[I'm sure I don't need to say it, but just in case: This article represents my personal viewpoints alone, not the viewpoints of Peter Sciretta, slashfilm.com, or anything/one related to it]
Yesterday /Film published an article written by me about the works of Sam Mendes. It wasn't my best article but in it, I shared some of my honest thoughts on Mendes' career. At the beginning of the post was the following bit of text: “This post is sponsored by Focus Features - See Sam Mendes’ new movie Away We Go in Theaters Now!”
This prompted dramatic accusations that we at /Film had compromised our journalistic integrity, that we were sellouts and on the take. All over Twitter and in the comments section of slashfilm.com, people dragged our name through the mud, many of them without knowing the circumstances behind the creation of that post. The article prompted this post (again by me) in which we issued clarifications about our editorial guidelines for the site. Still, this was insufficient for many, as film journalists/bloggers continued to call for our blood, and many commenters said they would stop reading us altogether.
This incident disturbed me deeply for a number of reasons. Before I get to that though, let's start with some basic principles and facts. I understand the necessity for there to be a clear dividing line between editorial and advertising. If people don't know the difference between an opinion that is genuine and an opinion that is paid for, then there is no way for people to trust the site.
The specifics of what the post was have already been covered: It was not an article in exchange for money, but a "value add" as part of an advertising campaign/package that our ad network, Gorilla Nation, shopped to Focus Features (who were not made aware of the final form the article could take). The only reason we agreed to do the article is because we would retain full editorial control and because it's an article we would have run anyway (it's similar to other pieces I've written for the site in the past, done of my own free will and without any prompting). I would, of course, be free to express my feelings on Sam Mendes, a director on whose films I am decidely mixed on. For those reasons, we did not feel it would compromise our editorial integrity. As a matter of fact, such "value add" articles are commonplace in our industry and have run on many sites you probably read (some of whom were among our accusers), including slashfilm.com, before without much of a fuss (although these articles usually do not disclose the fact they were sponsored).
For some reason, yesterday was the day that people decided to take a stand on the issue.
A lot of our readers might not realize when they're reading through pages and pages of completely free and amusing content that /Film is a blog but it's also a business. The economic implications of the situation are simple: /Film is able to function, pay for servers, pay for writers etc. because of advertising on the site. And sites like ours are hurting all over the internet. Ad dollars are drying up everywhere due to the economic recession, but for an industry like ours, which provides an "elastic" product (i.e. movie reviews and opinions, which you can literally find millions all over the internet) the situation is far worse. Many of your favorite film sites (i.e. independent ones that aren't venture funded, or that aren't subsidiaries of a large corporation) are struggling to stay alive and are having an increasingly difficult time paying writers at all, not to mention paying them a living wage. Obviously, our need for money doesn't obviate the need for ethics, but it's important for readers to understand that many independent film sites only have one source of revenue.
During this period, many parties involved (e.g. movie studios, web site publishers and ad networks) have tried to find creative ways to promote films while still allowing web sites to retain their editorial voices. One of the ways that has become commonly accepted is the studio set visit. Studios will spend thousands of dollars flying out journalists to a film set, with the tacit agreement that the journalist will document the visit, with the article to be published at a specific time. All travel expenses are typically paid for (hotel, airfare, food) and a highly controlled viewing of the film is offered to the journalists. All of it is designed to positively impact one's viewing of the film, but it's still a win-win: Publishers and readers get cool exclusive content, studios get out word of the movie very early, etc. So common is this practice that you never see disclosures such as "This set visit article was sponsored by Paramount Pictures" before a set visit piece.
Another one of the ways they've come up with is articles such as the one I wrote, where the article adds value to the site, while allowing the writer to say whatever the hell they want as long as it's on a topic relating to an upcoming film. In most cases like this, the topic is something that the site would have written on anyway (e.g. Peter nor I would have agreed to write an article about "The Works of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer") and again, editorial control is completely retained. In my mind, this is a win-win-win: The studio gets the coverage they want (which they probably would have gotten anyway organically). The site gets to keep operating. The readers get the unique perspective of the webmaster/blogger, whose attitude towards a film/director is uninfluenced by the advertiser.
The dividing lines between advertising and editorial are those forged by newspapers and similar publications since time immemorial. So my question to everyone trumpeting them is: How well is that working out for them? Newspapers, even ones in major cities, are closing rapidly all over America (Side note: Guess who are the first staff members they fire, on the long, brutal road towards insolvency? Film critics). A combination of sharply declining ad sales, not to mention the rise of the internet (Craigslist is rapidly supplanting classifieds, once a huge source of newspaper income), has presented a double whammy and shut down once-venerable institutions, while causing others to dangle on the precipice.
To be fair, we'd probably recoil at the site of a "sponsored post" in the New York Times. But we also have to face the reality that the current business model for newspapers (where advertising and content are kept entirely separated, and one dare not intrude upon the other) isn't functioning. How can we reconcile these two competing thoughts?
Just yesterday, Peter Kafka from the Wall Street Journal wrote a depressing piece about how newspapers that hope to survive will need to trim down staff and content dramatically. With few exceptions, as a business model, the modern American newspaper just isn't functional. Newspapers like the New York Times operate at a loss of millions of dollars; a bunch of bi-weekly auto ads simply can't fund a team of reporters to visit Iran for very much longer.
But even newspapers have more options than film websites, for at least 2 reasons: 1) Newspapers provide what is perceived to be a public good or service, in the sense that the reporting they do is seen by many to be good for society and Democracy, and 2) Partially as a result of #1, they have monetization options we can't even dream of (e.g. subscription models, micro-transactions, etc. Also, they have a physical product they can sell). Try charging content for money on a film blog and see how many seconds it takes before people move on to another site that is completely free of charge.
