These are the times that try editorial souls, forcing them to reflect on what they so often write about: the appearance of conflict of interest. Is editorial integrity a problem at your magazine? As H.L. Mencken, a grand old guru of magazine editing, once observed, “for every complex, difficult problem, there is a simple and easy solution … and it is wrong.” Granted, the path to editorial integrity is both complex and difficult; nonetheless, here are ten guidelines intended to keep you on the straight and narrow.
1. Thou shalt do the right thing. Cover your beat and report the news without fear or favor. This means being fair, honest, open, and careful to avoid even the appearance of conflicts of interest. Nobody likes or trusts a liar or a faker.
2. Thou shalt not make sales calls. Nor should an editor host advertiser luncheons or perform similar marketing tasks in behalf of the ad-sales department. Such events create the impression that advertisers have special access to favorable editorial treatment. In this business, remember, perception is reality.
3. Thou shalt not covet perks and freebies. Apart from review samples, there is no such thing as a free lunch, junket, or product. When someone provides free goods or travel, you are expected to pay with editorial coverage, which is far more credible — and cost-efficient — than taking ad pages in your magazine. Know that everyone is selling — and trying to include the editor in the loop.
4. Remember to keep watch on advertising integrity. After all, what are the prospects for survival of editorial integrity if a magazine’s advertising sales system is virtually destroying its own environment? Be wary of devious advertisers that can slither into your pages alongside your editorial beat. When you receive reader complaints, report your concerns to the publisher.
5. Remember to keep holy the editorial pages. The more narrow your advertising base, the more corrupt your editorial is likely to be. If you depend on widgets for advertising, and if you cover the widget business editorially, you are in their hands. But readers don’t respect — or read — magazines written for advertisers, and as an audience abandons a publication, so too do advertisers. Even though some advertisers are afraid of a frank editorial tone that may reflect on them directly, editorial integrity is the best strategy for long-term survival. Expand that integrity to cover a wider editorial range and your ad-sales department will be able to pursue a more diverse client roster of advertisers. Everybody wins.
6. Honor thy agreements. Always check back with a source for an accuracy review of quotes obtained during an interview, but never give a subject the right of final review and approval of a total manuscript. Your job is to play fair with a subject, not to be a rewrite department in the ego division.
7. Thou shalt not have false gods before thee. By making deals with PR reps or subjects to get their cooperation on interviews, stories, photo shoots, et alia., you may be editing for your peers, not your audience. The reader, not the vested interests of the subject and assorted minions, is still boss.
8. Thou shalt set a good example. Ultimately, editorial integrity is people, not policies. The best magazines don’t just talk about integrity; they live it. This means you.
9. Thou shalt edit from the heart. Editors know integrity when they see it. They also know a bad or biased or incomplete story that has a private agenda. When in doubt, the golden rule applies: edit for others as you would have them edit for you.
10. Thou shalt quit if necessary. If you find yourself unhappy and professionally heartsick over the deals and demands made by your job, try pointing out that honesty is the best business policy. Bosses usually understand the rules that Sam Walton made zillions with at WalMart: “1. Stick to your business. 2. Take care of the customer.” That’s what editorial integrity is all about. If your boss still doesn’t get it, try this test: Ask yourself, “Would I like an account of my magazine’s behavior in the pages of Folio:?” If not, consider looking for a job that measures up to your own sense of pride in performance. Give a copy of these commandments to your replacement.
Copyright John Brady. All rights reserved. [Reprinted from Folio: magazine]