By: Jon Lavietes, Senior Associate
Of all the changes declining revenue has wrought on the journalism industry, one of the most impactful has been the rise of contributor networks. In order to compensate for the shrinking staffs that are a byproduct of dwindling budgets, major outlets like Forbes, Inc., Entrepreneur and IDG News Service have used their brand names to recruit hundreds of freelance journalists, CEOs, industry experts and other thought leaders to host columns that are usually centered around one or more consistent themes.
These contributor networks are mostly a godsend for PR pros as they open up new opportunities to earn clients exposure to thousands of readers of these reputable news sources. And, yes, some of our clients past and present have benefitted from them. At a time where reporters have to broaden their coverage areas to absorb assignments that would have been spread over two or three staffers two decades ago, columnists in these networks can specialize in something as broad as branding or as specific as the business of marijuana. This can come especially handy for a startup, SME or other entity that has to compete extra hard against the Global 100 for the attention of full-time writers at top-tier business publications.
But that doesn’t mean these networks don’t have their downsides. Yes, it is great to have so many new avenues for coverage, but on the flip side a good argument can be made that the sheer volume of writers has lowered the bar for entry to these storied outlets, thereby diluting their brand value. Moreover, it seems that these publications essentially pit these columnists against each other to compete for shares, retweets and followers. Thus, the pieces that aren’t marketed as well by their authors appear to get buried in the site’s deep recesses.
Intended or not, these networks have had the effect of blurring the line between journalism and marketing. The most extreme cases involve contributors soliciting payments under the table in exchange for linking or mentioning a company in a post. But beyond these rarer instances of malfeasance, contributor networks have spawned offerings and interactions that can fall into grey areas.
For example, Forbes generates revenue through its “Councils,” “CommunityVoice” and “BrandVoice” marketing services, a series of sub-networks centered around a topic, profession, company, geography or other single entity. For $1,400, a qualifying company can become a member of the Forbes Technology Council, for example, and contribute neutral-tone articles to the main council site that do not appear on the Forbes.com homepage. In some respects, this looks like an acceptable pay-for-play that isn’t that much different than an advertorial or sponsored article. However, these pieces aren’t explicitly labeled as sponsored content. The closest thing to a disclaimer is a hyperlink in small text that reads, “What is this?” Scroll over the link and it describes CommunityVoice as a forum for “fee-based membership groups.” Forbes further disguises these posts as legitimate journalism by sprinkling in links to them next to true news articles, features and columns in the results of end-user searches conducted through the main Forbes site and major search engines.
Even regular contributors who do not pay or receive payment for their content have been known to push the ethical envelope. One technology industry analyst regularly takes get-to-know-you meetings with vendors, a core function of his day job, through interactions that begin over a column pitch. To his credit, he usually issues a disclaimer up front that meetings do not guarantee coverage. Sometimes he uses quotes from these briefings in his Forbes pieces, sometimes he doesn’t. In and of itself, this doesn’t patently break any rule of journalism. However, when he follows up with sales pitches for months on end thereafter, one could argue that this dangling of the Forbes carrot to generate leads violates the spirit of these columns.
Moreover, although many of the authors, including several who are not classically trained reporters, take their journalistic duties seriously—setting up briefings with companies that aren’t clients, correcting errors, taking feedback into account, etc.—the level of commitment to upholding true editorial standards varies. Some clearly treat their space as an amplifier of their company blog. Others further cloud the line by constantly featuring their own clients, albeit in a non-promotional way. Those demanding day jobs that earned them a right to write for these outlets often prevent writers from carrying out responsibilities typically expected of a staff writer.
Despite these drawbacks, these contributor networks do significantly more good than harm. Most of these contributors bring tremendous insights. Many are talented and respected journalists that have, voluntarily or involuntarily, moved on from other highly regarded outlets, or they are leaders in their respective fields in the business world. However, these networks are still a work in progress. The next step in their evolution is to raise the bar for acceptance as a contributor, and to increase both the minimum standards for maintaining those blogs and the vigilance with which editorial heads vet them to ensure consistent compliance with editorial policies.