What I learned doing ethics with Billboard Magazine and The Hollywood Reporter

Working with organizations steeped in complicated and competing values is messy. But getting my hands dirty makes my ethical reasoning sharper.

May 29, 2020
Category: Ethics & Trust

In the late spring of 2018, Billboard Magazine dealt with a problem that confounds a lot of newsrooms. A record company executive was pressuring Billboard to remove an embarrassing story from its website. The news team balked. But Billboard executive John Amato, who was pals with the record company guy, made it happen.

Such questions, and frankly a lot worse, have tripped up Billboard and its sister publication The Hollywood Reporter over the years. Billboard’s famous “popularity” charts, originally based on verbal reports of sales by record store managers, were notoriously vulnerable to manipulation. In the 1950s, THR played a contemptible role in the hunt for communists in Hollywood. The truth is, the roadways for many trade and specialty publications are often more cluttered with conflicts than some other journalistic realms.

Amato resigned after the content removal was exposed by other media organizations. A short time later, the relatively new owners of The Hollywood Reporter and Billboard contacted Poynter and hired me to advise them on journalism ethics. Poynter has done this type of work for decades, and I have played somewhat comparable roles at ESPN, Newsweek, and now as public editor for NPR.

My first task at THR and Billboard was to do some reporting about past practices, newsroom culture and the journalistic mission of the publications. I started like I always do, talking with senior leaders, reporters and editors, as well as some of the less experienced staff in charge of the less glamorous work.

I found that everyone in both newsrooms was motivated to do journalism with integrity and impact. But they were inconsistent when they described their own standards and internal expectations. No written ethics policy existed. Their guideposts on questions like when and how to use anonymous sources, when to report on rumors and how to deal with internal conflicts of interest all existed in a state of common law.

Human nature being what it is, most every journalist in both newsrooms thought they could be guided by their gut if issues came up. But when there was disagreement, the loudest voice in the room often won the day. There was also an occasional gap between the rules they professed to follow and their actual practices. And, not unusually, there was considerable wariness between the new publishers and the longtime journalists.

Those new publishers are Asif Satchu and Modi Wiczyk, buddies since their days at Harvard. They are Hollywood entrepreneurs who saw business opportunities in the esteemed brands, but admitted they had no real idea of how the journalism should work.

As an ethics consultant for nearly 20 years, the next steps were clear: get people talking to each other, and help them develop — and write down — some basic principles. Over the next 18 months, both The Hollywood Reporter and Billboard would make progress, and they would make missteps. (My engagement with the publications continues, and most of the work is confidential. But the owners were comfortable with me sharing some lessons of the work so far.)

When Hannah Karp took over the editorial director’s job at Billboard, she was eager to bring integrity and order to the opaque process of creating so-called influencer lists. She had inherited a process that had evolved over time under a variety of pressures. (For instance, should advertisers be included? Should they be disqualified?) When she called for advice, I didn’t have clear answers. But I did have a lot of questions. How do you make the lists? Why do you make the lists? How does the audience know if it’s a good list?

By listening to her staff’s expertise and articulating their own internal process with clarity, she debuted a new Power 100 List this year. For the first time, it was accompanied by a clear and detailed explanation of how and why the changes were made.

When Ariana Grande was named Billboard’s 2018 woman of the year, she really wanted to see the images from a cover photo shoot. Grande’s representative called Wiczyk asking for him to intervene. Wiczyk called me asking, “Is there any way I can make them happy?” My answer was no. In the end, after the story had gone to press and therefore could not be influenced, they shared the photo, a move allowed for in the guidelines we wrote. Also a standard that many of their competitors don’t adhere to.

When The Hollywood Reporter set out to publish a cover story in October 2019 on the South Korean boy band BTS, they assigned a writer who (later) admitted he didn’t have a lot of knowledge or appreciation for K-pop. Apparently neither did THR’s editors. (I learned recently that the freelancer who THR editors wanted to assign was unavailable, so they chose a versatile staff member who has written about other subcultures.) A fan uprising called out THR for the cringeworthy piece, including a number of distortions, cultural insensitivities and general abuse of white privilege. As the criticism mounted, the writer lashed out on Twitter.

With no social media guidelines in place, it wasn’t clear whether the magazine had an obligation to explain their choice of writers, if the writer’s battle with critics on Twitter was an official response by the publishers, or if the tweets were simply a defiant journalist out on his/her own limb. (Certainly, that’s a dilemma that news organizations everywhere are confronting).

Of course, this is a news company that for years also has been recognized and admired for its investigative muscle. THR has brought down more than a few Hollywood executives over the years, most recently Warner Brothers studio chief Kevin Tsujihara and Amazon programming chief Roy Price.

And Billboard was part of the vanguard of reporting the controversy surrounding Recording Academy president and CEO Deborah Dugan.

