B-to-b journalism ethics

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A friend who shifted his career from business reporting to writing corporate brochures was lamenting about how his current work has turned him into a puppet for the corporate message rather than a crusader for the information his audience used to need and crave.

That assessment seems to fit much of today's b-to-b journalism, with more publications selling out as blatant promotional vehicles for their highest- paying customers. Some executives make little effort to dispute this position. Advertisers apparently see it the same way. Why else would they regard it as their birthright to swap ad dollars for editorial coverage?

This theory is supported in a new PR Week /Manning Selvage & Lee survey in which almost half of senior marketing executives say they have paid for an editorial or broadcast placement.

Is this good for marketers? This kind of marketing-at its deceptive best when preserving the illusion that editorial is determined by subject relevance-seems an insult to the very audience marketers are courting. In an ideal world, publications deliver the best content, which captures the most readers, which attracts the most advertisers. But are we to believe that marketers' priorities have shifted to tallying promotional square footage over the quality of marketing vehicle in question, that publishers are willing to accommodate and that targeted audiences are totally ignorant of the transition? That appears to be the logic.

Many b-to-b publishing people have forgotten that content and quality information made them strong in the first place. The explosion of online information has certainly impacted print's P&L prosperity. But so too has the transformation of many "can't-live-without" publications into relatively soft reads, fueled in part by a rise in advertiser-influenced copy. Couple this with the rampant ad rate discounting that permeates an industry when products can't sell on the merits of their content alone, and you see how marketers have publishers by the throat.

It's OK for editors and publishers to recognize trade media as a business first. But there's such a thing as going too far. Editors, for their part, are interested in formal ethical guidelines that help clarify what is paid content and what content is "not done to conform to the needs of advertisers," according to a survey by the American Society of Business Publication Editors.

Publishers, meanwhile, should take a realistic look at their strategies and figure how to get marketers to abandon their pay-for-play mentality (they certainly will if it's simply not available) and migrate back to the media vehicles their audiences value, leaving those who sold away their sacred space to the highest bidder scrambling feverishly to live another day.

Jim Alkon is president of consultancy Publishing Solutions. He can be reached at [email protected].

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