PC World provides a lesson about editorial independence

For people who aren’t in the publishing trade, it’s easy to build elaborate conspiracy theories about the role of advertisers in editorial decisions. I’ve seen enough letters and online comments to know that some readers believe that reviews and news articles in technical publications are influenced by how many ads the subject of the story agrees to buy.

That’s why, for a professional journalist, this is one of the ugliest stories imaginable:

PC World editor resigns over apparent ad pressure

Award-winning Editor-in-Chief Harry McCracken of PC World resigned Tuesday over disagreements with the magazine’s publisher regarding stories critical of advertisers, according to sources.

McCracken, reached Wednesday evening, confirmed that he resigned after 12 years at the magazine and 16 years at publisher International Data Group, over disagreements with management. He declined to comment on the nature of those disagreements.

But three sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told CNET News.com that McCracken informed staffers in an afternoon meeting Wednesday that he decided to resign because Colin Crawford, senior vice president, online, at IDG Communications, was pressuring him to avoid stories that were critical of major advertisers.

Wired News reported Wednesday evening that McCracken quit after Crawford killed a draft story titled “Ten Things We Hate About Apple.”

I’ve exchanged e-mail with Harry in the past and we’ve met briefly a couple times at trade shows, most recently at CES this year. He’s a smart guy with excellent editorial instincts. I know a lot of people, directly or indirectly, who worked for Harry, and every one, without exception, speaks highly of him as a person and a professional journalist.

Thankfully, the wall between the advertising side of the house and the publishing side has been solid at every publishing house I ever worked for. My professional credits include 25 years as a magazine editor, including a stint in the late 1980s as managing editor of PC World (before Harry’s tenure) and a decade at PC Computing from 1991 to 2001, including two years as editor. I worked for more than a dozen publishers, none of whom were shy and all of whom cared about the bottom line. Never was I pressured to write a story, change a story, or spike a story for any reason except those directly related to the story itself and whether it was right for readers. I never had a single word in a story changed because someone thought it would offend an advertiser. Not once.

Oh, I had to make plenty of visits to advertisers after writing stories that were critical of the companies or their products. My role in those meetings was to listen to feedback (translation: get yelled at) and provide additional context (translation: try not to yell back). Often, those meetings started out tense but turned into valuable discussions where both sides learned something. Smart publishers know that readers love independent editors. Advertisers know that an honest review is worth many times more than one that’s bought and paid for. And readers know the difference.

Ten years ago this sort of story would have appeared in a trade magazine for publishers and editors, and most readers would never have heard about it. In the online era, the story is out in a matter of hours, and it doesn’t make IDG look good. Of course, the spiked story is even more valuable now. Anyone want to take bets on how long it takes before a copy of the story that PC World’s new CEO was trying to suppress, “Ten Things We Hate About Apple,” makes its way onto someone’s blog? I’m betting it’s less than a week.

Harry McCracken can hold his head up high today. IDG, on the other hand, needs to explain why anyone should take any of their publications seriously from now on. Something tells me a lot of editors and writers for PC World and its sister IDG publications are going to be complaining, loudly, about this. They’ve already been through an unspeakable tragedy this year with the murder of Senior Technical Editor Rex Farrance, and this incident adds professional insult to that horrifying injury.

Ironically, Harry’s apparently final blog entry at PC World says, “PC World magazine isn’t going anywhere.” He meant that it wasn’t about to cease its print version, like sister publication InfoWorld recently did. But those words have a different meaning today.

More reactions from Peter Rojas and Ryan Block of Engadget, and from Kim Zetter at the Wired Blog Network.

More reactions: Jack Schofield at the Guardian says the trail leads to Steve Jobs. And Angela Gunn at USA Today speaks for most journalists I know when she says: “Anyone who’s ever even suggested I be ‘nice’ to a vendor has gotten laughed at and ignored, but after this I’m thinking of upgrading to spitting.”

14 thoughts on “PC World provides a lesson about editorial independence

  1. My experiences are similar to yours, Ed. Suspicious minds in the public think this kind of ad-edit trading is going on all the time, but it never did where I worked. If Crawford killed a story on the edit calendar, then he definitely crossed the line.

  2. You said: …”And readers know the difference.”

    It would be nice to think so, but most of the time this isn’t true. Readers mostly believe what they read. If they didn’t, managers would never attempt this kind of thing. We live in an age when more and more content is sponsored by someone and it’s harder and harder to do real journalism at a large media corporation. This fact is well documented and not based on conspiracy theories. Your personal experiences not withstanding, advertisers and political influencers have a lot more clout and say in what we read than you are letting on. Even the recent firing of Don Imus (good riddance) was driven by advertiser pressure and not because his bosses were taking a principled editorial stand.

    Like it or not, money really does make the world (or at least America) go ’round.

  3. I agree that this is the exception, and a very gross sort of exception, rather than the rule. One of the publishers of a magazine I once worked for was implicated in a scandal where he tried to artificially inflate his sales figures by trying to pay someone to take “dumped” copies of a given issue. The guy in question turned out to be with the FBI.

