Viscion’s vision: marketing moves from the dark side to KPI



May 28th, 2008

Media group Viscion employs journalists who will sell advertising space to boost its bottom line, but critics worry that journalistic integrity will be compromised.

The sacred wall between journalism and sales has been torn down by the newest media company on the block, much to the dismay of media practitioners who fear that editorial content will increasingly pander towards advertisers’ needs.

Viscion Media Group – a firm set up about one and a half years ago that publishes magazines such as Lexean and Playeur – has merged these two roles into a new job position known as the sales journalist.

Sales journalists from all its five publications will be tasked to meet advertising clients and design a marketing plan, which could include advertisements, editorial, advertorial, events and product placements, said general manager Holman Chin, who spoke to journalism students from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information (WKWSCI) at a talk in February.

“We are putting a key performance indicator to the advertiser. We say ‘if you spend $10,000 with us, we will guarantee $30,000 of coverage’,” said Mr Chin. “Sales journalists would write the pitch so there’s more knowledge of how the editorial would look and hence more trust.”

Viscion received more than 30 applications for the job since it offered the position on various job sites between January and March this year while several members of the existing editorial team were interested in adding sales to their job scope, said Mr Chin in a follow-up email interview.

Sales journalists would earn a commission at 2.5 percent of their basic salary, he added.

The traditional media market has been hit by declining readership and advertising rates in recent years, particularly in matured markets such as America. Print-advertising revenue fell 9.4 percent to $42 billion in 2007 in the United States, according to figures released in March by the Newspaper Association of America and as reported by The Wall Street Journal.

But Viscion said the Internet is not totally to blame.

“Besides prostitution, the oldest industry in the world is probably publishing. This traditional industry now faces its greatest threat and common wisdom says it’s the internet invasion,” said the company’s press release on sales journalism.

“However, the actual challenge comes from within as the industry views the interests of readers and advertisers as opposing,” noted Viscion, which has come out strong in Singapore’s saturated magazine market, breaking even last year and targeting double-digit growth for 2008.

Join me Luke

Viscion insists that advertising clients have no say over the editorial content.

There should be no compromise of having a kinder product review in exchange for an advertisement space in Viscion’s magazines, said Sumana Rajarethnam, editor of Playeur – which competes with Maxim and FHM – and deputy editor of current affairs magazine Lexean.

“Nobody would be able to buy a better review, period. If a product is not up to scratch, that is what we would write about in the review,” said Mr Rajarethnam in an email interview, adding that the names of all sales journalists are listed in the credits.

“Of course there is a risk that journalistic integrity will be compromised, but the risk is no higher than with a journalist being sent on an all-expenses paid trip who is asked to write about it. Is there full integrity there?” he noted.

Mr Chin added: “I would like to emphasize that we have a team of sales journalists and an editorial team. The editorial team operated independently of the sales journalists, however, the editor has final say over the content that the sales journalists produce. When it comes to editorial integrity, the editor is the last layer to ensure that what is printed is in keeping with our editorial objectives.”

Yet sceptics at WKWSCI, Singapore’s first communication studies school, fear that with journalists doubling up as salesmen, such a practice conflicts with honest reporting.

“When journalists are paid to write for clients, they could face potential conflict of interest – that of being an employee of their news agency vis-à-vis earning outside monies,” said Associate Professor Lee Chun Wah, who lectures on public relations at WKWSCI.

“The line of ethics is problematic. Sales articles should be done by public relations professionals.”

“As soon as you have a commission, the impetus is there to sell advertisements,” said WKWSCI journalism lecturer Mr Andrew Duffy and former reporter at the Singapore Press Holdings, who attended the talk.

“I’ve written here, ‘Join me, Luke. Embrace the dark side and we will rule the universe as father and son.’ It seems to be going in that direction,” Mr Duffy said to loud chuckles from the participants.

“I don’t see how you can maintain the journalistic integrity,” he added.

Natural evolution

But for Mr Chin – an ex-producer of National Geographic and Discovery Channel documentaries and a former banker in San Francisco where he was born – this is part of the natural and necessary evolution for the media if they want to survive in the increasingly competitive market.

Journalists are already selling advertising space to clients in today’s media circle, albeit discreetly, noted Mr Chin, adding that he has similarly been offered editorial write-ups in newspapers if his company advertised in these publications.

Declining advertising sales have already forced changes on editors’ roles, said former editor-in-chief of the English newspapers at Singapore Press Holdings Peter Lim, noting during a separate media talk that publications such as MediaCorp’s Today newspaper have already broken boundaries by once combining its Chief Executive Officer (CEO) post with the editor-in-chief role.

“They were not supposed to make love; these were two contradictory jobs which were supposed to have dynamic tension and fight each other. The CEO produced the money whilst the editor-in-chief spent it,” said Mr Lim, now a media consultant.

But long gone is the age of “Brahmin editors” – “holy” editors who were indifferent towards profit margins. Instead, the editorial department has to work with the advertising team, previously dubbed as “the guys with dirty hands who handled money”, he added.

Newspapers such as The Straits Times previously forbad publishing photos that featured advertisers’ logos for fear of providing product placements, but have since eased up on such standards, Mr Lim said. Such publications also now run full-page advertisements on their front pages, once a sacred space reserved mainly for news.

Viscion’s Mr Chin noted that for lifestyles magazines, the blurring of lines between journalism and sales is becoming more prevalent. Today’s magazines are already offering product placements in exchange for advertisements.

“When we have 900 products, obviously advertisers who pay more will be given better positioning,” he added. “A watch is a watch. I’m not sure how much journalism is involved in featuring a watch.”

By creating the position of a sales journalist, Mr Chin said two distinct journalist types would ultimately be created.

“There are two types of writers. One that wants to win a Pulitzer Prize and one that is very good in sales,” a category that sales journalists would fall under, said Mr Chin.

“I realise the implication of a sales journalist but this is where the world is going,” he added.

“By creating the sales journalist, we are just being more forthright in our approach.”

– Jamie Lee is a graduating student of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, NTU. She has joined The Business Times. Her article was produced as part of a class on the future of journalism.

See Peter H.L. Lim’s take on this issue here.

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