A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

A balancing act

By Quill

This is the 12th in a series of case studies exploring how top media managers make difficult decisions.

When the marketplace of ideas meets the marketplace, sometimes there are problems with no perfect solution. Doing journalism in a capitalist society poses special issues. When news content is supposed to be as separate from advertising as church is from state, but that same content is dependent on profits, how do managers strike a balance that serves both masters?

This case study explores some of that debate. In this hypothetical example, based on a collection of real-life incidents and anecdotes, a magazine does a hard-hitting investigative report on an important issue – eating disorders among teenage girls. But one of the magazine’s biggest advertisers figures into the issue as part of the problem. That sets off a battle of competing interests over the rights of the advertisers and the independence of the journalists.

Some of the questions this case explores are universal to journalism in a market-driven economy: When does commercial news production require that journalists compromise their product in the face of economic reality? How do the media balance the competing interests of stockholders, audience, advertisers and journalists? What are the trade-offs?

This hypothetical case study emphasizes the tension inherent in most true ethical dilemmas: There is no one “right” answer. The situation looks different depending on whose shoes you are in. All sides have valid viewpoints and a rightful duty to protect their own interests. Still, newsrooms have to find a balance between the bottom line and journalistic principles.

Our panelists are participants in the Media Leaders Forum, a project of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. Several times a year, these top managers respond to issues that newsrooms face. The cases and their responses are presented in Quill and are later posted at the Manship School’s site on the Web.

Here’s how you can participate. Once you have read the case study, visit the Manship School’s site. There you may e-mail your thoughts and responses to the case. We would like to know what you think.

CASE STUDY: Tension over the bottom line

Paul Gomez is the editor of Teen Times, a national monthly magazine targeting young women ages 10 to 16. Always understaffed and overworked, Teen Times still managed to be the most popular magazine for teenage women. Its status as one of the highest rated magazines for that coveted demographic enabled the magazine to get access to some of the most popular teen stars in the film and music industry.

Teen Times was one of six magazines owned by Specialty Magazines Inc. Each magazine targeted an age-specific segment of the magazine market. Walter Steffes served as publisher of all six publications; this arrangement facilitated the sale of advertising space for all of Specialty Magazines’ publications. While the target audience was different for each magazine, every magazine shared some of the same advertisers. The publications had yet to land a major advertiser, and most of the current ones ebbed and flowed with economic conditions.

After more than a year of wrangling, Steffes landed a long-term contract with Zippy Inc., providing much needed financial stability for the publications. While most people were familiar with the popular soft drink Zippy-Cola, the multinational conglomerate also operated a diverse number of subsidiaries. Chance Van Mullen, director of advertising for Zippy, contracted to buy the inside back covers of all of the magazines that Specialty produced over the year. Part of the contract with Zippy included a provision that allowed Van Mullen to review each magazine before publication. Zippy reserved the right to pull its ad if it objected to the content of the magazine. According to the contract, the Zippy representative did not have editorial control over the magazine. If the company objected to a specific section of the magazine, the company simply reserved the right to remove its ad from the back cover.

Initially, Gomez was concerned about the new “last look” policy. While he always endeavored to get his magazine out in a timely fashion, there were times when Teen Times submitted page proofs just hours before the printing deadline. Gomez was also uncomfortable with the fact that he now had someone looking over his shoulder on every issue. He argued to Steffes that the agreement would undermine his authority as the editor of the magazine.

While Steffes appreciated Gomez’s position, he did not completely believe that Gomez’s claims were founded. Instead of directly addressing his editor’s concerns, Steffes offered Gomez an opportunity to share the services of an additional reporter. Because of the extra income derived from the contract, Specialty Magazines could afford to hire one additional entry-level reporter. John Randall, a recent journalism school graduate, could work on assignment for both Teen Times and On Your Own, a magazine targeted to single women in their 20s.

