Stephen Baker

The Numerati
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Journalistic ethics: endangered or just changing?

January 4, 2010General

More and more journalists are on our own now, either by choice or necessity. And when we look around for revenue opportunities, fewer come from the advertising-based models we're accustomed to. The way things are going, loads of retail, service and manufacturing companies are producing their own stuff. They're becoming media companies, and many of them need help.

Steve Wildstrom, my longtime colleague at BusinessWeek, will be blogging for Nvidia, a chipmaker, at the Consumer Electronics Show. (I'm considering a similar opportunity, which I'll blog about shortly.) He writes:

"The old rules of journalism have to change if anyone is going to make a living in this business. We're all turning into entrepreneurs of one sort or another. What are the ethical rules for this new world? No one seems to know. They sure can't be the old world, where we lived off advertising support and pretended that it had no relationship to what we did. Now we have to get up close and personal with the people who pay the bills. The old rules don't work and it's everyone for [himself] figuring out the new ones."

Joe Weber, another former colleague who's now teaching journalism at the U. of Nebraska, holds up the BusinessWeek we knew as a model for ethics in the traditional ad-based world. "Some reporters," he writes, "would joke that they were members of a "million-dollar club," a club filled by those whose critical reporting had cost the magazine a million dollars in ad revenues." (I wasn't a member of this club, at least as far as I know.)

But the way Joe describes it, the magazine's ethics were rooted in a strong business. When the magazine was strong, advertisers were under the impression that they couldn't afford not to advertise there. He writes: "For most of the time I was there, the magazine had so many advertisers that if one pulled its pages in a huff over a critical piece, the magazine could rely on others to fill the space." This was not a climate for tough choices, though I'm sure a few may have seemed so at the time. But the key is that the top editors had to make the ethical choices, and those of us down the masthead could forget about the business stuff. That is no longer the case.

Here's what I wrote to Joe in a private exchange:

For media companies tied to advertising, church-state virtue is a no-brainer under the right conditions. If your business is profitable, your brand essential and grounded in credibility, you'd be a fool to sacrifice it for ads. My point isn't that the top editors made those sacrifices. For the most part, they didn't. It would have been stupid. But the decision was up to them, and we were buffered. If you or I were working on a critical story about a major advertiser, [Editor in Chief Steve] Shepard could take those things into account. Yes, he'd publish the story, if it was good. But he might consider softening the cover language or putting a "to be sure" paragraph higher in the billboarding. I do not believe that he was anything but true to our ethics. But he had to think about those things. And by taking that burden on for himself, he freed us. Now that we're on our own (in a meaner environment) we have to make those decisions ourselves. Again, to reiterate, making the decision isn't surrendering our ethics. But it involves, as Steve W said, rethinking them and figuring out what's important and what works.

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