No, B2B Media Doesn’t Have an Ethics Problem

It broke my heart when I read the recent blog post “B2B Media, The Ethics Virus & The Pursuit of Consumer-Grade Experiences,” which argued the majority of B2B/trade publishers have a problem of selling out editorial integrity to advertisers. In the piece, Publishing Executive editor-in-chief Denis Wilson wrote, “If you think your organization is immune (from editorial integrity issues), I’d wager you’re a minority or just wrong.”

It broke my heart when I read the recent blog post “B2B Media, The Ethics Virus & The Pursuit of Consumer-Grade Experiences,” which argued the majority of B2B/trade publishers have a problem of selling out editorial integrity to advertisers. In the piece, Publishing Executive editor-in-chief Denis Wilson wrote, “If you think your organization is immune (from editorial integrity issues), I’d wager you’re a minority or just wrong.” Also, that “B2B media has an especially nefarious legacy of playing fast and loose with the journalistic craft.”

I may have taken the post personally, having been a B2B publisher on and off for 40 years. I never sold a word and, must admit, I have no memory of thinking my competition did either. I do not suggest all B2B publishers are beyond reproach when it comes to bending to advertiser pressure. I do say the vast majority do not do so, nor do they have a culture of selling out.

When I came up in the business, there were storied trade publishers like McGraw Hill, Chilton, Gralla, Penton, CMP and many others. There were fat magazines with solid content that industries relied upon, such as Variety, Automotive Week, Billboard, American Banker and Aviation Week. I used to read Crain publications like the old Ad Age with as much enjoyment as consumer books. Women’s Wear Daily, famously known as WWD, had such quality journalism it gained a significant consumer readership.

In the post, Wilson talks about how B2B publishers today are finally learning “quality original content drives audience engagement and monetization.” Those publishers mentioned support my view the industry was built on quality content.

The ASBPE Focus on Ethics

Ethics was indeed discussed at the ASBPE conference. As Wilson points out, that is to the credit of the journalists in attendance. I heard everything Wilson did, but recognized that those few stories of difficult advertiser pressure were presented not as the norm. The example of one publisher giving into ad pressure was worthy of discussion, because that publication had never crossed a similar line before.

We heard about when the rigid wall between church and state required an editor to stop dating an advertising sales assistant or be fired. Another example described when a feature story was written about an industry problem for which a big client happened to advertise a solution. The advertiser relationship had not driven the story. The fact the publisher had to pull their hair out over whether to run the ad opposite the story opener speaks to their integrity. They were worried that although ad and story had no causal relationship, it would simply look like they did. In my opinion they made the correct decision to run the ad opposite the opener, that it was helpful to readers and no lines were crossed.

Yet Wilson and I reached different conclusions as to why ethics was discussed so prominently. To me, it was a reflection of a profession that thinks that is how important editorial ethics are, not to cure endemic problems.

Think back to all the articles Publishing Executive and other media publications ran when native advertising first became a thing. Despite most of us having published advertorials in the past, there was overwhelming pushback that native adverting crossed a line. It was not just theoretical venting. Truly, a majority of B2B publishers during those days told me their staffs would not let them entertain the notion of native. The knee-jerk resistance speaks to a culture not in the habit of doing things for advertisers.

Editorial Contributions

The article correctly acknowledged the importance of editorial contributions from industry experts who happen to work for advertisers or potential advertisers. I’ve been an editor and publisher my entire career, but today as I write for Publishing Executive I am a vendor. My instincts have me steer clear of writing about what I sell and Wilson and I discuss anything I fear may be too close to the line. That has worked out well.

In his post, Wilson attributes industry contributors to low budgets. No doubt that is a huge driver; but there is more to it. I was associate publisher of a trade book called Modern Horsebreeding in the ’80s. Guess who knew much more than all of our writers? The veterinarians and pharmaceutical companies. We did occasionally run articles by their experts — there were no such thing as blogs — though never once tied them to advertising.

When I published a magazine and then website about RFID technology, we were thrilled to get some deeply knowledgeable pieces from industry experts. Sadly, most were not advertisers. But this was terrific content and simply had nothing to do with advertising. If a prospective advertiser really liked that we ran their engineer’s helpful information, great. We’ll take all the good vibes we can get with prospective advertisers. Conversely, when an advertiser complained that we didn’t run their content, we would invite them to suggest a topic. We provided written guidelines they must adhere to, advertiser or non-advertiser. We edited each piece and were glad to consult as they worked on it. I believe approaches like these and those of PubExec are the norm.

The Opposite Reality

From what I have seen, advertiser pressure is something ad salesmen feel more than it being a routine reality. I personally sold ads for decades and ran ad sales teams. Ad salespeople are always hopeful the magazine runs articles plugging clients; it’s in the blood. They sometimes whine to editors about running more copy on their clients. In my experience, editors mostly ignore them with thinly veiled pity.

One speaker at ASBPE said advertisers were purposely overlooked and not written about to avoid the appearance of corruption. As Wilson wrote, “the sticky politics of accepting vendor contributions wasn’t worth the trouble.” In my experience, this is far and away the bigger secret we all carry: advertisers tend to get screwed. We heard how one company mandated that editors not use advertisers as sources for stories. I have personally seen multiple situations where editors avoid calling executives at advertiser companies for quotes out of fear it would look like the publication was kissing advertiser butt.

Big advertisers are often the larger companies in any given industry. These same companies have the biggest budgets for research. These companies are often actually involved in many newsworthy issues and situations because of their commercial reach. It would be self-defeating to avoid tapping their knowledge; yet because of the fear of appearing unethical, I have seen this time and time again.

Advertisers, too, might surprise you. I will never forget at my RFID publication a news investigation that we ran on the cover slammed perhaps the largest company in the industry at that time. They were not advertisers and I thought, well, we’ll never see a dime from them. But it was an important, well-reported story. To the lasting credit of an SVP of Intermec, he told his ad department to place some cover ads in our new magazine. He felt the industry had to support quality journalism.

I repeat: Of course I have heard stories of pay-to-play. The few I’ve heard are memorable because they are rare, not pervasive. One former VP of editorial told me long ago he was made to run feature interviews with some advertisers. Again, that stood out in his mind because it was the opposite of everything else in his career.

I am not saying B2B publishers are ethical saints. Wilson made some excellent suggestions in his post on what editors should watch out for. However, I do believe the B2B publishing industry overall is not rife with virulent ethical lapses.