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Custom publishing has no integrity. Or at least that is what I used to think. After nearly four years in the journalism program at Ryerson University, I was left with the impression that integrity could not exist within the pages of a custom publication. I assumed that after my university education there was no way I would let myself end up at “one of those custom places.”

So I decided to write a feature on the topic. And, since I believed so strongly that there was no integrity in custom work, that is what I set out to prove. I researched, I interviewed, I wrote endless drafts?and, along the line, my thoughts shifted drastically.

Gary Butler was one of the first interviewees on my hit list. As editor of Rev and Pursuit, products of Multi-Vision Publishing and funded by Imperial Tobacco, he’d surely be a great source of information and opinion.

We meet in a small coffee shop. Butler surveys the space, searching out the location of the best table. Finally he sees it: the window seat. Two wooden chairs at a small round table, next to white blinds letting in the sunlight from Bay Street, downtown Toronto. “This is the seat,” he declares, with a triumphant smile and a double thumbs-up.

A few minutes pass. He is full of energy?straightening his green shirt, sipping black coffee, gesturing as he speaks. Then I ask the question he’s been waiting for: Does custom publishing have integrity? His hands stop moving, he looks me directly in the eye, and he answers: “Absolutely.

“I don’t think Canada has been ready to feel the impact of custom publishing,” he says. “I think they’re still trying to figure out exactly what it means.” And I think Butler has hit it right on the money. Even within the industry, they’re still grappling with it. Perhaps that is why the debate about integrity rages on, but doesn’t seem to go anywhere.

No one really knows what custom publishing is or what it means to the magazine world. The publications are not magalogues, and they are not magazines. So what are they? People can’t even agree on how to define custom magazines, let alone on whether they have integrity or not.

According to Butler, “A custom publication has a client who wants some sort of lifestyle entertainment magazine that will also double as a catalogue. The magazine is not reliant on advertising, because the client is paying for that magazine to exist in the first place. The client also furnishes a database of people that are in the demographic of reader interest.”

This database is handed over to a magazine, which delivers instant readership. In the cases of Rev andPursuit, clientele is established through surveys which ask subjects if they smoke. If so, they have the option of receiving a free magazine. If no, they say good-bye to the subscriptions. Motion, published by Redwood Custom Publishing for General Motors, follows the same target readership principles. Owners of GM cars receive the magazine, and GM gets additional exposure to an audience it values.

Eric Schneider is Redwood’s president and CEO. He offers a different definition of a custom magazine, couched in marketing terms. It is not simply a catalogue, he says; it is “much more of an exercise around customer relationship management, which is really a business perspective of understanding your customer, building a relationship with the customer, and catering to your customer’s needs?recognizing that the customer controls that relationship, not the other way around.”

Both Schneider and Butler use the term “catalogue,” despite the fact you cannot order merchandise from most custom magazines. Each custom magazine does, however, usually advertise many products that can be purchased from the company or client funding the magazine.

Since there is no industry-wide agreement on terms, I have to choose my own. For the purposes of this article, I am combining the explanations offered by Butler and Schneider. A custom magazine is one that is sponsored by a company and contains a mixture of “catalogue” and editorial content. This mix is created to provide an engaging read for a target audience, and, as a result, to serve the company’s marketing objectives.

Of course, some people don’t waste time trying to define what kind of magazine a custom publication is. In their view, they are not magazines at all. One apparent member of this camp is John Macfarlane, editor ofToronto Life and a former member of the National Magazine Awards’ board of directors. He believes that custom magazines have no place in the awards. When asked why not, during an interview for a Ryerson Review article in 2000, he was quoted as replying, “Do you let a cat into a dog show?”

Once I realized that my interviewees did not even share a common definition of terms, I no longer expected a cool, analytical debate. I was right. Each person on each side was firm in his or her own arguments, and defended them passionately.

