Following reports that firearms industry trade magazine Guns & Ammo yielded to advertiser pressure when it fired a columnist for arguing that Second Amendment rights are subject to regulation, editors at trade magazines that cover other industries are speaking out against such a response, stressing the need for such publications to be independent.
Guns & Ammo fired gun journalist Dick Metcalf after he wrote a piece for the December 2013 edition of the magazine arguing that, "[W]ay too many gun owners still seem to believe that any regulation of the right to keep and bear arms is an infringement. The fact is, all constitutional rights are regulated, always have been, and need to be."
According to The New York Times, Metcalf's column caused two "major gun manufacturers" to threaten to pull advertising support from Guns & Ammo publisher Intermedia Outdoors (IMO) if Metcalf wasn't fired. (IMO is the publisher of 15 sportsman themed magazines and owns The Sportsman Channel, which is known for its Ted Nugent hunting specials and airs the National Rifle Association's daily news show.)
Jim Bequette, the editor who approved Metcalf's column, also apologized to readers and resigned.
Metcalf's firing highlights one of the key challenges that niche trade publications face. While all news outlets have to make sure their ad dollars keep coming in, those who cover specific industries and narrow areas of interest often feel even greater pressure.
That pressure requires trade journalists to manage a balancing act that is paramount to keeping journalistic ethics and reader trust solid. Even if you are reporting for a smaller audience about a specific industry or area of interest, your credibility needs to be as unyielding as any other news outlet.
Perhaps more so because trade magazines in many areas are often the only outlet for relevant news about a specific business or niche interest.
"Writing for a trade magazine can occasionally be tricky, because you're in a unique position: You run the risk of potentially upsetting an advertiser by writing something that they could find objectionable," said Shawn Moynihan, executive managing editor at National Underwriter, Property & Casualty, which covers property and casualty insurance issues. "The truth is the truth, though, for better or worse, and that's your job -- to report it. To do less would violate the trust your readers place in you."
Marc Hochstein, executive editor of American Banker, agreed.
"There is an imperative to be honest and forthright and have integrity because the core customer is the reader," he said in a phone interview. "I am not on the business side, but people are willing to pay a significant amount of money for our content. I don't think we'd be serving our readers well if we only told them what they wanted to hear."
At The Progressive Farmer any tractor company or livestock trader who tried to pressure for coverage would be out of luck, according to editor-in-chief Gregg Hillyer.
"The trust of our readers always comes first," he wrote in an email. "We never compromise the magazine's ethics and we have clear, defined lines to maintain the separation of church and state. We don't judge the merit of a story based on whether an advertiser(s) will like or not like it. Our mission is to serve the reader and provide him with accurate, balanced information."
Among the most high-pressure businesses is talk radio, where Talkers magazine covers all areas of this hard-fought industry. Editor Michael Harrison says no amount of pressure can sway his journalistic ethics.
"What is specific to trade publications is their mission to serve the interests and well being of their particular industries as opposed to inform the general public or a diverse segment of it," he wrote via email. "However, if a trade publication loses sight of the value of its credibility in its zeal to please its advertisers and be fair to its non-advertisers, it ceases to be of any real value to any of them and the returns will be diminishing. As far as I'm concerned, credibility or lack thereof becomes self-evident over the course of time."
I saw some trade industry advertiser pressure first hand during my time as a senior editor at Editor & Publisher, the trade magazine for the newspaper industry. I spent 11 years at E&P, from 1999 to early 2010. During that time pressure ranged from advertisers who sought articles promoting their products or employees to a few outright advertiser boycotts.
One such boycott involved Knight Ridder, the former newspaper chain whose papers included The Miami Herald and San Jose Mercury News. The company was taken over by McClatchy in 2006.
Prior to the takeover, Knight Ridder at one point withdrew all of its advertising from E&P because of what it claimed was unfair coverage of the company and its CEO, Anthony Ridder.
While the boycott likely hurt the bottom line, E&P never flinched on credibility and journalistic ethics at the time.
"It cost us in the short run with some companies, but we benefited overall for many years because people saw that we were objective." recalls Greg Mitchell, my former editor at E&P and now a columnist for The Nation. "It is a matter of standing firm because once you start bowing down or caving to pressure, you're done."
Another such boycott involved Goss International, which manufactures printing presses and other machinery used in newspaper production. For many trade magazines, it is these kinds of specific technical firms that provide much of the advertising.
In Goss's case, the company was involved in a lawsuit and its executives did not like E&P's coverage. It pulled ads for more than a year. "We were continually asking when they would come back," Mitchell recalls, but later added that because of such editorial independence "we became known for tough coverage and that is why we were respected."
For Guns & Ammo, such objectivity could bring them some much-needed respect right now, if they allow it. But for the moment, the magazine is giving trade publications and its own image quite the black eye.