Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Questionable Content: Editors and the Pressure of falling Ad Revenue

By Jessica Silliman

Rachel Eisner had reached her goal: She had become the associate editor of a successful city business magazine with a circulation of 50,000. Both readers and colleagues complimented Rachel on the magazine's content and focus on the intricate aspects of the business climate in the city. Unlike others in the industry, Rachel's magazine had not wavered in its mission in the declining media market. It stuck with investigating and serving the business world.

Every few years the magazine went through a redesign in an effort to make it more appealing to readers and more successful against competition. The editorial board typically used survey data generated from reader responses to evaluate what could be enhanced. This process often generated innovative ideas to further increase the magazine's market share and prominence in the business community. But in this particular year, the focus of the redesign turned to solving a problem: decreasing advertising revenue.

In an effort to spark advertiser interest, the managers and publisher of the magazine collaborated to develop a new idea: concentrate magazine content on real estate and luxury products to draw in wealthy advertisers who may not previously have had an interest in the magazine.

This decision-made above Rachel's level-changed her job dramatically. For the next issue, she was asked to put together a photo spread of purses, bags and office equipment and write blurbs in a fashion-magazine style. In the minds of the magazine' s top executives, this "free advertisement" for the products would encourage the targeted luxury companies to pay for advertisement in coming months.

But Rachel disagreed. "Giving free ads won't make them purchase more ads," she said. In Rachel's opinion, this move also weakened the magazine's credibility- readers were smart enough to see through the catalogue-like content.

"The magazine had been around for 20 years and people complimented us on the content," said Rachel. "We were going away from what our readers liked."

She struggled because she had never encountered an issue like this. Since her high school and college publications weren't based on profit, the bottom line never was an issue that affected her writing.

In Rachel's mind, the loss of credibility wasn't worth the potential gain in advertising revenue. And now, as the associate editor, she was forced to cross the line between advertising and editorial content. Instead of devoting her time to writing, she was forced to create pseudo spreads about luxury items. While the spreads were to appear as the magazine's "tested" business selections, they were, truly, just a plea for advertising. Rachel felt that the editorial and advertising departments were two sections that should remain completely separate.

"It didn't feel like journalism," she said.

But, unfortunately, Rachel didn't have the power to stand up to the upper management. As a top editor she told management that she didn't agree with the decision. But management felt there was no choice-it came down to money. In the eyes of those in charge, advertising ran the magazine because it generated the revenue-the editorial content was a mere player in the larger picture.

Her feelings were strong enough, however, to drive her to approach the management team and voice her concern. She told them she didn't think that it was the best solution and that it would hinder the magazine's credibility. But they didn't listen.

Rachel was left to follow their commands. She contemplated resigning, but she wanted to see the effectiveness of the new system. After two months of frustration, Rachel quit and began working for another city magazine.

Discussion Questions:

  • What do you think "runs" a magazine like the one Rachel works at-the advertising or the editorial content?
  • Do you think Rachel's work on the luxury item "spread" was still journalism? Why or why not?
  • As a reader, how would you feel about this situation? Would you still support a publication who ran free ads similar to Rachel's magazine?
  • Should Rachel have been more forceful with her concerns?
  • Is this situation unethical or is it just a good business strategy?

Jessica Silliman was a 2006-07 Hackworth Fellow at The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

June 2007


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