CALL ME THE spiritual leader of Fast Company. As editor, it's my job to safeguard our journalistic principles and protect the interests of readers. My partner at the magazine, publisher Christine Osekoski, is tasked with generating revenue. In the magazine business, there is a line between church (me) and state (her), so that advertisers can't extort editorial coverage.
But of course, I need Christine to succeed. Her efforts provide the funding for our journalism. The more ads she sells, the more ambitious we can become in our coverage. Newsstand sales and subscriber revenue cover less than 20% of our costs; online access to our articles is free. When I say I need Christine to succeed, what I mean is without her ad sales, we're out of business.
But Christine also needs me to deliver high-quality journalism — uncompromised and respected — that attracts a high-quality readership. Without a distinctive product and a distinctive audience, she has nothing special to offer advertisers. It's not in Christine's interest to "sell" editorial coverage because if she did it once, everyone would demand it.
I've invited you into this confusing corner of the magazine business because it is a mirror for a debate raging in media circles — in print and online, but also in TV, movies, music, games — about what constitutes authentic content and what is "selling out." In this issue, beginning on page 82, we are devoting a feature to an upcoming documentary by Morgan Spurlock called Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. You may remember seeing Spurlock in Super Size Me, stuffing McDonald's french fries into his mouth to make a statement about unhealthy fast food. His new film examines the ubiquity of marketing and pokes fun at the rules we use to govern these squishy areas.
We decided to play with the rules too — crossing those church-state lines on purpose. I asked Christine to reach out to the sponsors of Spurlock's movie to see if they would buy ads to accompany our feature. I told her that I really didn't care how much revenue we generated; we weren't doing this for the money. But I also thought it was important that any advertisers pay something for the privilege of reaching our readers. And as you'll see, we use edit space to comment on the adjacent ads in ways that, well, you probably won't see anywhere else.
This treatment may confuse some colleagues and rile others. But our larger point is simple: Many rules in our culture are built up over long periods of time, for good reasons and to good effect. Yet as our culture shifts, people develop work-arounds to outdated rules, and we begin operating in a world of hypocrisy.
I don't presume to know what the rules for media — or even magazines — should be. But a little more transparency can't hurt, and might provoke some enlightenment. This openness reflects what Spurlock's movie seeks to do and in that regard is, I hope, a defensible journalistic technique.
Or maybe you'll conclude that I've sold out. Let me know.
A version of this article appeared in the April 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.