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Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

RelationShops: The reaction to advertising and editorial overlap in magazine publishing

Yesterday, Appazoogle guest blogger Rivkela Brodsky wrote about how the line between advertising and editorial content is becoming blurred with the prevalence of ecommerce partnerships between magazines and advertisers. Today, in the second part of this two-part series, she explores the reaction.

In the magazine publishing world, it appears it’s getting a lot more difficult to keep church and state separation between advertising and editorial sides when revenues are at stake.

It’s no secret that magazines are struggling, and many consumer magazines—such as Lucky, Elle, Vogue, GQ, Real Simple, Esquire, and others—have found a creative way to increase revenue by partnering with advertisers to offer an ecommerce site, selling readers the items seen on the pages of the magazines online or through mobile applications.

Magazines that have joined the ecommerce bandwagon maintain these relationships are great news for readers—and for their declining advertising stream. But this practice brings advertising and editorial content ever closer in an industry that has typically endorsed clear separation between ads and articles.

As far back as 2002, Southern Living magazine’s annual Idea House, a popular editorial feature of the Southern Progress Corp. magazine, included 47 pages displaying two newly built homes highlighting items from retailers who bought advertising in the issue, such as Sherwin-Williams paint, Lexington Home Brands furniture, and others, according to a 2002 Wall Street Journal article.* That kind of closeness between advertising and editorial content made Southern Progress one of the most profitable publishers in the magazine industry that year, posting a 13 percent jump in profits in 2001 to about $170 million, the article said.

Company officials maintained the practice did not interfere with editorial standards, but Southern Progress Corp. did get into some trouble from the American Association of Magazine Editors (ASME) for the practice previously, soon after the company’s 1997 launch of Coastal Living, the article said.

ASME sent Southern Progress a letter expressing concern that too many brands appeared in the magazine’s Idea House features, the same Wall Street Journal article explained. A company official said the issue had since been fixed by calling advertisers “sponsors” and listing them in tinted boxes next to photographs.

The industry’s ethical guidelines state that editorial and advertising content should remain separate and that closer relationships be made clear to readers. “The basic principle of the guidelines is transparency—media consumers should be able to tell the difference between edit and ads,” said Sid Holt, chief executive of ASME, in an email. “The principle extends to ecommerce.”

ASME’s guidelines on ecommerce relationships call for partnerships to be clearly disclosed, for partners not to receive preferential treatment, and for sponsored search results to be labeled when appearing next to editorial content, according to the organization’s website.

“The interactive nature of the web also permits new forms of advertising that in turn require new approaches and design parameters for clearly distinguishing them from news matter,” said authors Cecilia Friend and Jane Singer in the 2007 book Online Journalism Ethics.

The authors contend that “advertising influence seems to be a potential problem rather than a real one in many partnered operations. …Uneasiness about affiliated websites, however, is substantiated by working arrangements in some markets where, in the words of one print journalist, ‘their charge is above all else, make money.'”

However, in order to survive, magazines can’t just worry about the bottom line.

Brandon Holley, editor in chief of Lucky—one of the latest magazines to launch an ecommerce site by partnering with some of its advertisers—told the New York Times in August that in order not to lose loyal readers the publication will continue its editorial diligence in recommending products to readers despite their new financial relationships.

Friend and Singer also said that keeping a clear distinction between advertising and editorial content is important not just for readers’ sake, but also for advertisers’ sake. They quote Poynter Institute ethics teacher Aly Colón: “‘Advertising wants to be associated with a news product that has integrity.'”

The issue will continue to be a delicate balance between a magazine’s profit margin, reader loyalty, and attractiveness to advertisers. No matter what, ecommerce relationships and other alternative ventures appear poised to continue.

Rivkela Brodsky is a first year master’s student in publishing and writing at Emerson College. She is a Southwest-born writer who recently left the Duke City (Albuquerque, New Mexico) after five years working for the Albuquerque Journal, the state’s largest daily newspaper, in search of adventure and new writing opportunities in Boston. 

*Citation (article is not available on the Wall Street Journal website): Rose, Matthew. “Fruitful Union: Wedding ‘Church’ And ‘State’ Works At Time Inc. Unit—Southern Progress Magazines Profit by Mixing Interests Of Editorial and Business—Welcome Mat at ‘Idea House’.” Wall Street Journal 01 Oct. 2002: A1. ProQuest. Web.

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This entry was posted on November 27, 2012 by in Business, Industry Research and tagged , , .

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