The Saddening State Of Mass Media

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There has been a lot of talk – both in traditional and online media – about the Government’s desire to better understand (and potentially regulate) the many online social channels we use to connect.

From Blogs to Twitter, there is a potential appetite for groups like the FCC to become more involved as a means to protect the public from unscrupulous Marketers. After the weekend I had, they may want to buckle down and pay a little closer attention to traditional mass media. Over the weekend, I decided to do some personal media outreach for the release of my first business book, Six Pixels of Separation (which will be in-stores on September 7th, 2009). I approached about one hundred individuals I know who publish content (some were Bloggers and others were Journalists, Editors and Publishers with some of the most highly regarded publications in the world) with an email request for help in getting the word out about the book.

What happened next shocked me.

Even though it was less than a handful of the respondents, I got back multiple emails that basically said if I wanted coverage in their publications it would have to be in exchange for:

  • Buying advertising.
  • Providing free copies of my book for them to distribute to clients for the holidays.
  • Sending them solid advertising leads.
  • Providing Digital Marketing services from Twist Image to the publication in exchange for editorial coverage.
  • Creating "non-biased" original content that they would pre-approve and then use on their properties.

That smells like payola. It is highly unethical. It is very disturbing. 

As a former Publisher of multiple magazines, I was both shocked and disappointed that the state of media has come to this. My first reaction was to go to the publisher’s website and see if there was any form of disclosure that some of the editorial content presented within their properties may be either advertorial or sponsored by an advertiser. It won’t shock you to hear that none of them had such a disclosure.

Why not just buy an ad?

If I wanted biased and paid content, all that we would have to do at Twist Image is buy some advertising. It’s almost humorous to think that these mass media publishers now see their own content as nothing more than a commercial channel for advertising. What happened to editorial content and advertising acting more like church and state?

Does this disgust, scare and sadden you?


  1. That is kind of disturbing, but look at it from their perspective.
    What’s in it for them?
    You get publicity and they get…
    Now I could be wrong because don’t know the details of the situation but I say, why not give them free copies and if they like it and if they are excited about and they think their audience will benefit from knowing about the book I’m sure they will write about it.
    Why not provide original content for them? You are getting the word out and people are learning more about you and the book and isn’t that what you want?
    Things like buying advertisement and provide free Digital marketing services is really ridiculous however.

  2. They sell advertising around their compelling content. The more compelling the content, the more advertising they can sell. That’s what’s in it for them.
    Of course they can have review copies – that’s not what they were asking for. They wanted books to give away as gifts as for their clients (instead of having to buy gifts).
    As for original content – I am absolutely happy to do this if they disclose that the reason I did this was for an additional piece of editorial content that I didn’t write but had to “pay for” by creating said piece of content.
    The problem with all of this is that the average consumer thinks they are paying (or getting) some kind of “fair and balanced” content that was editorially chosen for its merit, not because someone paid for it.

  3. That they “see their own content as nothing more than a commercial channel for advertising” is sad for sure but not so surprising. With everyone heralding the end of traditional media and everyone else scrambling to figure out what to do it seems like a poor money/payola grab for sure.
    But is this also maybe just transparency too? Instead of back-channel/back-room backscratching, maybe these publishers are just laying it out there instead. Could this be an evening of the playing field or an opening access to everyone? Seems to me not. It smells like a loss of integrity and unbiased coverage.
    I will say that with any editorial content that has a bottom dollar nugget to pay every month that the gray line must get wider as dollars get tighter.
    A final point is a reflexive one: What do they get out of promoting you (or me or anyone for that matter). On that flipside we are trying to sell something and get some added promotion so maybe they are justified in a bit of tit-for-tat. But if the transparency is that it should also be revealed that although not a “advertorial”, that there was an exchange of something for that article being written. Without it, it is a loss of integrity.

  4. re:David W and Mitch’s response to
    That’s where my main issue is. The disclosure to unbiased content or at least non-paid (wither in money, other services or exchange of goods) is key. It changes the entire relationship for the reader. If you don’t have it, toss your integrity.