So, if the journalistic paradigms which everyone would like to adhere to in an ideal world simply aren't realistic (in light of the requirements of running a film site as a business), we have two options: 1) die, or 2) try to adapt. I'm not saying we should accept every offer of money that comes our way. We should never allow our views to be altered by advertiser or studio money. But isn't it incumbent upon us, for the sake of our survival, to explore ways we can monetize our content without compromising our integrity? Isn't it incumbent upon us to at least have an in-depth discussion about it before deciding what's right and what's wrong?
The past 10 years have shown, dramatically, that those who survive are the ones who are able to find ways to adapt to the changing times without compromising their editorial integrity. Those who survive are the ones that are able to find new ways to monetize while still retaining their readers' trust. I agree with the gist of what people are saying: You don't survive by selling your soul. But you also don't survive by remaining rigidly unadaptable to the realities of the economy. Surely a balance must be struck?
So I ask a simple question then: Is doing one "sponsored post" every few months really a stunning indictment of our journalistic integrity? Apparently, it's pretty easy for most people to answer that question by saying "yes." But consider the following: /Film produces somewhere on the range of 6,000-7,000 features/news/reviews/column posts per year. As a reader and a fan of /Film, let's say you could choose between the following two scenarios:
1) /Film produces 6,000-7,000 articles and 4 sponsored posts per year ("Sponsored" in the way I describe above, where the topic is something we normally cover, complete editorial control is retained, etc.).
2) /Film produces 6,000-7,000 articles and 0 sponsored posts per year. But as a result, we need to lay off 3 writers. Or shut down the /Filmcast. Or cut that down to 4,000 articles per year. Or otherwise dramatically compromise the quantity/quality of the content we put out.
What would our readers really choose? I honestly want to know. Ultimately, this is a discussion we'll eventually need to have with /Film's readers (maybe sooner rather than later), as we care more about their thoughts on the matter than what competing blogs, who don't have to deal with /Film as a business, have to say. It's a discussion worth having, and it deserves more than a /Film Disqus comment, or a 140-character Twitter message.
[It was suggested to me by a film webmaster who was highly critical of us yesterday that one of the things we did wrong was that we did not have some sort of weekly established column [e.g. "The Works of (Director),]" and that had we done this, we could have just had that column be "sponsored" one week and avoided the appearance of impropriety. I did not understand this argument at all, as it's basically exactly what we did, only /Film is not so organized as to have a plethora of weekly columns (though we do write features/columns on topics that interest us).
But the idea that one of those is okay (weekly column idea) and one is not (what we did)...ethically, the dividing line between those two is so spurious as to be non-existent in my opinion. I bring up this example not to call out said colleague, but because I think that the line between what's right and what's not in the film blogging/journalism/website world is pretty hazy at best, which makes me further question the voracity of the response to our article.]
The most disappointing thing about yesterday was not people responding negatively to our post. It was the complete and utter lack of ability to have a reasoned, informed discussion about the economic realities of the situation. I blame part of this on Twitter, which distills remarks down to soundbytes, where the priority is not on coming up with the most informed remarks, but on the most witty and memorable. And when people think a news site is on the take, people can be very witty and memorable indeed.
There was no "Hey, what happened here?" Instead, people got out the torches and pitchforks and shouted "KILL, KILL, KILL."
Perhaps most hurtful: People who I thought I respected, people who I thought were my colleagues, when presented with a partial construction of the facts, chose not to speak with us in private and talk with us about their concerns (as I would have done for them), but to assume the worst about us and to publicly denounce us.
In a world where sites left and right are struggling to stay alive, the idea that we (all of whom do the same thing for a living) can't even sit down at the table and have a civil talk about how we're going to keep doing what we love and get paid for it...that's incredibly disturbing.
When me and my colleagues started the podcast in January 2008, I proceeded from a very simple premise: Anyone can talk passionately about movies. I don't think any other film podcasts has had as many guests as we've had in the year and half we've been in existence. And I always wanted our podcast to show that despite what squabbles people might have about how to run their sites, in the end, it's all about loving movies, and the bond and camaraderie that can extend from that.
But the one thing that yesterday taught me is not how to better operate a film site. It's that in the film blogger/journalism world, there is no friendship. There is no loyalty. There's no civility. There's just a wave of unstoppable, unreasonable animosity.
If there's one thing I'm grateful for, it's people willing to have a conversation about the matter instead of jumping at our throat. It's the people that actually sent me a message or an e-mail or gave me a phone call and said "Hey Dave, what's up with this?" allowing us to have a civil discussion BEFORE ripping my head off. And of course, the people that understand that in order to keep contributing to filmic discourse, in order to keep having a microphone, you need to find a way to pay the bills without selling your soul.
We thought we were able to successfully do this with the Sam Mendes article. Obviously, a lot of people disagreed.
So after all this, what is ethical to do on a film site? Is a set visit ethical? Junket coverage? A sponsored post? More importantly, once we've established what's ethical or not, can we literally afford to continue functioning while following those guidelines? And if not, what can we do?
I wrote this blog because I hope to start a discussion (not a shouting match) about how blogs can stay alive, about what constitutes acceptable behavior in the blogosphere, and why exactly the rules are the way they are. More importantly: Is it realistic to be able to continue running these sites as businesses, given these journalistic rules that people have coalesced around? I'm sure people reading this have criticisms AND agreements with what I wrote. Can we have a public conversation about it? Your (civil) comments are welcome below and I look forward to joining you. I'm also happy to link to any blog responses to this post. No links to Twitter responses though...