Initially, Gomez’s fears proved to be unfounded. Zippy’s review of the content of the magazine was, at best, cursory. On most occasions, Van Mullen simply reviewed the tag lines on the front cover, and flipped through the magazine quickly. Gomez enjoyed the extra manpower derived from the income. With Randall working on the more mundane pieces about which boy band singer was dating which teen diva, Gomez was free to develop other stories with more depth and detail.

Gomez decided to investigate the prevalence of eating disorders among young women. As young women strived to emulate the models featured on the covers of fashion magazines, the number of young women suffering from anorexia nervosa swelled to near epidemic proportions. Gomez assigned Brandon Black to work on a story about the issue. After weeks of digging, Black returned with an excellent piece on the growing trend of eating disorders for young women. Impressed with Black’s hard work, Gomez pegged the article as the cover story for the March issue of Teen Times.

As usual, Gomez delivered the proofs to Van Mullen the day before his deadline. Unlike other times, Van Mullen paid close attention to the content of the magazine. One segment of Black’s article detailed a day in the life of a woman with an eating disorder. “Karen,” as she was identified in the article, was a 23- year-old law student. Her mornings started with a six-mile power walk. After the walk, she returned home to drink three cans of zero-calorie Zippy-Cola. Karen referred to her breakfast as “getting Zipped.” “Getting Zipped” was the term used by dieting women to describe the substitution of diet colas for meals. The caffeine in the drinks provided an energy boost, while the lack of calories helped to keep weight down. While Karen favored Zippy-Cola, “getting Zipped” was a term used to describe drinking any brand of low-calorie, caffeinated beverage.

Van Mullen was familiar with the term “getting Zipped.” The company objected to the dilution of its trademark, and quietly fought legal battles to keep its name out of publications dealing with the subject of eating disorders. When Van Mullen read the article about Karen, she immediately requested that all references to Zippy-Cola be removed.

Gomez was surprised to hear Van Mullen’s request for an editorial change. He believed that the contract allowed only for Zippy to pull its ads. Instead of raising the issue with Van Mullen, Gomez decided to contact Steffes. Steffes confirmed that the contract with Zippy did not allow them to make editorial changes, but suggested a compromise to satisfy the interests of the advertiser. Within minutes, Van Mullen also called Steffes. She requested that Zippy’s ads be pulled from Teen Times.

THE RESPONSES: How the leaders handled the case

Because these magazines are primarily to entertain rather than to provide insight into the news of the day, does it matter if they are more attuned to the wants and needs of advertisers than are newspapers and newsmagazines? Is there any problem with an advertiser reviewing an entertainment magazine before publication?

Douglas Clifton (Editor, Cleveland Plain-Dealer): Prior review of a publication by an advertiser is always a problem. Integrity of the content is fundamentally compromised by the review. The implied contract between reader and publication is that the content is shaped by those responsible for creating it, not those who advertise in it. The arrangement described in the case is truly letting the camel’s nose enter the tent.

Keith Woods (Associate in Ethics, The Poynter Institute): If journalistic integrity has any meaning in a publication, then the balance always shifts toward independence. That means that while every publication ought to keep a keen ear aimed at its advertisers, a commitment to truth should prevail. Pre-publication reviewing isn’t the problem. The trouble lies in the control the magazine cedes to the advertiser. In this case, it’s not direct control over content, but it amounts to the same thing. The impact of a major advertiser pulling a substantial ad so late in the publication cycle can be disastrous. That kind of pressure can lead to self-censorship or the kind of rationalizing that would have a magazine tinker with the words of an article or pull an article outright, lest it be forced to lay off a reporter or, worse, close the magazine’s doors. With this sort of arrangement, independence is compromised.

Maddy Ross (Managing Editor, Pittsburgh Post-Gazzette): If the magazine implies that its information is credible, then it must be. Credibility is about the relationship between the publication and its audience, regardless of the nature of the content. What an advertiser should see are the circulation figures of the magazine, its past advertising successes, and the demographics of the audience. Advertisers buy reach and credibility. Content isn’t for sale.

