What dare not be publicly stated about modern journalism; the issue as it relates to the trade press
Some journalists and readers are up in arms today after the New York Times’ public editor Arthur Brisbane unwisely chose to ask the question whether “news reporters should challenge “facts” that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.” Readers quickly responded, asking Brisbane about his sanity, and comments were soon closed.
Brisbane than tried a rather lame attempt to backtrack in a follow-up column accusing NYT readers of misunderstanding the question being posed. Readers, strangely enough, don’t like being called stupid and again gave the NYT public editor a dressing down. “No, we got it the first time. And the answer is still ‘yes, you moron’,” wrote a reader online.
Journalists and media critics piled on and this morning Salon.com columnist Glenn Greenwald recalled Stephen Colbert’s 2006 contribution to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner: “But, listen, let’s review the rules. Here’s how it works. The President makes decisions. He’s the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put ‘em through a spell check and go home.”
But left unsaid by most is why the Times public editor would even pose the question, and why the NYT and most other major papers believe that calling into question lies spewed by politicians and others is not in a reporter’s and newspaper’s best interest. This issue is, and always has been, access and information.
The idea is simple: if a reporter quotes a candidate or politician verbatim, and does not point out the obvious untruths, access is maintained. This access is to be used, in this prevailing theory of modern journalism, to some use at a later date (though it rarely does).
The example being used today is the claim, passed on by the press, by Mitt Romney that President Obama has been apologizing for America. The claim is false, of course; and, in fact, many news outlets have said so.
But many journalists and editors don’t see it as the job of the campaign reporters to call out these claims in their stories, or to ask tough questions back to the candidates when such claims are made. The reason for this, and the reason some big paper editors think those that want this kind of reporting are naive, is that access to the candidate might be compromised. No campaign will talk to a reporter if that reporter is found to be doing their job. And so the cycle of “stenography” begins.
Of course, this cycle is self-perpetuating: journalists, who claim to know how the game is played, play along in order to stay on the beat. Editors will pull a reporter off their beat as soon as they learn their reporters are being blackballed by the source. And on and on.
The problem, in the end, is that the news outlet loses its credibility with the public. Editors are themselves naive if they don’t understand that the public knows the rules of the game and don’t appreciate it when reporters and editors choose to play along rather than look out for the interests of the readers.
But while journalists debate this question publicly today, the issue of credibility has long been settled in the trade press. With very few exceptions, B2B executives have schooled their editors to not make waves with potential advertisers, to print press releases from regular advertisers and good prospects, and to stay away from anything that smacks of either news or opinion.
As a result, most B2B magazines and their supporting websites are have evolved into standard-sized versions of product tabloids (while product tabloids have themselves started to die out). B2B editors, long used to this kind of editing, rarely question the formula – editing press releases allows them to move on to the second, third or even fourth magazine they are forced to work on in order to keep their jobs.
Just as in the newspaper business, this cycle of stenography is impossible to break. The businesses being written about – seen as advertisers or prospects – know they are at an advantage. And besides, if the trade press dies off, they have already prepared for this by building up their direct marketing capabilities.
But the reality is that by playing the game B2Bs have made themselves simply a commodity, subject to rate negotiations and other give-a-ways. The difference between one B2B magazine and another becomes less and less in an environment where editorial is freely given away, where BPA audits no longer are conducted, and where editors are too busy editing other books to have much personal contact with the industries they are supposed to be covering.
Some publishers have tried to put an end to this editorial policy by pressuring editors to only print stories from paid advertisers. The idea is to stop customers from demanding editorial prior to deciding to advertise. But this, of course, does not take into account the interest of readers. Many publishers justify this by saying that most readers receive their publications free of charge anyway, ignoring the costs of renewing subscribers in a situation where readers no longer see the B2B magazine as a legitimate source of information. (The next step, of course, is then to drop the audit and stop qualifying readers.)
Most B2B titles’ website are a good reflection of their print editions: a collection of press releases with an occasional columnist thrown in. Newly launched websites being produced today update the look of their sites but rarely change the editorial philosophy. The addition of video, for instance, is simply adding in a new way to publish press releases as most B2Bs simply reproduce the video content contributed from their advertisers.
In fact, New Media offers a chance to break the cycle. Blogs, columns and forums are a way of not only bringing in new voices but in driving traffic. While B2B magazines intentionally set the circulation levels in relation to their competitors, the web and other digital media platforms are where true competition is still the norm. If a B2B can drive twice the uniques and page views that their competitor can, they will be in a stronger position to sell digital advertising.
Sadly, I must admit that as a publisher or group publisher, I have found it hard to sell this idea to my editors. The reason is simple: editing the title’s website is just another chore added to the already long list of duties required of most B2B editors. True, some titles, like the ad agency books and the general business titles, are in a completely different position than their small to mid-sized brethren. But they truly are the exception.