The Web has been bending our understanding of traditional journalism for some time. The United States is one of the only countries in the world that guarantees freedom of the press as a constitutional right. Part of the basis of that freedom is the implicit understanding that advertising does not affect editorial. To maintain journalistic integrity, your editorial opinion cannot be bought by advertising dollars. Those of us who have worked as journalists refer to the separation of advertising and editorial as the metaphorical separation of church and state.
Forbes just broke that model with the acquisition of True/Slant. According to the profile story this week in Advertising Age, with the acquisition, editor Lewis Dvorkin returns to Forbes with a new editorial model where staff writers, contributors, and even paid advertisers are given a Forbes-branded blog forum; a model that Dvorkin has labeled a “much more scalable content-creation model.” To quote from AdAge:
This isn’t the “sponsored post” of yore; rather, it is giving advocacy groups or corporations such as Ford or Pfizer the same voice and same distribution tools as Forbes staffers, not to mention the Forbes brand…
“In this case the marketer or advertiser is part of the Forbes environment, the news environment,” Mr. DVorkin said in an interview at an empty restaurant across Fifth Avenue from the historic headquarters of the 93-year-old magazine.
The product itself is called AdVoice, and the notion is that in a world of social media, corporations have to become participants and, in a sense, their own media companies. Corporations these days also have to face the practical problem of fewer business reporters left to pitch. “There’s fewer ways to get your message out, because there are fewer reporters, and that’s a fact,” he said.
Granted, in the world of social media content is king, but to give paid advertisers equal access seems to be going a bit far. It wasn’t that long ago that the influence of bloggers granted them access to the press room. Although we PR pros are continually reminded that “bloggers are different” and “read their content and approach them gently,” the blogtocracy have been granted the same privileges as card-carrying journalists, even though they aren’t constrained by the same rules of ethics. In the blogosphere, opinion rules and facts, well they are sometimes nice to have as well.
So with this new shift in Forbes editorial direction, the rules haven’t just changed, but the entire rule book has been thrown out the window. Granted, there are fewer traditional news vehicles than ever before, and we are moving into a brave new world of online journalism. But that doesn’t mean we should abandon the lessons of the past. Early on in this blog, I commented on the important role of pamphleteers and citizen journalists. What differentiates the citizen journalist from the Dvorkin model is avarice – pimping the Forbes brand to give advertisers space in the blogosphere seems to be a violation of the rules to me.
One of the first rules of social media is disclosure – tell them where you are coming from and which side of the ax you are grinding. Disclosure does not excuse bad reporting or bad behavior, but at least the reader is forewarned. This new model that Forbes is experimenting with seems just plain wrong. It not only blurs the lines of legitimate journalism, it erases them completely. As the article states:
Consumer marketers such as P&G and Johnson & Johnson have years of experience creating branded entertainment, and many have arms dedicated to creating entertainment properties. But the motivations have broadened in an age of social media. There’s an ongoing conversation about corporations — not always nice, as BP or Toyota could tell you — and corporations feel they must participate.
The changes at Forbes since it bought True/Slant and brought Mr. DVorkin back have gone beyond strategy. They’ve also included an exodus of top-level editors, two of whom declined to comment for this story.
So where does online entertainment end and dispassionate reporting begin, or vice versa? In a world where everyone becomes a news source, all sources become suspect. As so-called “legitimate” news vehicles struggle to survive in a world where information is available at the click of a mouse, other news groups like Forbes decide to turn the old journalistic values on their heads for the sake of profit cloaked as participation in the online conversation. It’s becoming increasingly clear that we need a journalistic touchstone to tell the real news sources from the emerging online imposters.