difficult to address—if your webinar revenue is growing by leaps and bounds, the premise of rocking the boat can seem threatening and, therefore, quickly dismissed. But, like print, there’s a reason that publications with questionable editorial standards do not succeed, and it will likely be the same reason much digital content doesn’t succeed.
Keep an eye out for the e-mail survey we’re sending examining these issues, and check out the results in our next issue. (If you don’t receive the e-mail survey, the link will be posted on PubExec.com, too.) Also, visit my blog at PubExec.com to read a few great points regarding other digital editorial-standards issues in the ASBPE guidelines that we all should be considering.