  5. Fair enough, IF they considering writing about your book compelling content.
    Now I see your frustration with the free ‘gift copies’, I must have misunderstood.
    I fully agree with Craig’s last point as a tit-for-tat type of understanding there needs to be full disclosure.

  6. Yes it saddens me. No it does not shock me.
    There are sadly always more takers that givers, this is why the formerly giving person become cynical.
    I get the concept of whuffie, I buy into it, but I also realize that MOST people don’t.
    Yes what goes around comes around for these people. They should know better. But today I spent a bit of time thinking about free, and this is the dark side of free.
    It’s sort of like why marxism didn’t work in society. Marx would have understood whuffie. But he was an idealist that didn’t understand that altruism can easily be over powered by greed.
    Whuffie is very much a from each according to his/her ability and to each according to her/his need philosophy. And like Marxism is works on a volunteer basis. A co-op is communism that works, the Soviet Union was coerced communism. Doomed to fail.
    Social media interaction is the same. You went to them and asked (they likely felt mildly coerced by your request & resented it) , if they had come to you, they would have distributed freely as you expected. You asked for free, they did not volunteer it. Tactical error I suspect.
    I already railed on about the growing free-pendency if you care yo look it’s here.
    Like free infrastructure someone has to pay the bills. So to your require to help sales. You expected free, which is why you were disappointed.
    Reality bites.

  7. I’m not surprised.
    To answer your question yes to all three.
    Greed drives the economy. It got us into this mess and it will get us out of it.

  8. A dollar a word is what most book excerpts are going for in the newspapers these days. Every time you see a book excerpted in the Globe or Post, that is the story. The excerpt, the lifestyle feature and the product review — the three gradations of press release journalism.

  9. Maybe you asked the wrong people? Or asked in the wrong way? Did you send them a copy of your book as a gift?
    We don’t know what your email said. It seems that you asked for a favour: free publicity on your timetable. Maybe the people you asked get too many requests like this. Maybe they have enough compelling content already. I’m speculating since I don’t know how mass media works.
    I intended to help with your launch for free in two never-before ways:
    1. posting a special review on the launch date on my blog
    2. making your book the lead article in my eNewsletter (which I think you get)
    I can’t because I never got an advance copy to review πŸ™
    I will get your book (or audiobook) and post a review if warranted. Unfortunately this won’t be in time to help kick off early sales.
    Thanks for sharing insights into how mass media works.

  10. This just further points out that the emperor has no clothes. Mass Media (just like many blogs) is not beholden to the unbiased truth, they never were, we just believed them. And that’s okay, it now reminds us that we should take everything we read with a grain of salt.
    On the other side, it was not the wisest thing to contact people you didn’t really have a meaningful connection with to do something that would benefit you…leads you into the territory that Rob Walker was complaining about ( though I know that wasn’t your intention.
    It reiterates the question asked in those comments, how does one promotes oneself in an environment where promoting oneself to someone you don’t know very well can be taken as trying to get something for nothing?

  11. If you named names then maybe we could talk about journalistic ethics. Why are you protecting these people? Think you might still get some business out of ’em someday?

  12. This disturbs me but more importantly I believe that this article forces the question of what online marketing is all about. Do these sites that are demanding two bucks for every one given realize that the only reason they will continue to prosper is if they provide value? The beautiful thing about blogs such as this and forums with good discussion is they provide value first and foremost. On the creative and positive view, it is because of content providers like the ones called out that makes this site so much more valuable! Like Warren Buffet once said “we find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out.”

  13. Many mass media are obviously putting their decreasing audiences up for sale.
    The logical consequence is: Don’t trust their reviews. Even better, stop calling them reviews, as they are probably endorsements.
    The worst consequence is that we start questioning the journalistic integrity behind their other editorial content as well. As Tony Burman (ex-CBS, now Al Jazeera) put it ‘Every news organization has only its credibility and reputation to rely on’.

