An inside baseball digression on publishing ethics
Our colleague, Barry Mazor, sent me a link to this discussion following the sad news that Vibe was to close.
If you happen to care about magazines and publishing, it’s an interesting discussion, including as it does Alan Light, who edited at Vibe and started Tracks and such. Toward the bottom of the comments, I chimed in (oddly enough, John Cale’s “Ready For War” is playing on my headphones just now), which is not — mostly — the point I wished to make here.
Well, maybe it is.
See, in the old days, when one talked about journalism and ethics (always a slippery slope in the music business), the way it was written in the textbooks was that editorial and advertising maintained a church/state separation. The nature of online publishing seems to argue that this separation is, what? inconvenient? Unnecessary? So old fashioned as to not even need discussing?
For the record…in the early days of publishing No Depression I took a few plane tickets from record labels. Peter may have, too, but I’ll let him chime in on that. I remember that Atlantic paid for my ticket from Nashville to Los Angeles to interview Victoria Williams and Mark Olson, and that Justice paid for me to fly from Nashville to Texas to conduct the conversation between Waylon Jennings and Billy Joe Shaver, and I still regret not having asked Jennings if he really said, “The man who understands women is one.” We took those tickets because we hadn’t the money to do the job otherwise, and because I retained a hangover from my days with RayGun, where the whole game was to game the system as often as possible for as many free tickets as possible to go anywhere. And I so loathed Los Angeles that I played along.
The defense, both in ND‘s early days and at huH magazine (and RayGun), would theoretically have been that we took the plane tickets (and, sometimes, accommodations) to assist us in doing stories we meant to do anyhow. (And any journalist worth his/her salt will tell you that an in-person interview is better than a faceless phoner. I wonder if they’re doing them by skype or however that’s spelled these days…) In practice, that’s not really how it worked, and I was troubled by that then, and now.
As soon as Peter and I could afford to pay for our own travel on ND‘s behalf, we did. And sometimes we paid for writers to travel, and once or twice for photographers to do their jobs. Because we both believe strongly that our integrity as writers (and publishers) mattered, and because I knew how the knowledge that a label was paying for your travel shaded the story you wrote. Or could shade it. Or, at least, became an obstacle you had to overcome on the way to writing. (Would I have handled the Al Green piece for huH differently had I not been paid to fly both to Memphis and New York for that 15-minute interview? I don’t know.)
That’s not to say there wasn’t some pressure on us to do certain things in print so as to, uh, create an environment friendly to certain kinds of advertisers. We struggled, for example, with music equipment manufacturers, who apparently feel that they should only advertise in magazines willing to “review” their latest offerings. Which wasn’t something Peter and I felt belonged in ND, under any circumstances, and so the ultimate compromise was the conversations we began with session/backing musicians. Which solution I’m still both comfortable with — they were good pieces — and proud of, because it finessed the issue in a way which served our readers.
That’s as close as ND came to that line. Advertising from labels never influenced our editorial decisions; in fact, Peter (who handled rather more of the editing and assigning chores than I typically did) rarely knew even who was advertising in the magazine until 90 percent of the assignments had been made.
So…it’s a brave new world. Content is simply another commodity (ah, Ted Hawkins singing “There Stands The Glass” now…), another part of the commerce one does now to get along in the online world.
Bullshit. As a reader I am incensed by that attitude — and by places like Huffington Post which do not pay their writers, and pretend the exposure they’re getting justifies that (it doesn’t, and that’s a very old dodge publishers have been trying on writers since long before I had a typewriter). Hopefully this age will close quickly. If not…we shall have once again to begin wondering what a free press means in this time and place.