Custom Publishing Ethics

The custom publisher’s responsibilities to consumers

Business armIf you browse a website long enough you’ll eventually find a “Terms of Use” or “Legal” policy statement. That document outlines the site owner’s legal responsibilities (or lack thereof) and the rules that Web site visitors agree to follow. You can find the document link at the bottom of this page, where you’ll find these rules and responsibilities described in excruciating detail. When it comes to protecting its own interests, a publishing business such as Terrella Media (or any other business) leaves no lawyer behind.

In traditional publishing, it’s generally understood that The Editor has the primary responsibility to defend the readers’ interests. In fact, the American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME) offers detailed ethical guidelines for editorial practices (see The ASME Guidelines in Brief below.) The editor acts as a guarantor of factual accuracy and also as a “firewall” that protects the editorial process from corrupting influences such as coercion by advertisers, political intimidation, or financial conflicts of interests. The exercise of journalistic ethics doesn’t preclude a distinct editorial point of view; it does prohibit hidden agendas and undisclosed biases. American Business Media (ABM), an association for business-to-business information providers offers a similar code of editorial ethics.

When we turn to custom publishing we face an interesting conundrum: the readers’ information needs are the same as ever yet the custom publisher is inherently incapable of meeting any traditional standards of editorial integrity. The content has a commercial agenda. The editors lack independence. Most decisions are calculated to promote a brand or product. Custom media is a form of advertising, yet while advertising has some ethical and legal boundaries one could argue that by mimicking journalism custom publishing attempts to evade even those minimal standards.

In this context, the first rule of custom publishing ethics would seem to be to identify custom content as such. To properly weigh the merits of an article, a consumer needs to know who funded its creation. A custom publication should indicate the sponsor’s name on the cover and labeling should appear on each page. Sponsored Web articles also should be labeled, both individually and collectively (as when summarized in search results or headline pages).

Many websites today include detailed Privacy Statements that disclose how personal information is collected and used. The integrity of customer data has become a serious concern. If we were to take editorial integrity just as seriously, we would insist that publications and Web sites include comparable Editorial Policy statements that disclose how sponsors influence the content. (See A Prototype Editorial Policy for Terrella (below) for an example). We may not be able to hold custom content to journalistic standards, but we can define ethics for custom publishing in terms of transparency and disclosure, allowing readers to make informed judgments about the accuracy, relevance, and bias of the content.

To that end, an Editorial Policy statement for custom content should first identify the publisher, the publication or Web site’s purpose, and the source of the content. This provides valuable context for evaluating the content’s trustworthiness. The policy statement may also provide details of the content’s treatment, explaining, for example, whether content from outside sources is altered or edited from its original form. This kind of disclosure would assure readers (and contributing authors) that content is not edited or quoted out of context. Finally, an Editorial Policy statement need not be limited to custom publishers; a traditional publisher could use one to address questions of editorial/advertising adjacency, sponsored Web listings, priority search results, and other editorial treatment. The blurring of the lines between advertising and editorial is a growing concern, especially in Web publishing. A statement that clarifies editorial policies and practices can only enhance the readers’ trust in the content. END

Sidebar: The ASME Guidelines in Brief

When discussing editorial integrity and custom publishing, it’s important to recognize that traditional publishers have grappled with this issue for years. To set standards for editorial quality and to protect editors from undue advertiser pressure, the American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME) publishes detailed guidelines for editorial independence, advertising placement, sponsored content labeling, and digital media best practices.

The ASME guidelines stipulate, among other things, that an ad page should be distinct from a publication’s normal design and that ad pages must not be placed adjacent to related editorial material. They also require that a publication’s chief editor have final authority over content decisions. The ASME guidelines specify standards for labeling single-sponsor sections and issues. They also prohibit involving editorial staff members in the production of sponsored content of any kind.

While the ASME guidelines do a fine job of setting editorial expectations for editors, publishers, and advertisers in traditional publishing organizations, they don’t apply to dedicated custom publishers where there is no blurring of editorial functions or mixing of independent and sponsored content. To the extent that custom publishing is simply a form of advertising, it’s governed by a completely different set of ethics and laws that vary by jurisdiction and type of product being advertised. – David M. Kalman

Sidebar: Sample Editorial Ethics Policy

Who: Terrella Media, Inc. produces research and custom media for marketing organizations. These organizations pay Terrella Media to produce magazines, Web sites, and other content for their customers and prospects.

Purpose: Terrella Media produces this Web site as a promotional vehicle for attracting new customers of its own. While it’s in Terrella’s best interest to make the content as useful and interesting as possible, the overall point of view represented and the overall selection of articles is intended to promote Terrella Media.

Sources: Terrella Media publishes original content as well as contributions from outside sources. Terrella Media may include articles or external links of interest without necessarily agreeing with or endorsing their content. Terrella Media assumes no responsibility to include or acknowledge opposing points of view and reserves the right to accept or reject for publication any content for any reason. Terrella Media may publish articles by independent bylined authors and will not edit or alter such articles without the author’s permission.

Details: Unless otherwise indicated, all editorial material on Terrella Media’s Web site can be considered sponsored by Terrella Media itself. The Web site also may include third-party advertising and sponsored material. Because all content is considered “sponsored,” Terrella Media will not necessarily segregate or distinguish third-party content except to mention an author’s affiliation in the byline or biographical statement.

This editorial policy is subject to review and change at any time.

The Complete ABM Editorial Code of Ethics (external link, PDF)

David M. Kalman is the president of Terrella Media, Inc.