Imagine, for a moment, that you are the chief executive of a major magazine publishing company. These are tough days in the print publications world -- more and more readers are getting their news and entertainment online, where it's updated faster and provided more cheaply (often, for free). So if you have any hopes of staying profitable (or returning to profitability), you have to find ways to boost revenue or cut costs.
An obvious starting point for boosting revenue is making your advertisers happier.
An obvious starting point for cost-cutting these days is trimming staff.
But publishing relies on, among other things, writers. How many people will pay money for a magazine that's all ads? I don't always throw out the catalogues that clog my mailbox, but I certainly wouldn't pay money for them. (Yes, I'm familiar with Lucky, which straddles the line between magazine and catalogue.)
So you have decided that you need to cut your writing staff. But who to cut? How will you determine which writers to keep and which to jettison? What criteria will you use to judge them? Quality of writing, for sure (especially since you've already gotten rid of most of the copy editors who could improve anyone's material). Their productivity, no doubt. What else?
In this day of social media, their ability to produce Twitter-teasing snippets and YouTube-ready video is probably important too.
But what about this: Advertiser-friendliness?
That's the direction in which Time Inc. has moved, and Henry Luce is doing wheelies in his grave. Time Inc., with its stable of famous publications (TIME itself, plus Sports Illustrated, People, Entertainment Weekly, Fortune, etc.), was spun off from Time Warner in June (Wall Street Journal article from March 2014 on the spin-off, by Keach Hagey and Martin Peers, here). Layoffs have already occurred, and more are expected.
Gawker Media reported yesterday (here; by Hamilton Nolan; a similar story, by Ravi Somaiya appears in today's New York Times, here) that Sports Illustrated writers were being evaluated on the following criteria:
- Quality of writing
- Impact of stories / Newsworthiness
- Productivity / Tenacity
- Audience / Traffic
- Social [media]
- Produces content that [is] beneficial to advertiser relationships
So much for the "Great Wall" between editorial and publishing.
The information was provided to Gawker by the Newspaper Guild, which represents some Time Inc. employees; the guild was provided with the information by Time Inc. itself. A union representative told Gawker:
Time Inc. actually laid off Sports Illustrated writers based on the criteria listed on that chart. Writers who may have high assessments for their writing ability, which is their job, were in fact terminated based on the fact the company believed their stories did not 'produce content that is beneficial to advertiser relationships.
An arbitration demand has been filed, "disputing the use of that and other criteria in the layoff decision-making process."
You may be thinking, "So what?" But how much editorial writing (by which I mean both news articles and opinion pieces) will you trust if you know that the writers are being judged by their advertising-friendliness? Is that highly positive piece on a new technology in "Big Business Magazine" for real? Should you invest? Or it it written that way because the new technology comes from a company that's advertising heavily in "Big Business"?
Back at the dawn of time, I was a newspaper reporter. And though many readers are cynical about journalists' "objectivity" (and post-modernists argue, with considerable justification, that objectivity is an illusion), I can tell you that we took it very seriously. We did our damnedest to tell the story as we saw it, and be damned to whether the person we were writing about was a close personal friend of the publisher or not.
Welcome to 21st-century journalism.
A Sports Illustrated spokesperson is quoted in both Gawker and the Times complaining that the report is "misleading and takes one category out of context", and that "SI's editorial content is uncompromised and speaks for itself."
It may be speaking, but what exactly is it saying?