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Lawsuit Hits on Need for Ad/Edit Split

Posted on Wednesday, April 21, 2010 at 1:24 PM

Trouble can lurk ahead if editors fail to uphold editorial integrity.

By Andrea Obston

Earlier this month, Calibra Pictures filed a lawsuit against Variety magazine for giving their film a bad review.

In its suit the production company claims that it agreed to pay about $400,000 for an "exclusive promotion partnership" to support its movie, Iron Cross. However, Variety's film critics seem to have had the temerity to pan the film. The crux of Calibra's claim is that Variety's advertising and editorial departments both promised positive publicity. And, Calibra said both departments claimed this agreement would help secure distribution for the film and a chance at one or more Academy Awards.

A Sale or a Sell-Out?

Wait! What? Variety's being sued for doing its job? Do I have that right? And do I also understand that they sold away their right to do unbiased movie reviews because the editorial department of the publication went along with this $400,000 deal?

As a business owner in the marketing communications field, it baffles me to think that any company would consider selling off its competitive advantage. (That is especially perplexing when others in the publishing industry are dropping like flies.) But, if you believe the charges in the recent lawsuit against Variety, that's exactly what they are being accused of.

Isn't the ability to be an unbiased observer the most important thing that any legitimate publication brings to the table? Isn't that what readers expect from it? Indeed, it is the reason most publications still exist, and is what they are supposed to do best. In my world, that's called a competitive advantage. It is something a company does that makes it stand out among its competitors.

The fact is that the competitive advantage that print journalism has over some blog-ified, twit-ified competitors is its promise of unbiased observation. It's why lots of readers still turn to magazines like Variety for the whole story, even though they peruse the blogs and check their Twitter accounts.

Drawing the Line

Unbiased observation comes from the "Chinese Wall" between the editorial and advertising departments. Yes, I know the economics of keeping a publication alive and journalists fed has been stretched to the limit. When journalists and critics can't do their jobs, however, because sales people have "promised positive publicity," that should make anyone who depends on them question their judgment.

The outcome of this lawsuit is probably years away. I'm sure this is just the opening salvo of publicity bombs slung by both sides. So there's no final lesson yet. Nonetheless, the fact that it's been filed should give us all pause.

Once advertisers believe they have the right to dictate editorial content, I believe many consumers who depend on journalists will stop turning to them for information. And when that happens, newspapers and magazines will have sold their competitive advantage down the river, with no ultimate rate of return.

Andrea Obston is the president of Andrea Obston Marketing Communications, LLC (www.aomc.com), a firm that helps businesses grow through a B2E (Business to Everyone) marketing communications strategy. The firm provides strategic marketing services, brand development and marketing, public relations through traditional and social media outlets, media training and websites. Its subsidiary, Andrea Obston Crisis Communications (www.crisismasters.com), is a reputation and crisis communications firm that offers workshops and seminars on a variety of contemporary marketing issues. Andrea's writing has been featured in the Hartford Business Journal, where the original version of this article appeared.

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