Time to Define the Difference Between Innovative and Unethical

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Was the New Yorker's decision to sell Target sole sponsorship of its Aug. 22 issue: a) innovative, or b) unethical?

How you answer that question could determine whether magazines will: a) have a future, or b) face certain extinction.

When the American Society of Magazine Editors gave the Conde Nast weekly a light wrist slap for not following a technical rule on single-sponsor issues there was some debate over whether the trade group went far enough. What should have been asked is why the magazine industry would use an archaic rulebook to stifle innovation at a time when marketers are aggressively investing in alternative options and demanding more from traditional media platforms.

That's not to say magazines should bend to advertiser requests, nor would I ever suggest a publisher do anything to endanger its bond with its audience. When that happens, everyone loses from the reader to the publisher to the advertiser. Editors, to quote Rance Crain, are the gatekeepers of the reader relationship.

But we really need to define the difference between things that make us uncomfortable because they're different and things that actually betray a reader's trust by allowing an advertiser to influence editorial coverage.

ASME went easy on The New Yorker precisely because it found no evidence of advertiser influence. It was upset that the magazine didn't publish a note from its editor or publisher explaining that Target was the sole sponsor but did not have a hand in content.

No other medium has to deal with such guidelines or threats. They answer to their audiences. When Chevy bought up all the spots on "The Tonight Show" last week, no one said Jay Leno should be ineligible for an Emmy.

Listen, anyone who believes David Remnick would allow his magazine's editorial integrity to be compromised has never met the man. If you have, no more words need to be spent in his defense. Here's a few anyway: He's a talented and scrupulous journalist, and The New Yorker is arguably the best magazine being published today.

Along with some very engaging Target ads that took the form of colorful illustrations, the Aug. 22 issue featured a 12,000-word story by Peter Boyer on Billy and Franklin Graham, an Adam Gopnik essay on French culture and a profile by Dan Halpern of Kinky Friedman's colorful and unlikely run for governor of Texas. In other words, it was filled with exactly the kind of high-quality, independent, long-form journalism for which the magazine is known, and for which it often wins ASME awards.

Running ads that recognize and nod to the context of the content in which they appear is smart, as is sole sponsorship. It was a neat way for Target to stand out and a smart way for one magazine to respond to pressure to play in the branded-entertainment world without compromising its editorial integrity. I wish I had as much faith in a lot of other publications to protect that line.

ASME, which is reworking its guidelines, has come under increasing fire in the last year, particularly as new categories of magazines have cropped up that rely on new-twist content and business models. Hearst chief Cathie Black last year labeled ASME's rules "irrelevant" to magazines such as her Shop Etc.

Editors and publishers do need to be vigilant about protecting their readers' interests at a time when many advertisers are out to advance their own, sometimes at the expense of audiences. But magazine executives also need to react to changes in the media landscape that make it necessary to innovate and find new ways of doing business. Or they won't be in business.

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