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I hope I don't get fired for this.

This week, I found myself in that gray area between pleasing advertisers and sticking with the old journalistic principles that my job is supposed to have. I talked about this in an older entry on whether I should allow myself to accept gifts; you can click to read it if you like, but I'll quote the relevant part right here:

On Monday, I will interview someone from a real estate company for an advertorial to appear in this supplement. I will also write the lead article, and because I don't know many bigwigs in real estate (my uncle maybe, but tapping him as a source is an ethics issue, too), I might have to use quotes from the advertorial interview. In fact, the AM's e-mail to the real estate people tells them that the interview is for the lead article, too. This is not the first time he's told advertisers this.

I admire my SF editor for standing up for our immunity from advertisers' influence. She has always told us that we are not obligated to even mention the advertisers in our articles, we can only quote advertisers if they say something relevant to the topic, we are free to pursue whatever angles we want, and we must be balanced. Knowing that she has held this stand consistently (whenever a writer or AM says that an advertiser is complaining about their inclusion/non-inclusion in an article) gives me both confidence and motivation to be fair in my coverage. The ads may determine what I write about, but they don't determine what I write.

I think I spoke too soon.

I hope I don't get fired for this. In fact, to make sure I don't, I'll skip as many of the little details as I can, to forgo spilling too many of what may be confidential company practices (I don't really know; I'm still pretty new).

To please the advertiser, my account manager found a way to put them in the spotlight via the lead article without making it too obviously deliberate. I wrote about a third-party standard for which, of its entire field, only the advertiser was currently reaching. The topic was a certification process, and the advertiser's project became a kind of case study in my article. And to my surprise, the editor said that this approach was okay.

I don't have any hard feelings for the advertiser. They were very pleasant and helpful, the interviews were substantial and even enlightening, and I personally feel that this project of theirs deserves the attention, if only for their competitors to emulate it. In the end, I was happy to write the article. And I'm not saying that because they bought me lunch.

But then, this is just what our economics teachers mean by, "There's no such thing as a free lunch."

While they were fine with the editorial policy that I couldn't show them the article I was writing--and I was as balanced as I could possibly be--I did have to show them the advertorial I was also writing for them. And again, my account manager worked out a way for them to be happy.

But unlike writing the article, this advertorial business made me feel dirty. Why? Advertorials that SF writers produce always go through the editor. My AM was essentially working out a way for my writing to bypass her. While I liked the advertiser, I knew that ultimately, my loyalty should be to my editor. I'm an even bigger fan of her now because she stuck to her guns for the most part and protected me from having to do some of the backflips my AM requested on behalf of the client. But I'm a little shocked by how she seems to think nothing of this bypassing stuff despite being completely aware.

This experience has me even more confused about the nature of my job now. If what my AM did was okay and in fact common practice, then how much authority does my editor really have? What should I expect when I find myself in this gray area again? How far backward can a newspaper writer bend for the folks who essentially keep her section in business, without forgetting that she is still the newspaper's writer? 


The Last Time I Was Here

January 2012
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