Arlene Morgan (Assistant Dean, Columbia Graduate School of Journalism): As far as I am concerned, journalism does not take a holiday just because the venue is in an “entertainment” magazine as opposed to a news format. Readers want to believe that what they are buying is a truthful, honest account, not spin to meet the advertiser’s needs. Maybe I am old-fashioned about this but isn’t the reader entitled to information that meets the highest credibility standards, no matter where that is presented? I know that this is not unusual for the magazine world but I find it harmful to the credibility of the entire magazine. Why wouldn’t the advertiser want an entertainment magazine to reach the same level of truth telling as a newspaper? Isn’t the credibility of the magazine the very essence of what the advertiser is buying to sell his product?

Frank Del Olmo (Associate Editor, Los Angeles Times): As long as advertisers have no control over editorial content, they can review entertainment pubs to their hearts content. I also have no problem with advertisers reviewing the placement of their ads, or pulling them if they think a certain type of ad would not be appropriate in a particular issue. (i.e., airline or air travel ads adjacent to, or in an edition, that features articles about an airplane crash or problems with air travel safety.)

If faced with a choice between continuing publication and a loss of editorial control, which would you choose? Why?

Douglas Clifton: The editor gets to choose whether he or she will continue to be employed. The owner or publisher chooses what kind of publication he or she wants to produce – one that operates under widely accepted ethical standards or one that does not. As editor, I would not serve a publication that allows prior review by an advertiser. As a publisher, I would not produce a publication of such dubious definition. Why? Because I value credibility in any journalistic endeavor.

Keith Woods: As a journalist, I don’t think there’s a choice. Content controlled by advertisers is not journalism. Give up editorial control, and the only values left are economic. We may just as well be publishing circulars for the local mall.

Maddy Ross: Let’s slow down here. The publisher shouldn’t have entered into such an inane agreement with Zippy, but nobody ever said publishers have to be smart. (Mine are, by the way.) If magazines folded and editors resigned after every mistake, we’d all be reading gum wrappers. The key for the editor who finds himself/herself in such a situation is to maneuver out of it, without blowing up the barracks. How to do this? Get Steffes to renegotiate the deal; meet with Zippy execs to explain the ways of credible journalism and why it works to Zippy’s benefit. (In this specific case, I would have edited out the reference to “getting Zipped” anyway, even without Zippy interference, just in fairness, since Zippy apparently did nothing distinctive to earn the tag. The story can be told clearly and effectively without that phrase. Or, if the phrase is so well-known that it had to be used, I would have been sure that the Zippy company’s rebuttal was part of the story.) Your boss cut a bum deal, help him get out of it in any way you can, short of selling out your credibility.

Arlene Morgan: I guess I have to live with myself on this issue. If the choice is to give up editorial control or continue publication without retaining my independence, I would have to seek a job in another medium. I equate editorial control with standing for the reader. Why? Because the reader deserves a straightforward report that is free of advertising taint. That is the very foundation of what we do.

Frank Del Olmo: I would cease publication. Without independent editorial control, a publication might as well be an advertising vehicle for the advertiser in question, reprinting press releases and ad copy.

Van Mullen hints to Steffes that Zippy plans to scrutinize every future Specialty Magazine publication more closely, with an eye toward pulling every ad for the remainder of the contract. Should pressure from an advertiser ever influence copy, even if the advertiser has a legitimate reason to be concerned? Does this affect the decision to use the term “getting Zipped?” If Van Mullen threatened to sue for dilution of trademark, does that affect the use of the phrase?

Douglas Clifton: An advertiser should not have fewer rights than a non-advertiser. Should an advertiser become the focus of a story, good journalistic practice dictates that he or she be given ample opportunity to present a case. Deciding how to respond to the presented case should rest on its merits, not on its contribution to revenue. If an advertiser asserts a trademark right, again, the merits should govern.

