What are the journalistic best practices for indie blogs?
August 28, 2013 7:38 PM   Subscribe

I run a small blog (three part-time people, all editorial) in an industry known for having a cozy relationship between press and marketers (fashion). I didn't go to J school and never expected to be a journalist. Is there a useful best practices / ethics guide for folks in my position?

Here are some of the problems we've faced:
* Advertisers seeking sponsored content everywhere along the continuum from full-on ad to editorial to ad-disguised-as-editorial.
* Contributors being offered gigs doing marketing or PR. (Say writing product descriptions or marketing copy for a website.)
* Being offered review product.
* Me (publisher) and contributors selling advertising (ie: no firewall, because how could there be? No ad sales staff.)
* Contributors being offered editorial jobs for pseudo-editorial outlets (eg blogs on brand or retail websites).

I'm familiar with the law, and we're pretty careful about conflicts of interest, but I could really use some guidance. We don't work in a newsroom and that's unlikely to happen in the near future. Nor can I pay people enough that this is their only source of income. What I see on competitors' sites really bothers me, and I try to be over-ethical, but I think I need to have some hard-and-fast policies to point to.

posted by YoungAmerican to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I'll mention too that our two biggest competitors are a photographer who works regularly directly for brands and a publicist/branding consultant.
posted by YoungAmerican at 7:44 PM on August 28, 2013

Are they competitors in that they are also bloggers?
posted by ocherdraco at 8:35 PM on August 28, 2013

This is an area in an incredible state of fluidity, such that any very established and time-tested sets of guidelines that do exist (whether as documents or in journalists' minds) will be rapidly starting to look old-fashioned, whether you think that's a good thing or a bad thing.

Some good sources of up-to-date perspectives on the sponsored content and ad/editorial firewalls issues specifically, are this David Weinberger piece, this email to staff from Buzzfeed's Jonah Peretti, and Andrew Sullivan's series of anti-sponsored-content posts.

IMHO, the governing ethic should always be transparency – not "objectivity", whatever that means, and not specific kinds of firewall, or banning employees from doing specific other kinds of work, but just telling your readers as clearly and prominently as possible what a piece is, who an author is, what circumstances it was produced under, etc etc etc.
posted by oliverburkeman at 4:54 AM on August 29, 2013

What I think you need is a business manager to vet the offers you and your staff are getting and an editorial manager to "place the offer" inside of some kind of open window or door. Personally, I think part of the problem is that Put This On is trying to be a lot of different things: a Daily Candy for menswear; Attire of the Month Club; Promote Jesse Thorn (but which Jesse Thorn?); and of course the webTV series. So many pots to stir, it must be very difficult to fit in time for an editorial agenda. But, that is what must come first.

Start by compiling the offers you and your contributor pool have received. Are they static or ongoing? Do you have enough contacts that you could throw a party for yourselves and everyone would come and throw money at a new, defined season of Put This On? You also need to decide both from business and editorial management perspectives what will be done with all this free merchandise that you get. The editorial agenda is totally crucial to giving your contributors the ability (and agility) to say No when No is required. That means you can no longer be a pushover and allow content just because content should appear.

I agree with oliverburkman on transparency instead of objectivity. Think of a magazine: Christmas-related editorial content should be pitched in June. Do your contributors know that? Building up your editorial decision-making in advance; letting your advertisers know about your editorial calendar well in advance; giving them a contact person to run ideas by who can also create invoices; all of these things will allow you the flexibility to say Yes when it is possible to say Yes and the creative freedom to pare your site to the editorial vision you wish to capitalize on.
posted by parmanparman at 6:58 AM on August 29, 2013

Response by poster: Are they competitors in that they are also bloggers?
posted by YoungAmerican at 7:18 AM on August 29, 2013

The solution for us was to have separate roles for business and editorial. But that's not just practical in terms of ethics. Your business will not actually be a growing business unless someone's entire work life is made up of doing business, even when you are starting with little and there is no business to be done. I have seen dozens of publications come and go because they did not listen to this advice. Make a firewall. Be a publisher. Don't be an editor-publisher. Or take on a partner.

The rest of it is about transparency, yes. You should decide what you ban (junkets/freebies? That's hard in fashion! And maybe not appropriate to ban! But also: you should think about kinds of advertising you won't accept, and how you deliver sponsored content) and what you allow and how you disclaim. Totally doable! :)
posted by RJ Reynolds at 7:22 AM on August 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

I agree that transparency is a worthwhile goal. For example, I get annoyed when journalists don't register to vote because then they would have to identify with a political party and that would compromise their objectivity. More often than not, it seems like it compromises the appearance of objectivity rather than just objectivity. I would rather know that you're a Republican than do this annoying dance where you pretend you aren't but somehow you never write a positive piece about Democrats.

I like how editors at Patch.com answer a few short questions about themselves in their bios - stuff like what local issues concern them the most, what political party do they identify with, are they religious, etc. It makes me feel like I know that person a little better which is nice with Patch because it's local - it makes it feel more intimate.

In your case, since you seem turned off by what is going on at other blogs, I would use that as your starting point for drafting a policy. It doesn't have to be 1000 words. You can start with some principles - objectivity, transparency, balance, fairness (just examples) - and then try to articulate what those things mean to you in this context.

I think it's also important to apologize when appropriate. It gives you credibility.
posted by kat518 at 10:41 AM on August 29, 2013

Are you familiar with Corporette? As a former lawyer turned fashion blogger, she's pretty conscientious about this stuff and makes it a practice to be really clear what's sponsored (it's tagged at the end of every post if she has an affiliate link, for example and a true sponsored post is indicated as such in the very first sentence) and what's not (basically everything else, which I think is really key). She has this page about ads, affiliates, and sponsors and this product review policy page. As a reader, I'm satisfied that a) the blog is making money and b) I can be aware of how and to what extent advertisers play a role in editorial. That is more than actual fashion magazines, so I'm happy.

I think the only areas not addressed in your post are these: she is pretty much the sole writer so gets to decide on her own what outside gigs she'll accept and I have no idea how advertising works. The outside blog posts are relatively few and she clearly discloses them in her weekly news link round-up when they do happen. The advertising page that she has is thorough and may provide a solution (with the linked advertising coalition) for you.

Overall, I would agree with the above: this is an area in huge flux where traditional rules may not apply (but you don't want to get in trouble with the government, either!) and transparency will endear you to your readers.
posted by librarylis at 7:41 AM on September 1, 2013

Response by poster: Librarylis: what about consulting, etc? She says she's available to be hired for that stuff, and that's one of the biggest issues I have with blogs in the menswear world, but doesn't say what her disclosure policy is there.
posted by YoungAmerican at 10:42 AM on September 10, 2013

Hmmm. By consulting, do you mean the speaking engagements she talks about on the 'hire Kat to speak' page? I'm looking for other mentions but not seeing them--if you can pull out where you're seeing consulting, I might be able to help (I've been reading Corporette for about four years now, so I've watched it grow and change).

If you're talking about more where she does the Ann Taylor/Banana Republic/whomever 'preview with fashion bloggers' thing, she's completely upfront in disclosing if a fashion company has paid for her time and I think the posts are usually tagged right up front as sponsored.

As a general rule, I'm seeing Corporette err more on the side of disclosure than most of the other fashion blogs I'm familiar with (even the late lamented AcademiChic and my much beloved Fug Girls). It's definitely what I would recommend, as a reader who would rather know what's going on than have to play gotcha to figure it out.
posted by librarylis at 8:06 PM on September 11, 2013

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