Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Philosophy of journalistic ethics

The Philosopher's Zone podcast this week featured an interview with David Neill from the University of Wollongong in which he said much the same thing as I said in my previous post, only better and more philosophically.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

How advertising ruined my life

A couple of days ago I promised a rant about the insidious effects of advertorials on good journalism, so here it is.
There are really two forms of advertorial. In most cases, an "editorial" mention is promised to accompany an advertising booking. This can be done reasonably, if the journalist writing the article is free to include non-advertisers' products and services as well (although it is still not ideal). For example, I recently wrote an article recommending certain restaurants in Sydney, in which three of the four I was required to mention had full page ads in the same publication. This kind of advertorial is usually fairly obvious to the reader, who can easily see the ad near the editorial and infer a link between the two. I don't believe it is harmful, because it is simply a recommendation; I wasn't writing an exposé on health inspections, for example, or pretending that the list was comprehensive.
A more insidious form of "advertorial" is when journalists cannot write anything in editorial that may have a negative reflection on an advertiser. Here's an example: when I was employed on a parenting magazine, I wrote an article on the pros and cons of the use of disinfectants in the home. As part of this story, I related a true personal anecdote about a television advertisement for an unnamed cleaning product. When the camera "zoomed in" on scary-looking green germs on a pristine white surface, the friend with whom I was watching burst out laughing. She was a microbiologist, and immediately recognised that the supposedly scary "germs" were just yeast, a substance which we all have in our gut nearly all of the time.
When the article including this anecdote was printed, a major advertiser threatened to withdraw advertising from all of the company's publications. I was forced to apologise in person to the client, who claimed that, although I hadn't mentioned their product specifically, it was obvious that it was their ad to which I referred, since I had correctly identified that the "germs" were yeast! As well as grovelling to the advertiser, I was made to write a short news item in the next issue of the magazine specifically promoting their product. (As there was nothing inherently wrong with the product itself, but only the advertising for it, I felt able to do this without compromising my principles, thus keeping my job.)
Related to the use of advertorial pressure to compromise journalistic standards, as well as to compromise the finances and ethics of the publication in general, is the use of contra. For those not in the industry, "contra" is the name given to payment for advertising in kind, rather than in dollars. Used properly, contra can be great: for example, every time you get a free gift with your magazine you are probably getting contra -- free gifts boost copy sales, so a magazine will accept 100,000 tubes of lip gloss in exchange for a double-page spread of advertising. This works out well for publisher, advertiser and reader.
The problem I have with contra is when it doesn't feed back into the finances of the publication. At some publishing companies I have worked for, there were credible rumours among the staff that the CEO or senior executives were using contra ad bookings and editorial coverage to supplement their personal lifestyles -- for home renovations and holidays, for example. The problem with this is that there is no feedback into the economics of producing the magazine (I'd bet my bottom dollar that the execs didn't take a pay cut to make up for the freebies they were receiving). Less real advertising revenue means budget cuts for editorial expenses and no pay rises for journalists, while the execs and senior staff enjoy virtual, tax-free, pay rises. The reader receives no benefit at all.
As in my last post, having raised this issue I really have very few ideas about changing the industry practices. These days, as a freelance journalist, I can to some extent choose who I work for and what I write, but I actually have very little bargaining power if I want to continue to get regular work. (And that's another rant.) Enforcing ethics is hard, particularly in this economic climate.

Death of the journalist

Dr Steven Novella, at Skepticblog, asked the question: Is journalism dead? and naturally I can't help putting in my two cents' worth.
I agree with Dr Novella, that the internet is changing the way we learn about news, and the sources we choose to obtain it from. This is the future, and we need to strap in for the long haul and ride out the transition. However, I'm sure there were similar complaints when both radio news and television news first came on the scene, so reports of my death are exaggerated.
Publishers have a bottom-line-driven attitude to their output. Advertising has always been the main revenue source, and editorial is valued only as the stuff that fills the space between the ads. These days, it is often bastardised by tacit "advertorial" content (that's a whole different kettle of fish that I'll save for another rant), or produced on a shoestring by overworked journalists trying to find a balance between the good reporting that their personal standards demand, and the lack of time and resources to do it properly.
Nevertheless, publishers will all agree that good editorial draws in more readers, thereby attracting more advertising dollars. This is where I want to put the spotlight back on readers: do you really care about good journalism?
Let me ask the question this way: how much are you prepared to pay for a newspaper or even a website that delivers really good quality journalism? One hundred years ago, a newspaper cost between about threepence and sixpence. (For the sake of argument and decimal currency, we'll say five cents.) A quick conversion to today's relative value reveals that the modern equivalent, based on the average unskilled wage, would be more than $5.00. How much do you pay for your newspaper? My home-delivery subscription costs less than a dollar per day, and the internet edition is free.
The main effect of the cheapness (or free-ness) of news sources is insidious. It's a well-known marketing adage that you don't value something you can get for free (or cheaply). YOU don't expect your internet news source to be accurate, you just want it to be timely. YOU don't care if Pauline Hansen's racist policies have changed, as long as we find out if those nudie photos are really her (see the front page of today's Sydney Morning Herald). If you had to pay a fairer rate for it, would you be more picky about what you read?
Dr Novella asked the question, and so do I: what business model can we develop that will allow journalists to make a decent living out of doing a good job? I'm no economist, but I think that at least part of the answer is in the readers. If YOU demand the truth, and are prepared to pay for it, we'll all be able to eat tomorrow.

(Come back in a few days for my rant on advertorials: another economic rationalist reason why good journalism is in decline.)

Thursday, March 12, 2009


Yesterday I returned to the old alma mater for a public lecture by Dr Karl in the Eastern Avenue Auditorium (formerly known as Carslaw, with new bits and a water feature). I've been to the uni regularly in recent days, mostly by car, but this was the first time I'd strolled down the pedestrian mall that now runs between Fisher Library and the Wentworth Building.
I was totally gobsmacked and impressed by the new law school building next to Fisher library. It's so sleek and, surrounded as it is by open space, I felt as though I had somehow slipped into a Brobdignagian architect's model. Who knew those old fogeys on the Sydney Uni Senate had it in them to approve such a breathtaking postmodern structure? It certainly makes Carslaw (what's left of it) look like the muddle of mid-century utilitarian garbage that it is. And the Chemistry building should hang its head in shame.

On a side note, it always amuses me that the Transient Building is still there, now more than 20 years after I graduated.