Yet, even though they couldn’t agree on what conclusions to draw, they were in surprising agreement on what issues to consider. The same three arose in each case: editorial control, objectivity, and responsibility to the reader. As people argued their cases, I made yet another discovery. “Integrity” was as hard to pin down as “custom magazine.”

The Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines integrity as “adherence to a code of values.” The first definition in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary calls it “moral uprightness; honesty.”

James Chatto, senior editor of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario’s Food & Drink and Harry Rosen’s Harry, has another explanation. “Integrity, I suspect, cannot be defined by consensus,” he says. “It’s a private notion and relies on a certain level of self-awareness and candour in the inner monologue, combined with a desire to live up to one’s own moral standards.” Chatto, who’s also an award-winning food writer, goes on to say that it also means never jeopardizing those values just for the sake of an assignment or paycheque. Above all else, though, integrity is about not compromising honesty or morals, and that is an individual judgement call.

As I found out, every individual can make a very different call.

For example, Felix Vikhman, currently a freelance writer for publications such as National Post Business, equates integrity with pure journalistic purpose. That’s why he believes that no one should even claim to think that custom work possesses integrity. Vikhman was once a part of the custom industry, working onBrowser, a custom mag briefly published by Redwood for Dell Computers. That experience led him to believe custom work “can’t ever pretend to be equal in journalism.” He explains that “all those founding principles of honesty and fairness and research and doing a service to your reader and all that stuff?they are not the founding principles of a custom magazine.”

The trouble is, applying those founding principals is not as simple as it may seem. People on both sides of the debate refer to them equally when defending their opinions. Consider the first of the big three issues: editorial control. It is a touchy subject in all areas of print journalism. The distinctive nature of the touchiness in custom publications is that in their publications, editorial content relies heavily on a third party: the client for whom the book is published. That means the client ultimately controls editorial range, issue lineups, even the fate of individual stories. I discovered, though, that different clients exercise different degrees of control.

The LCBO’s Food & Drink, for instance, limits its critiques to products that readers can find and purchase in its stores. While Chatto is a wine connoisseur who would love to regularly review the most expensive wines on the market, he says he has absolutely no trouble working within the defined range. His client, he explains, limits the subject matter but doesn’t dictate content within that range. “There is always a sort of mandate to do what the client wants,” says Chatto. “I don’t have a problem with that.”

Jane Francisco must also answer to a client’s mandate, for she is the editor of Glow, the beauty and health service magazine brought to readers by Shoppers Drug Mart. Her client, like Chatto’s, limits editorial range. The agreement is that 90 percent of health and beauty products covered in Glow will be Shoppers Drug Mart merchandise. She points out that the involvement ends there (another similarity with Chatto’s situation).

Francisco’s client does not dictate content, or approve any of the story ideas. This is why she says that, despite the third-party involvement, Glow is very much like a traditional magazine.

Not all clients behave like these two. Francisco has also been involved in other custom magazines and agrees that the level of integrity drops whenever you have to run articles past the client. “Is limiting content in a specific article making the article less useful?” she asks. “Probably not. Are they hiding something? Probably not. But at the same time, it just means they have control, not the editor or writer.”

On the other hand, when you look carefully at journalism, do you see any magazine where the editor has total control? No. Publishers, ad-sales directors, bean counters, major advertisers?all kinds of interests may come to bear on editorial content, even in traditional titles. So perhaps those who say custom content is dishonest should take a look at other media outlets as well.

The second key issue in this integrity debate is objectivity. How objective can the articles be in a sponsored publication? How honest is the magazine?

No custom publication is going to run negative reviews of a sponsor’s product. For example, Motion would never bash the newest GM car?it will always feature the company’s best vehicles instead. The question is whether or not this is dishonest. No, it’s not, say the writers and editors of custom publications I spoke with, as long as these criteria are met: first, they are free to include any negative points about an otherwise good product; second, they personally feel that emphasizing what’s good truly serves their readers; and third, readers have accurate expectations of the publication. Under those conditions, they say, they can remain honest and true to their moral code.