  14. Mitch,
    what can I say, welcome to the world of ordinary people who’s struggling to be heard.
    Sorry to say this, but the reality is that your name gives you advantages and puts you in a different position. The answer you got from your contacts, is the same thousand of writers get every day.
    In fact, we also get insulted: (actual answer from a publisher when they reviewed 3 products from competitors and we proposed to present ours to them)
    “Meanwhile, am I understanding you correctly? – you’re asking me if we’ll review your product and/or write an article about it you advertise?
    If so, here in the U.S. market, that would be a severe breach of integrity – something XXX would never do. I’m well aware that line of integrity is completely gone in the European publishing market”
    One point, I am not questioning that you deserve the coverage and attention you currently have, just marking the difference between you and most ordinary people.

  15. I’d like to re-iterate some points already in my original Blog post:
    – I knew all of the individuals on the list on a first-name basis.
    – I sent them each a personalized/individual email.
    – I was not asking for free publicity. I was offering up relevant content considering their audience.
    – All people who asked for review copies were more than welcome to recieve them (and they were offered).
    – Out of the 100 emails sent, the reaction was from under a handful of responses. So, it was the exception not the norm.
    – If any of these individuals thought the pitch was not personal or not relevant to them/their publication, why not just say, “no thank you. I don’t see the fit”?
    – The majority of people I reached out to have agreed to cover, review or create some kind of feature, because it was people I knew and I made it relevant to them. Again, the response above was from a small minority.
    I will not be “naming names.” The point of this post was not to either protect or expose a specific company. The point was to discuss an issue.
    I also know the other side of the coin. Beyond my experience on the PR side, I have been a Journalist since the 80s. I still write a business column for both the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun along with a monthly tech column for enRoute Magazine. This was not a mass, untargeted email to individuals I did not know. The point was not to dissect whether the pitch was timely or relevant, the point was to discuss a reaction that infers that some mass media companies are basically accepting some kind of payment for editorial coverage and not disclosing that they do so to their readers.

  16. It disappoints me. What is the alternative? Pay per click will not pay the kind of money that the heydays of CPM paid. With more brands following the new rules of PR, 6 Pixels, you name it, less and less traditional advertising will pour into those banners….Should
    Perhaps the WSJ has it right….

  17. Desperation sometimes drives people to load their own gun without knowing it. Very sad indeed.
    Having said that, my experience was not at all like yours and I wouldn’t want your readers to think your own experience is what necessarily awaits them.
    Early this year, my company, a very tiny bootstrapped startup, launched some pretty innovative online tools for a major music festival. It was compelling story because it was good news, a rarity last spring, but it also grabbed attention because of our use of social media. I pushed hard for media coverage and was rewarded with great t.v., radio and newspaper coverage. Not once did I get any hint of payola or “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine”.
    Of course, it could very well be that the trend is towards your experience which is disturbing indeed.
    Really looking forward to your book! I’ll write ten comments on your blog for every free signed and hand delivered copy of your book. Thanks in advance πŸ™‚

  18. Mitch, sadly this happens all the time. It’s happened to me twice in the past three months. Think about a public relations professional like me who spend hours finding just the right angle for a product or new business, only to be patronized by a reporter who blatantly suggests that I buy an ad. Or who loves the story idea (because his readers would love to know about it) but then calls me back to say that his “editors” have an even better idea…buy an ad. I hope everyone out there has a better idea of the obstacles we PR professionals have to get through to pitch a reporter.

  19. I suspect this regression of ethics has something to do with how so many MSM outlets are losing revenues year after year because of competition from the new media. I guess they don’t realize that their cannibalizing themselves, though, and that as the practice becomes the rule rather than the exception, the public is going to trust their content less and less, and see it as less authoritative. And at that point, the only thinking separating them from all the alleged bottom-feeding-bloggers is the longevity of their brand — and, of course, that the bloggers might very well have more eyeballs.

