Editorial double standard could be good idea for mags

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It could be time for the magazine industry to build a new wall to intersect the one separating editorial decisions from advertising considerations. This second wall would create a distinction between magazines whose primary purpose is to inform readers and those whose primary purpose is to entertain them. Each side could then operate by a standard of editorial integrity judged against the expectations of their respective audiences rather than those of journalistic watchdogs.

As a staunch defender of editorial integrity in all media forms, I'm somewhat stunned to discover myself the author of the preceding paragraph. I believe strongly that media vehicles should be created to serve audiences. Their advertising value is then derived from their ability to gather, and gain the trust of, readers or viewers. But as the debate unfolds over what role, if any, there is for magazines in the branded-entertainment sphere, it may be unfair to hold all titles to standards demanded at the top journalistic tier.

On TV, such a separation already exists, although even there the line gets fuzzy as network morning shows transform themselves from news-based operations to promotional platforms for films, books and TV shows created by sibling divisions. Still, there remains a separation between straight news programming and entertainment-division shows. The line is usually between fiction (sitcoms and prime-time dramas) and non-fiction (news, magazines and documentaries). (Reality is fiction.)

There are concerns that product integration could damage the creative integrity of scripted programming. But most people view such deals as inevitable and believe they're acceptable so long as the shows retain their ability to grab and hold audiences. For news, it's generally agreed that product plugs are out of bounds and betray audience trust.

Magazines, being largely a journalistic medium, have not had the same separation between entertainment and news products. Even Hollywood magazines take the position that they cover the entertainment industry and operate under the same editorial standards The Economist relies on to cover world politics.

Some are justified in that stance; for readers to buy into Entertainment Weekly's positioning as a guide to how to spend their leisure time, they need to trust the judgments of the magazine's editors and believe them to be at least relatively free of outside pressures. But arguments can easily be made that titles such as Us Weekly and Star are the magazine-world equivalents of sitcoms. People read them to be entertained. Which makes the hand-wringing such as that which accompanied the recent revelation that Star changed the color of Demi Moore's dress on its cover all the more ridiculous. This was not by any measure equal to Time darkening a photo of O.J. Simpson to make him appear more sinister. It was a move by Star to enhance the entertainment value of its product, and was not out of line with the standards by which those readers judge the magazine.

The same can be said of a new breed of magazines such as Lucky and Cargo. Cathie Black was right to note that editorial guidelines issued by the American Society of Magazine Editors are "irrelevant" to Hearst's forthcoming Shop Etc. That's not a knock on ASME; its rules should remain tough, and news, business and other journalistic magazines should be judged by their adherence to them. But it does bolster the argument for building a new wall and a class of magazines judged not by an impossible standard but by readers' expectations.

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