Media Moves

Coverage: The debate over Conde Nast’s latest move

January 30, 2015

Posted by Liz Hester

Conde Nast rocked the journalism world this week by announcing its editors would be available for hire through its new advertising arm. It’s sparked debates amongst journalists

AdAge had this story by Michael Sebastian earlier in the week:

Glossy magazine publisher Conde Nast, which owns Vogue and Vanity Fair, is enlisting its editors to consult with advertisers and help them create articles and images.

The move — which comes with the rollout of 23 Stories by Conde Nast, a new department charged with creating content for brands — is a sea change at Conde Nast. It has so far kept editors at arm’s length from advertising content even as competitors like Hearst and Refinery29 have put editorial to work for brands.

Last year, the company’s former editorial director, Tom Wallace, drafted an internal document — which one editor called a Magna Carta” — about the company’s approach to native ads. The document said neither editors nor magazine’s logos can appear in native ads. It did not specifically prohibit editors from working in some capacity with advertisers. (Mr. Wallace left the company over the summer.)

“We have the full support of our editorial teams, from Anna on down,” said Edward Menicheschi, CMO-president of the Conde Nast Media Group, referring to Vogue Editor Anna Wintour.

While that might be the part line, it definitely causes a stir, particularly when you think about news editors working directly for brands. The Wall Street Journal story by Steven Perlberg outlined some of the debate:

News organizations generally believe in a wall between editorial operations and the business side of a publication.

The new program, “23 Stories by Condé Nast,” would seemingly break down that boundary, potentially distorting just what is fact and what is marketing.

Some staffers within Condé Nast believe there is wiggle room under the “23 Stories” initiative. Their understanding is that there is flexibility for certain titles to decide they don’t want to have editors involved in producing content for advertisers.

The New Yorker, for example, isn’t inclined to make available its editors, the staffers say.

The company, however, says no magazine title is exempt from the new program, which will launch next month. Condé Nast’s other major titles include lifestyle magazines such as Vogue, Allure and Glamour. The company, a unit of Advance Publications Inc., is still in the early stages of rolling out the program and explaining to editors how it will work.

Lucia Moses wrote for Digiday about some of the industry’s issues that could be driving the decision:

As publishers struggle to find forms of digital advertising that will financially support their journalism, they’re also grappling with how to create, label and distribute it. Condé Nast seems to be making the argument, as others have, that if you want ads that are as good as editorial content, it makes sense to involve the people who make that content.

“The editors are brilliant at producing engaging content,” said Edward Menicheschi, CMO of Condé Nast and president of the Condé Nast Media Group. “We think the branded content space does not have the quality audiences deserve. We feel we can do it better.”

It’s not that simple, though. By their nature, native ads complicate things, since they’re supposed to mimic the look and feel of actual editorial content. If consumers have been trained to ignore banner ads, native ads that do their job of appealing to readers may also be fooling them.

The process of creating content for brands is less formal but not all that different at another journalistic bastion, Time Inc. The publisher of such titles as Time, Sports Illustrated and People has a branded content arm called Time Inc. Content Solutions that has a dedicated staff, but the company also produced an Amazon-sponsored gift guide in which the editors chose the products.

Norman Pearlstine, chief content officer at Time Inc., said there are times when it makes sense to have the editors involved, as long as it doesn’t interfere with editorial integrity and is transparent to readers, whether the subject is lifestyle or news.

Women’s Wear Daily pointed out in a story by Alexandra Steigrad that Conde Nast isn’t the first, just the latest to join the party:

At Hearst, digital magazine editors are called upon to work on both edit and sponsored copy, blurring the lines between editorial and advertising. Other media companies, such as The New York Times, employ two staffs; one for editorial, one for branded content generation.

Last year, Time Inc. chief executive officer Joe Ripp created an eight-person native advertising unit headed up by chief content officer Norman Pearlstine. The formation of the group turned heads because it mandated select editorial staff to work alongside the advertising side.

Editorial purists criticized the unit, which is headed up by vice president Chris Hercik, who retained his role as Sports Illustrated creative director, and by Mark Ford, corporate head of advertising. Pearlstine told WWD in August that Hercik’s dual role posed little problem when it comes to damaging the company’s journalistic credibility.

“He happens to be the creative director at Sports Illustrated, a magazine that doesn’t cover the people whom we’re working on,” the exec said. “He’s a brilliant creative director with a wonderful commercial mind. The place we’ll have to be careful is if there are packages that he’s working on would somehow involve Sports Illustrated. He’s going to have to recuse himself from doing anything at the magazine itself that would raise conflict. It’s my job to ensure that it doesn’t happen.”

Months later, in November, Pearlstine had compared editors to marketers when interviewed by Alex Jones at the Bryant Park Grill here.

I doubt that any journalist would compare herself to a marketer. In school, we’re all taught the clear line between news and advertising. With the rise of paid content, it’s become blurrier. It’s harder still when pressured for revenue, companies aren’t hiring new people for the marketing side. While making money is important, it’s even more critical for news outlets to remember their core mission.

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