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Developing Honest, Transparent, Ethical Editorial Practices in a Cloudy Age

[Apologies in advance for all the scare quotes here, but so much about this story deserves them.]

Those of us who like to think we’ve got a bead on industry developments have been watching the recent masthead and editorial policy changes at Conde Nast Traveler with (morbid?) interest.

In case you haven’t been following along, here’s a recap: Former CNT editor, Klara Glowczewska, once believed to be “untouchable,” (as in totally safe on her editorial throne) was summarily dismissed in August by “artistic director” Anna Wintour and replaced with Pilar Guzman, formerly the EIC of Martha Stewart Living. Guzman went right to work envisioning a new incarnation of the “stale” brand, eliminating most of the folks on the Glowczewska masthead… presumably because they weren’t “willing to get on the change bandwagon.”

Privately–and not so privately, too–freelancers wondered what the CNT shake-up might mean, not just for themselves (editorial contacts gone, improved/diminished likelihood of getting a foot in the door with new departments, etc.), but for the industry, as it was rumored that Guzman would make some significant policy changes in addition to staffing changes. Under Glowczewska, CNT liked to trumpet its “truth in travel” tagline… meaning that writers on assignment didn’t accept comps of any sort because it might compromise their integrity. In reality, some folks who’ve written for them have willingly told me, off the record, that the “truth in travel” tagline was really–how can I say this?–a crock of shit. Paying $50 a night for a $500+ room at Mandarin Oriental isn’t all that different from accepting a comp, now is it? And it didn’t take a sleuth to surmise that the line between editorial and advertising wasn’t so bright.

So Guzman arrived and said, “To hell with all that fake transparency.” Ok, she didn’t say it like that. What she did say was that it’s sometimes ok for both staff writers and freelancers to accept “preferential media rates” when working on a story.

The reactions, of course, have been laudatory on one side “(Finally! An editor actually admitting that staffers are accepting media rates and/or comps!”) and livid on the other (“This is another nail in the coffin of ‘travel journalism’!”). Unfortunately, it’s news that probably has a limited shelf life. For the most part, the majority of people–even those directly affected–could really care less. Guzman’s “Sure, sometimes we accept media rates” “policy change” is actually a distraction because it’s only partial. It does little, if anything, to elucidate CNT’s overall editorial policies and practices, including when such media rates might be accepted, why, and to what potential effect. In short, while Guzman’s “policy change” seems to be a move toward transparency, it’s really not.

If you know me in person, you’ve likely heard me rant about this issue before; it’s one that I hang onto like a dog with a chew toy because I think it’s an important issue in our industry that most people–publishers and editors in particular–don’t want to address openly or collaboratively. As a result, writers are often in a bind, even when they’ve worked to arrive at their own clear articulation of personal ethical policies. And then, of course, there’s the reader. Does he/she really know/care about how the sausage gets made? Should he/she?

*
Earlier this week, a friend sent a link to an article published by, of all publications, Business Jet Traveler. You’d think (or I would, at least) that a magazine dedicated to “C-level executives, high-net-worth individuals and families who utilize private jets” wouldn’t really preoccupy itself with developing honest, transparent, and ethical editorial policies and practices, but as I poked around the publication’s website, I was surprised to find that someone at the magazine has thought about just these things… and has thought about them a lot.

Rather than cut and paste their policies here and offer my commentary about them, I urge you to visit the website and read them for yourself. The policies are comprehensive yet clear, thorough yet succinct. They’re not necessarily black and white (ie: “We NEVER accept comps or media rates”); they allow room for unique circumstances without being vague or ambivalent. And the policies don’t just reference comps; they cover many other issues that we’d all do well to think more about– and that publications would do well to spend some time addressing in the same thoughtful manner that this magazine has.

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