Magazine Trade Group Overhauls Advertising Guidelines

Now OK for Editors to Make Ads

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The American Society of Magazine Editors has overhauled its guidelines, clearing away hurdles that sought to prevent editors from creating advertising content or publishers from selling ads on magazine covers.

Unlike the old guidelines, where discouraging cover ads was the first item on the list, now there's no specific language dissuading publishers from selling cover ads. And when it comes to editors collaborating alongside advertisers, the new principles simply say, "Editors should avoid working with and reporting on the same marketer." They previously said, "Don't Ask Editors to Write Ads."

The old guidelines were intended to protect readers' confidence in editors' independence from advertiser influence. ASME, as the editors' organization is known, say the new guidelines serve the same purpose.

Certain journalism stalwarts might see the revisions as a surrender: With the wall between advertising and editorial eroding, the trade group for magazine journalists watered down its guidelines to appease advertisers. But ASME CEO Sid Holt said that's not the case.

"There was no pressure from the business side," Mr. Holt added.

Others in the media and marketing industry -- from journalism professors to media-buying executives -- support the changes.

"It is about time for ASME to do that," Samir Husni, director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi, said in an email. "There was always a loophole to avoid the guidelines. It was more like the church and state wall. The bigger the state, or the bigger the church, the more loopholes were able to exist."

In many respects, the organization is catching up to a fast-changing marketplace, where magazine publishers are competing with nimble, digital-only media companies for readers' attention and marketers' budgets.

"We were faced with a choice of drawing up new versions of the old guidelines for every form of new media we were experimenting with and eventually producing guidelines that were the size of a phonebook," said James Bennet, president and editor-in-chief of The Atlantic as well as an ASME VP who helped draft the revised protocol.

While the guidelines are less specific, they are wider in scope and more powerful, Mr. Holt maintained. "They aren't weaker because they're less prescriptive," he explained. "They're stronger because they reaffirm editorial integrity and independence and they apply across media."

Indeed, the rules are meant to apply broadly across print, web and mobile sites, apps, social media and even events, according to Mr. Holt. Ultimately, they boil down to one overarching theme, the same as the old guidelienes: Don't deceive the reader.

"The old guidelines were like a map," Mr. Bennet explained. "We want to provide a compass that will help editors orient ourselves as the landscape continues to shift, regardless of whether we're operating in video, events or social."

"The goal was to focus on the principles rather than a set of specific, very prescriptive rules," he added.

In extreme cases, magazine issues that violate ASME's rules can be disqualified from consideration from the society's National Magazine Awards, a coveted prize for editors and writers. But publishers have flouted many of ASME's guidelines for at least the last year. Time, Sports Illustrated and Forbes have sold cover ads. Conde Nast and Hearst have enlisted some of their editors to make content for advertisers.

ASME is revising its rules as member organizations face tremendous economic pressure. Readers are buying fewer magazines and instead getting their content on digital devices. Advertisers are following those consumers, moving ad budgets away from print -- where magazine publishers still make most of their money -- and into digital media. Publishers are then competing with nimble digital-only media companies that have none of the legacy baggage, such as print costs and ASME rules.

Media-buying executives who steer brands' ad budgets -- and were shown the revisions -- approved of the changes.

"Moving away from irrelevant hard rules to permissive guiding principles eliminates the unnecessary 'choke hold' and allows for more interesting, innovative and creative story-telling across platforms, screens and pages," said Robin Steinberg, executive VP-director of investment and activation at the media-buying agency MediaVest.

"We support the new ASME guidelines, which are evolving to reflect the current marketing-media landscape," said George Janson, managing partner and director of print for GroupM.

"What remains important," he added, "is the trust that consumers have with their favorite magazine brands. Once that trust is compromised, it's difficult to get back."

This marks the 15th time ASME has revised its guidelines, which were first drafted in 1982 in response to a new ad format: advertorials. The latest update is the most dramatic revision since 2005, according to Mr. Holt. A committee of eight print and digital editors collaborated on the new guidelines, which were unanimously approved by the ASME board, the organization said.

"They are still the same principles from 1982, but with the media changing, these are the opportunities to say these are our core principles as magazine journalists and they have support of publishers and media buyers," Mr. Holt said.

Around the topic of native advertising -- in which ads seek to mimic editorial content -- ASME does offer some specifics beyond "don't deceive the reader."

"On websites populated by multiple sources of content, including user-generated content, aggregated content and marketer-provided content, editors and publishers must take special care to distinguish between editorial content and advertising," the rules state. "Advertisements that mimic the 'look and feel' of the print or digital publication in which they appear may deceive readers and should be avoided."

For further guidance, ASME refers to language from the Federal Trade Commission and U.S. Postal Service regarding marketing messages that resemble editorial content. It also recommends publishers distinguish native ads online and in social media with labels saying "sponsor content" or "paid post" and set them apart visually. Earlier attempts at crafting guidelines for native ads urged magazines to publish native ads in a separate font. But many publishers ignored that suggestion.

ASME wanted to retain flexibility around native ads because the practice is evolving so quickly, according to Mr. Holt. "The minute we published native ad guidelines [in 2013] they were out of date," he said. "Unless we were going to create a manual and effectively emulate the tax code, the guidelines were always going to be behind what was happening in the media marketplace."

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