The American Society of Magazine Editors is in the process of changing its guidelines, as large, mainstream publishers continue to break down the lines between editorial and advertising, WWD has learned.
ASME, which runs the National Magazine Awards, is faced with the dilemma of whether to look the other way, or create a new set of rules that reaffirm the long-held journalistic principle that editors should be prohibited from working on advertising content.
According to insiders, in light of the fact that several publishers have already bent that rule, the organization is drafting what is being referred to as “prescriptive” guidelines for native advertising, which will be voted on next week by a board that includes publishing executives.
In recent months, Hearst noted that its digital editors work on native advertising content, and Time Inc. acknowledged that select editorial staff work alongside the advertising side. Last month, Condé Nast said its newly minted content division, 23 Stories, will employ editors to work on advertising copy — a violation of ASME’s current rule as written on its Web site: “Editors are reminded that the participation of editorial staff in the creation of advertising is a conflict of interest and should be avoided. Editorial contributors should not participate in the creation of advertising if their work would appear to be an endorsement by the magazine of the advertised product.”
Sid Holt, ASME chief executive officer, confirmed that his organization is updating the current guidelines, which were published two years ago.
Calling the guidelines “outdated,” he said the new rules would “reaffirm Magazine Media’s commitment to transparency between edit and advertising while leaving execution to individual brands. The new guidelines will also underscore that the primary role of the editor is to serve the reader. It doesn’t take helicopters and rockets in the desert to tell you that when an audience has reason to lose faith in a journalist, businesses like Magazine Media built on the trust of media consumers are hurt. The new guidelines have to go through another round of edits but will be in place before the ASME Annual Meeting in early May.”
But behind closed doors, sources told WWD that there is currently a struggle over how ASME should deal with journalists creating advertising, and the Condé Nast unit is at the center of that debate. If it holds firm, then Condé pubs would not be eligible for National Magazine awards, a thought that seems implausible to many, which is why, one source said, the new principles will be “up for interpretation.”
A key reason why native continues to be a lightning rod issue is because of the dollars it can command. According to data from Business Insider, native ads would reach $7.9 billion this year and grow to $21 billion in 2018, up from just $4.7 billion in 2013. During a 2013 workshop called “Blurred Lines: Advertising or Content?” Federal Trade Commission’s director of bureau of consumer protection Jessica Rich referred to native advertising as a “multibillion-dollar industry.” “Today the interest in native advertising is stronger than ever,” Rich said at the time. “The goal is that consumers can distinguish native advertising from editorial content.”
Although that workshop did not lead to any new guidelines, an FTC spokesman told WWD in December that publishers should “expect a report or follow-up guidance from that workshop sometime” in 2015.
But the landscape appears to be shifting very quickly with editors now being asked to add the role of marketer to their growing arsenal of skills. Condé Nast, which declined to comment for this story, has been vocal in recent weeks over its decision to have editors wear both hats. In a sense, it is a new selling tool for the company — who better to write an advertisement for a fashion brand than a Vogue editor?
While 23 Stories has yet to officially launch, much has already been made over the notion that Condé editors will be tapped to promote the products of its advertisers.
New Yorker editor in chief David Remnick declined to comment for this story, but pointed to recent comments he made to Digiday.
“The people who run Condé Nast trust the editors of their magazines to decide what to publish and how to negotiate a fast-evolving technological world,” Remnick said. “The executives here also fully understand the need for each magazine to set its own guidelines.”
Other editors at Condé preferred to speak on background only, but expressed concern for the new arrangement, while adding that it was still too early to tell what may happen.
Earlier this month, The Association of Magazine Media held a conference at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square on the magazine business in the same banquet hall used the night before for the ASME Awards.
There, Condé Nast president Bob Sauerberg referred genially to 23 Stories. “We are building ‘bespoke’ content,” he said, using a familiar word that is synonymous with custom-made fashion, not advertising.
Sauerberg noted that the content division is another revenue generator for the publisher of Vogue, W and GQ, not the result of a troubled print media landscape.
At a separate panel the same day, W editor in chief Stefano Tonchi harped on about all the meetings he has had over the “bespoke” unit.
“Native advertising is such a topic these days. We’ve had meetings and meetings,” he said, explaining that while magazines have a clear relationship with advertising, there are “different degrees of compromise.”
But that squishy view isn’t held by all.
Although major newspapers such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have content studios, there is a stricter separation between edit and ad staff.
Dean Baquet, executive editor at The Times, told WWD that he “didn’t much like” the idea of native advertising, but he has become more comfortable, so long as content is “clearly identifiable,” and “the newsroom has nothing to do with it.”
The Financial Times takes an even stricter line. According to FT U.S. commercial director Brendan Spain, the paper wants nothing to do with a custom content division.
“For the foreseeable future, I don’t see us doing it. I think it has to do with our journalistic integrity,” he said. “People who read us pay a lot for our subscriptions.”
Spain explained that The FT’s “diversified” revenue stream allows for this omission, but that doesn’t mean the paper has removed itself completely from the conversation.
A year and a half ago, The FT developed a program called Smart Match for native display ads. On FT.com, an in-house developed algorithm pairs pertinent partner content in banner ads next to editorial stories. But isn’t that native advertising?
“It depends how you define native. If native is creating content for an advertiser then, no, we aren’t interested in that,” he said. “We are putting sponsored content into different parts of the page in an artistic way. People are generally willing to have related content. There are two problems with native. One, when readers don’t know who it’s written by, or two, when the relationship gets blurred. We’ve never had a complaint about Smart Match. If you get results and people are engaging with the content, that’s a good thing.”