Pay for review ethics?

by Jason Gross

27 August 2006


Classical publication Fanfare has sparked a brouhaha over revelations about a policy that gives advantage to advertisers to have their product reviewed.  Sad to say, this issue isn’t going away, not only because this isn’t the first time a publication has come out and admitted this (i.e. New York Rocker) but also that in the age of the Net, this is the kind of trial and error that’s going to keep happening.

To start with, here’s just a few articles covering the Fanfare policy:

- A review for a price

- Fanfare fallout

- Kyle Gann’s opinion

A lot of heated opinions and even some defense of the practice.  Surely, we live in a world where a publication that covers any genre will do so fairly as with major label releases as with homemade CD-R’s, right?  Of course not.  That isn’t to say that every label and mag is on the take but it’s hardly a fully democratic process.  It’s not just that the majors have more time and money to put into PR but they’re also better suited to present a better product visually and sonically, which truth be known, does make a difference to the harried review who has to go through piles of CDs every day and week.

Also, if the magazine (like Fanfare) is upfront about the policy, is it really so wrong?  “Yes, we do give preferrential treatment to advertisers,” they say and you know what?  So do other magazines, though not (always) in the same way.  It’s then up to the reader to decide if a review is tainted or not, based on the writer and the publication.

As for reasoning behind this, look at how Salon and Slate have spent years experimenting with different publication models, ranging from paid ad mode to full sponsorship from their owners to whatever else they’ve thrown against the wall.  They’re still around now but as I’ve said before, you’d be nuts to try to follow their models. 

I don’t know that Fanfare has the right approach but as long as they’re straightforward with their readership about what they’re doing and try to balance as much autonomy as they can from advertisers (and again, don’t fool yourself- plenty of magazines are beholden to their advertisers, now more than ever), this might not be as bad a situation as it first appears to be.  Again, it all falls on the editor’s shoulders to make the right decisions and I know from personal experience, that’s not always easy.  Just ask the people at the Village Voice or Spin how hard that is to do nowadays…

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