The Cost of Free Copy
There is no such thing as a free editorial lunch.
Free copy can flow into a magazine through any of three sources—PR agencies, guest contributors or columnists, and, lately, bloggers on the Web site. In an age of tight budgets and editorial overload, any no-cost copy may seem like a godsend to editors, but there is often a hidden price to pay.
For one thing, none of these sources create real journalism. Magazine news writing is based upon interviewing, asking questions—often impertinent—and reporting back to an audience that assumes you are accurate and fair in your assessments. You don’t get that in a press release. Instead, you get pseudo journalism. PR employees are often extensions of an ad agency using journalism-like tools and formats to sell a product or a message.
PR firms are very good at what they do. “Enclosed please find a press release about a new product that we hope you will find suitable for editorial coverage,” a PR firm announced to a b-to-b editor I have known for 15 years. “We are sending you this in anticipation of seeing how well it pulls in terms of inquiries because our client will soon be making an advertising schedule for next year and we want to see how well the product performs in your pages.”
“Not a very sophisticated approach,” said my colleague, “but not an uncommon one these days either.” He tossed the release, but an editor who is ethically challenged might take the lure. Free copy nearly always includes an unspoken quid pro quo arrangement. In some offices editorial integrity is a spoof as magazines play favorites and lazy writers put bylines on press releases.
Guest contributors and columnists are usually professionals in their fields, but they are not professional journalists. (Present company excepted, of course.) Free copy from these sources can be self-serving and promotional. James Cramer, the popular financial guru (and TV wildman), was a hedge-fund manager in the ‘90s, and president of the investment firm Cramer & Co., when he wrote a personal finance column for SmartMoney. In one column devoted to stocks he favored, he was accused of using his column to generate profits because he bought at least one of his favored stocks after he wrote about them, but before the column was published.
On the Internet, as we know, everyone is a journalist. According to a July 2008 Pew Internet study, about one-third of the 12 million bloggers in the U.S. consider blogging to be a form of journalism. “If you add everyone abroad, and everyone who practices other forms of Web journalism, the profession must have increased in size a thousandfold over the last decade,” observed Nicholas Lemann in The New Yorker earlier this year. “Millions of Americans who were once in awe of the punditocracy now realize that anyone can do this stuff—and that many unknowns can do it better than the lords of the profession,” writes the operator of a blog called Instapundit. With bloggers the free copy that you usually get from self-absorbed contributors is pure opinion laced with information of uncertain origin; much of it has appeared elsewhere.
Given the editorial risks of free copy, the old maxim would seem to apply: you get what you pay for. The key to success is a strong editorial product, one that caters to the readers’ sense of self-interest.
Ultimately, the question that readers ask of a magazine is, “What’s in it for ME?” If there is no inherent editorial value—just press release or promotional copy that is being run to buttress ads—you will lose that reader, and advertisers are the first to abandon a sinking editorial ship.
Magazines today are in an editorial footrace to compete with other information retrieval and delivery systems. It is a race that will go to the source perceived as having the greatest credibility. The very survival of magazines as we know them is dependent on their being perceived as having value to the reader. If that value isn’t there, a magazine is at risk.
Free copy may be a short-term solution, but a long-term problem. Paying for copy is invigorating to editorial integrity, which can be the right call for purely commercial reasons. It has market value.
John Brady is visiting professional at the Scripps School of Journalism, Ohio University. He is a partner at Brady & Paul Communications, a publishing consultancy, and conducts editorial workshops for professionals. For information on his Interviewer’s Handbook: A Guerrilla Guide for Reporters and Writers, his Web site is johnbrady.info, or you can e-mail him at Bradybrady@aol.com.