Last month, in a move that understandably caught the eyes of the entertainment press, the owners parted ways with a popular THR editor and named well-respected journalist Nekesa Mumbi Moody of the Associated Press as the new editor. Some inside the company and a few longtime watchers of THR and Billboard say the leadership changes are another sign that the new publishers are still not on strong ethical footing. Those accounts cited tensions between management and the newsrooms over particular stories, though the freshest of those examples were months old.

As their paid consultant, I’m obviously not a disinterested party, though my value (or that of any ethicist) is to give them my honest advice and help them understand the industry’s best practices. I have found them sincere, open to new approaches. The company’s biggest challenge still lies ahead, growing a new business model as advertising dollars dwindle.

What’s more, they are not alone. So here are some fresh takeaways from front lines of journalism ethics, through the experiences of The Hollywood Reporter and Billboard Magazine.

Many media owners are novices when it comes to journalism. News organizations change owners frequently. News owners these days range from well-intentioned novices to massive corporations to hedge funds squeezing the life from their properties. I would put Wiczyk and Satchu in the first category.

Poynter has been part of the Table Stakes Project, funded by the Knight Foundation, where for four years major metropolitan daily newspapers, mid- and small-market newsrooms, television stations, public radio stations and nonprofit startups have brought together business teams and editorial teams to solve the problem of declining revenue. It’s a long, hard slog with slow and intermittent success.

It’s been slower going than I imagined for the Harvard MBAs that own Billboard and THR’s parent company, MRC. They pride themselves on disrupting the TV and film industry. I thought they might have come to this business with more definite ideas about changing the business strategies around their editorial products. Although they have some exciting and untested ideas, they’re just like all the other well-intentioned media owners I’ve met. Big ideas. A somewhat high tolerance for risk. No magic bullet.

Asking for ethics advice doesn’t make you unethical. But not asking makes things a lot worse. Given this history, and the somewhat tumultuous change of leadership, many have suggested that ethics consultation is a phony cover. I’ve heard that before when I’ve done work at big companies like ESPN. Seems like a no-win question and it reminds me to focus on the circumstances ahead.

Journalism is often the most ethical when it’s precise. So here’s the reality: Over several months we drafted a solid ethics policy that any newsroom would be proud to embrace. Before this there was no policy. That said: It remains hard work, the policy has yet to be finalized, and nothing has been made public. I expect more movement on this with new editorial leadership.

With the pressure of finding new revenue streams to support journalism, conflicts of interest are getting messier. Consider the growing “events” business (well, at least before the pandemic). It was a prize-winning journalist from one of the most decorated newsrooms in the country who told me that when you get on stage at a sponsored event, your values as a journalist shift.

And yet the journalists at Billboard and THR have been skillfully navigating that conflict of interest for years and could teach newsrooms new to the game both how to make money and maintain integrity. Their events often grow out of the pop culture lists. The lists are created with the events in mind. And it all has value because the brand represents the expertise of the journalists. But convincing sponsors to provide money without specific editorial control remains a key challenge.

All journalists are working for organizations that are looking for new ways to bring in revenue because the old ones are in decline. Whether it’s affiliate linking, nonprofit fundraising, sponsored content, events or premium products, there are going to be more pressures on newsrooms to be open to new forms of presentation, and more pressure on publishers to be clear with advertisers and sponsors that their money is betters spent on gaining new audiences with independent, honest content.

Within companies, business/revenue leaders and newsroom leaders must communicate heavily and work together. That doesn’t mean abandoning values. As the business strategy evolves, so must the editorial strategy.

Local newspapers realized this years ago. As they have shifted from advertising revenue to reader revenue they discovered that editorial strategy must include content that has a wider appeal to digital subscribers than some traditional journalism. Similarly, salespeople should be selling independence and credibility, not soft, uncontroversial news that they (misguidedly) think people will prefer to pay for.

Working these tensions out means communication. It also requires a process for those conversations. That’s the question I ask at the beginning of every ethics engagement: What’s your process for sorting out these questions? That’s been a dawning reality at THR, moving a little faster at Billboard. Given the business that these particular owners are in, there is understandable skepticism.

And yet, there is no future without revenue. Managing this transition is clearly an ethical challenge. But not making the transition is not an option.

These issues are messy, which make me more effective as an ethicist. When I stand in front of a group of journalists from 30 different organizations, I have to equip them all with the tools they need to make ethical decisions, whether they work for a newsroom with a written policy and competent leaders or a startup that was created five minutes ago by a movie star or an athlete.

Working with an organization steeped in complicated and competing values is messy. And sanctimony, from any of those involved, is rarely effective. Rolling up my sleeves and getting my hands dirty makes my teaching stronger and ethical reasoning sharper.

Kelly McBride is Poynter’s senior vice president and the chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at Poynter. She can be reached at kmcbride@poynter.org or on Twitter at @kellymcb.