Chatto, for example, is free to criticize LCBO items that do not meet his standards of quality, but he prefers to focus on ones that he can honestly recommend to his readers. His readers are happy about this, he says, which means that he is too. He explains, “Everybody else is out there badmouthing people. I feel very fortunate that I can pick and choose what I write about. And what is there on the page has integrity.”

Several other writers gave me this theory of positive reviewing as well. I considered it, but I didn’t really go for it. As a consumer, searching for bargains and quality merchandise, I would rather be alerted to products not worth purchasing. That way, I would save time and money.

But is that reaction just a matter of personal reader preference or is it an integrity issue? This raises the last of the three criteria that my custom-publishing interviewees suggested: reader expectations. A policy of true-but-always-good news, they argue, has no integrity problems?as long as that is what readers expect from the magazine. What it all comes down to is not deceiving the reader.

Redwood president Schneider says custom magazines are very honest with their readers. They don’t hide their affiliations, and readers?who are smart people?know exactly what to expect from a client-based mag. They don’t open up GM’s Motion to uncover the gems being produced at Ford, for example. There is no trickery involved.

And that brings us to the key issue of responsibility to the reader. Here, at first, everyone agrees. A magazine should serve the reader. But what serves the reader? Now the camps quickly go their separate ways.

Jennifer McLean, former vice-president of marketing and new business at Redwood, starts by reinforcing Schneider’s point: “If readers are getting a custom magazine, they recognize that it is a marketing tool, and they recognize there’s a product being sold because right on the cover they see logo identification for a client.” She then points out that readers not only know what the magazines are, they value them. Which means their interests are being served. Under these conditions, says McLean, “the whole integrity issue is ludicrous.”

Felix Vikhman has other thoughts. Though he gives much credit to Redwood for really wanting to put out good products, he can’t agree that they have integrity. “This is why custom magazines can never, ever, ever have editorial integrity, no matter what they say,” he begins. “It’s because with a regular magazine, its responsibility is to the reader. That’s it. And in a custom magazine environment, responsibility at the end of the day is to the client.”

Vikhman makes a good point, I think. The whole idea of a custom magazine is to promote a company, which logically suggests that the company’s interests will take priority over those of the reader. Even though editors and writers gear their pieces toward the reader, the client is the publication’s main concern.

I had to stop and think about whether this meant the editors and staff were truly serving those readers. Again, I believe that can only be decided on a case-by-case basis. If a magazine is honest and a reader is not being fooled, then, yes, the reader can benefit from the publication.

One of the frustrating things about the debate is that it seems to be never-ending. Dr? Dee has been in both worlds in the magazine industry and is tired of the way people look at the custom side. Currently an associate editor at Saturday Night, she was once co-editor of both Rev and Pursuit. She enjoyed her work with those magazines and was always proud of the editorial quality. That is why she found it so discouraging whenever people dismissed Rev and Pursuit as “just” custom publications (or, worse, magalogues) and refused them the respect she felt they deserved.

So, after all this research, what is my conclusion about integrity and custom publishing? I now think it all boils down to honesty. If a custom-magazine team is producing an honest publication, then all power to them. But if they are lying to readers, then no, they don’t deserve respect.

Perhaps I am ignorant in the world of journalism, having not entered it yet, but I would like to begin, and finish, my career with honesty. When I applied to the journalism program, I wrote an admissions essay that revolved around honesty. And now, in my graduating year, I still hold that value close.

I have therefore decided that I will gladly work for a custom publication, as long as I can remain honest. And I think that it is possible. My view now is that integrity issues exist throughout the industry, not just in custom magazines, and that it is up to us to maintain our own standards and evaluate each publication on its individual merits.

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About the author

Amy Bielby was the Managing Editor, Production for the Summer 2003 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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