  20. Mitch:
    It seems to me that it used to work the other way. For example, say I was trying to get coverage for something and offered a journalist that we’d buy advertising if they’d write about me. There was a day they would be offended at my suggestion that they have such little integrity that they’d accept that offer.
    It seems now that the bloggers of the world have that level of integrity – i.e. they disclose even the slightest connection to the product they are reviewing. I think these journalists could learn something by spending time in the blogosphere…

  21. Mitch, this games has been played for years. And I hate to admit it, but I played in the sandbox with them. When I had news, I’d be sure to share it with my ad sales person so that they would put the pressure on the editorial team to run it. And in truth, I am not so sure there was much pressure or duress…
    The notion that there’s a separation of “church & state” when it comes to editorial/advertising is a misnomer.
    The other issue is when the editorial staff gives a good advertiser 5 questions to answer for a story and runs the answers as is. That’s not journalism that just a free ad.
    At the end of the day what amazes me is that organizations still play these games. Why not just set up a blog with your own ads on it…it basically equates to the same thing. Or am I being too snarky?
    Thanks for bringing up the issue Mitch and sorry to hear that your earnest efforts at media/blogger relations turned out this way.
    Looking forward to the book!
    Beth Harte
    Community Manager, MarketingProfs

  22. Mitch we be doing this for years at you know where.
    The only difference today from yesterday is that it use to be you bought someone lunch and told them your idea/story they said thanks for the lunch and it was a go. Now you have to take the whole company out for lunch – nothing new here.
    The rules have changed is all. If you just took the one person out for lunch that would be payola but if you take the whole company out for lunch the laws and rules of the industry say that’s ok.
    Gone are the days of payola between the music director and the band. Now the CEO and all the owners/management want a piece of that lunch and by asking that everyone gets lunch this to them makes if not payola anymore and it’s “just business”.

  23. Naming names? That’s a good idea if you want to get *blacklisted*. (Whoa. Did I just had a McCarthy-era flashback?)
    In all seriousness, we all have to do our best to play the game ethically. Mitch uses the term “payola”, which is particularly sensitive to someone like me who works within the music industry. It rings true. It happens every day. And it is very disturbing.
    As the CEO of a vertical ad network, I’ve had clients twist my arm for editorial coverage in exchange for an ad buy. But that’s why my company exists, so that my publishers have a buffer between them and advertisers that want to influence their coverage.
    But that’s how it works. It doesn’t bother me much given that misinformation within the press is far more of a concern to me on the whole. A bit of payola here or there seems mainly a way to pad the coffers or get a few extra perks. I can live with that, but I sure as hell won’t practice it myself by propagating the problem.

  24. I also wonder if this is a case of your notoriety working against you. You’re more of a known quantity than many other social media “thought leaders,” so the outlets you approached may have seen this as the equivalent of a request for free advertising by a brand that should be able to afford to buy it outright.
    That said, it doesn’t excuse them from offering you a behind-the-scenes chance to buy coverage. Perhaps what all sites that conduct reviews need is a public policy on how to submit materials for review and what kind of coverage can be reasonably expected with or without an accompanying ad buy. Transparency, like condoms, only work when used.

  25. What’s shocking is that more of the comments I just read weren’t shocked about this! I guess I’m from the old school where there was a separation of “Church and State” advertising and editorial departments in media outlets. To have them conspiring together really suggests that the news we are getting is not objective, unbiased, true news but nicely packaged sanitized information probably from PR flacks. Don’t get me wrong there is a role in today’s world for reputable PR folks who assist in the delivery of real news. But to demand some sort of payment to cover a story is just simply a form of payola. And something we all should not only be shocked about but we should do something about it.
    Let’s be like that crazed TV news anchor in the famous movie “Network” who decided it was about time to not take this crap anymore and suggested to his audience that they stick their heads out their windows and scream, “I’m fed up with this and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Maybe not though…the anchor man in the movie was shot dead during one of his broadcasts. Keep your heads down guys!

  26. This happened to me yesterday. Upon pitching a highly regarded retail trade publication, I arranged an interview with an “editor” and my client. Immediately into the call, said editor asked for a list of their suppliers and vendors to contact to purchase advertising surrounding my client’s placement. I was infuriated.
    Not only did they waste my time, but my client’s time, thus making me look bad.
    Where has journalistic integrity went?

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