  4. Jojo, have you worked in publishing? It’s easy to say what you’re saying from the outside, but from the inside, it looks very different. Maybe things are different today, and I agree that the influence of large corporations on the news industry is a worrisome trend. But your implication that I am somehow holding back (“advertisers … have a lot more clout … than you are letting on”) is just wrong. You realize you’ve stopped just short of calling me a liar and a sell-out?

  5. Hey Ed. You know I love your blog, but I think you may have gone too far in saying “IDG, on the other hand, needs to explain why anyone should take any of their publications seriously from now on.”

    As an ex-IDG’er yourself, surely you know how independent all of our publications are here and how seriously all of the editors and writers at IDG take our mission.

    Taking an incident at one publication in any large media company and using it to draw conclusions about sister publications is a risky business. It’s especially dangerous when you’re talking about a company like IDG, where publications pride themselves on independence, and the parent company encourages that independence.

    I’m not saying anything one way or the other about what happened at PC World. But using this incident — which has yet to be fully reported — as a brush to paint all IDG publications as somehow suspect or not serious is insulting to the hundreds of professionals working at PC World and the other IDG publications. Enough said.

    Paul F. Roberts
    Senior Editor, InfoWorld

  6. Paul, I appreciate what you’re saying, but I stand by what I said. The key part of that sentence is this: “IDG needs to explain…” This story is well reported, with confirmations from multiple sources. So if the story is wrong, IDG needs to explain that. If the story is correct, IDG needs to explain why it can’t happen at your publication or Computerworld or Redmond Mag or somewhere else in the IDG empire and what steps they’re taking to make sure it doesn’t happen again at PC World.

    This sort of activity is toxic. Stonewalling is not an option, and hoping it will go away isn’t an option either.

  7. Just to add this thought: When a very well respected editor resigns with no notice and cites “disagreements with management” as the cause, I think anyone is justified in drawing negative inferences. So I repeat: IDG has some explaining to do.

  8. Ed, I am in no way saying or implying that you are a liar or a sellout. My opinion of you is just the opposite. My apologies for a poor choice of words.

    My point was that your personal good anecdotal experiences don’t encompass what is happening in corporate owned media today. Anecdotal evidence can only take you so far, and it isn’t very far. That is not meant to be an aspersion on your integrity, nor is it even meant to be about you. Again, sorry for wording it so poorly.

    Bill Moyer recently did a show about the way journalists were influenced by the administration during the run-up to the Iraq war. The influence of corporate managers in the newsroom is a topic Dan Rather, among others, has been vocal about for a while. The Imus incident I referenced is another example. As I’m sure you are aware, the list goes on.

    There are undoubtedly plenty of people like you and your peers who maintain high standards of journalistic integrity. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of people who don’t. Numerous blogs and shows like The Daily Show have seized upon the gaping hole created by that latter set.

  9. This is exactly why I trust certain blogs more than traditional media — on any type of news, tech, political, science, etc. It’s what doesn’t get published that is disturbing. With a blog, there is no external pressure to lie or avoid criticism, nor is there any motivation — the reporting stands and falls on its own merits, i.e., the facts.

  10. Thanks, Jojo. I winced when I reread my words, and I’m glad you clarified.

    For what it’s worth, Bill Moyers is a hero of mine, and I am grateful he’s on TV again.

    The thing that pisses me off more than anything about this incident is that it reflects badly on my profession and leads to the belief that “everyone does it” when that is most assuredly not true. I have no doubt this crap goes on, but it doesn’t go on around me. I’m happy to say that te folks at ZDNet have never asked me to change a word or expressed any unhappiness over anything I’ve written, even when I’ve been harshly critical of companies and products that are advertised on their site.

  11. In response to Mr. Roberts in #5 above, two issues should be distinguished. He’s right that this one incident doesn’t give sufficient information to generalize about all IDG publications or to conclude that independence is often violated in their publications. There’s a different issue, though, one that consumers legitimately focus on. I don’t need sufficient evidence to draw the conclusion Mr. Roberts questions in order to have enough information to refuse to spend money on IDG publications. People rationally avoid forever places where they get food sickness, independently of any felt need to figure out what their risks are of getting it again at the same place. Practical rationality dances to a different tune than theoretical rationality.

    And attempting to respond on behalf of IDG in this way (by identifying oneself as a senior editor for InfoWorld) only makes IDG look worse. The only legitimate response is to rebut the charges themselves or fire the jerk responsible for the pressure.

  12. I’ve been a long-time subsciber to PC World, because I thought they would tell-it-like-it-is, at least most of the time. And I also liked the good humor that was present in the articles. At this point, though, I am seriously questioning whether I want to even keep my current subscription. I’ll have to see how this nutcase treats the rest of the people on staff.

  13. I’ve deleted two off-topic posts and will delete any others that try to hijack this comments thread and turn it into a political discussion.

    If you don’t like it, go start your own blog.

Comments are closed.