[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 i