Keith Woods: Let’s slightly reword the question: Should input from an advertiser influence copy? Sometimes. Not because we fear losing the account, though, but because the advertiser has a point as it relates to fairness, accuracy or some other journalistic value. The folk at Zippy could make a compelling argument why the wording of the article should change. As long as the decision is based on journalistic values, it shouldn’t matter that it also satisfies the advertisers’ less noble concerns. Legally and ethically I can see no reason, in context, to edit [“getting Zipped”] out. If, as it appears, it speaks directly to the target audience in the language they understand, I see no reason to take it out. I would consult our lawyers [about the dilution of trademark issue].

Maddy Ross: So, if you’re stuck with this deal, forget about it. Do your job as you would have. Use your trained editorial acumen, turn out stories of interest and importance to your audience, don’t ever think of Zippy again. Pressure, even implied pressure, should never influence copy. On the other hand, journalistic fairness may mean you should listen to a party put in a bad light, even if it’s an advertiser.

Arlene Morgan: I think news organizations need to formulate policy guidelines on the use of brand names in general, and most certainly that applies in this case. I would refrain from using phrases like “getting Zipped” without explanation. At the very least the story should explain how this term was born and give the manufacturers of Zippy a chance to explain their fight to disassociate the use of their product in this way.

Frank Del Olmo: Even when advertisers have legitimate concerns, they should not influence editorial decisions. For instance, many legitimate drugs are abused by people who become addicted to them. If abuse of a certain diet drug became a major problem, it should be covered even if it upsets the manufacturers of the product. That said, however, the views of the manufacturer should be presented in whatever article is done. That’s one way to make sure phrases like “getting Zipped” can be explained, with the contextual explanation that the manufacturer has tried to discourage use of the term as a dilution of trademark.

Who should be involved in the decision to edit the piece? Should a publisher be involved in copy decisions? If the copy editor and reporter are involved, do you inform them of the pressure from the advertiser?

Douglas Clifton: Under traditional conventions the publisher does not edit copy. If this publication is small enough that the publisher edits as well as handles the traditional functions of a publisher, that alters the case. Barring the latter, the publisher should not suddenly enter the editing chain when an advertiser is involved. Should the publisher mandate a change based on advertiser review, the editor would have to decide to stay or go. Either way, the reporter should be apprised so that he or she is free to make the same decision.

Keith Woods: I think editor and writer should be involved and that the publisher should be kept abreast of the discussions. [The copy editor and reporter] should know what the issues are as they relate to journalism. They should be minimally involved in discussions about the advertisers. That’s a battle for the editor and publisher. If the copy editor and reporter have been paying attention to what’s appeared in the magazine, they’ll figure out where the pressure’s coming from.

Maddy Ross: The editor should edit the piece and, as I suggested earlier, a good edit would probably have solved this particular problem. Good journalism often avoids problems. If, in the end, the advertiser’s views had no effect on the final product, no need to discuss the company’s intrusive and ineffective ways. If, in the end, the advertiser’s views changed the content, the editor shouldn’t be around to tell anyone anything.

Arlene Morgan: The editor and reporter [should be involved in the decision]. I might also consult the newsroom’s legal expert to ensure that I am not printing something that is libelous. If the publisher did not trust my judgment, then I shouldn’t be in the job. Simple as that. I don’t believe in hiding anything from my staff. I would tell them everything that I know and trust that they will make the judgment that is best for the reader. In this case, I would hope that they would select to either do a sidebar on the use of the term “getting Zipped” or explain it in the body of the story with input from the manufacturer. I think this is a fair compromise and would not hurt the editorial integrity of the story.

Frank Del Olmo: Editors and writers should be involved only in copy decisions, with advice from attorneys when their expertise on matters like libel or copyright infringement is needed. I would try not to trouble my staff with advertisers’ concerns. That is what I get paid for.

This case was written by Craig Freeman, Judith Sylvester and Renita Coleman, faculty members at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University.