Beyond The Dial is owned and managed by its writers and creators. We founders are four equal partners: David Flett, James Im, Greg Bedrosian, and myself, Allen Farmelo. Below is an explanation of how our commitment to you, our readers and listeners, requires that we maintain traditional journalistic ethical boundaries. Though I, Allen, am writing this statement, it summarizes many months of concerted dialogue between the four of us as we created our brand of product journalism. That brand can be summarized as a promise to always keep you, our dear readers, as our primary allegiance.
Ethics in Product Journalism
During my fifteen years as a product journalist, I’ve had to respond to a wide variety of editorial standards at various publications. By “standards” I mean both stylistic and ethical. My responses to these standards have ranged from outright rejection of those that I deem lacking, non-existent, unethical or in poor taste, to unbridled acceptance of those practices I deem well suited to my own journalistic inclinations. In most cases, however, I wound up with only minor qualms about how a publication’s leaders choose to do things, and we work it out.
One might assume that ethical codes would be explicit and strict at most publications, but I’ve never once been asked to look at an ethical code or even consider ethics when hired as a freelancer or, even more surprisingly, as an editor. When a publication hires me, those in charge appear to assume that I somehow know the rules of the game and will abide, which is largely true. But I’ve come to question whether even this implicit assumption of ethics actually exists or is something I dreamed up. To be honest, I’ve never really ask my editors, nor do they ask me. Asking would suggest that either I don’t trust my editors or that they’d have reason not to trust me – a scenario I’ve escalated to a conversation only once, which ultimately led my editor and I to amicably part ways.
“As corporations push their green and justice messaging harder than ever today, we product journalists have a responsibility to hold corporations to their own claims, as well as to basic progressive standards.”
The truth of the matter is that we all assume a basic and somewhat vague ethical code on an industry-wide level, and this code is based largely on federal regulations in the USA. Given the 1st Amendment, there aren’t really any laws governing what one can and can not publish. But the Federal Trade Commission (and not the Federal Communications Commission, interestingly) does regulate the relationship between advertisers and publications in the USA. It is from this set of regulations that the vague industry-wide ethical code has emerged. That code is not terribly complicated: if an advertiser has paid for content to appear in a publication, then that content has to be labeled as such.
“As one of the few regulations that exist for the American press, this relationship between advertisers and publications has become the central and enduring intersection where almost all ethical concerns in American journalism exist.”
There are two major kinds of paid content: Sponsored and Branded. Sponsored just means that an advertiser has paid to attach their name to a journalistic project of some kind, but these Sponsored stories tend to be independently created by journalists. Branded means that the advertiser has paid to have a publication either publish, or create and publish, a story directly about the advertiser and/or its products. Branded Content is often called Advertorial, and is now typically presented in a style that suggests Branded Content is just like any other story. We’ve all been duped by the house-style fonts and layouts before seeing the discretely place word “Advertisement” somewhere on the page. Advertisers buying Branded Content can range from product manufacturers to service providers to political campaigns and parties, to all kinds of lobbying groups working for special interests. As one of the few regulations that exist for the American press, this relationship between advertisers and publications has become the central and enduring intersection where almost all ethical concerns in American journalism exist. As such, it is also at this intersection that advertisers and publications test the boundaries of the FTC’s regulations, as well as the savvy of their readers.
These FTC regulations exist to protect readers, who need to know if what they’re reading has been paid for by some special interest or if it is independent journalism. Theoretically, at least, this distinction is fundamental for protecting a free press in a democracy. Not all countries have these regulations, including Switzerland where companies can freely pay to publish content that’s never labeled as Sponsored or Branded or Advertisement or anything at all. In the USA, however, when advertisers and publications test the elasticity of the FTC regulations on paid content, they are also putting undue stress on the integrity of our journalistic tradition, and thus, to some extent, a key principle of our democracy. Testing these boundaries sacrifices reader empowerment in exchange for whatever perceived benefit lies beyond those regulations: typically that’s increased exposure for paying advertisers, plain and simple.
“These FTC regulations exist to protect readers, who need to know if what they’re reading has been paid for by some special interest or if it is independent journalism.”
Because product journalism is so powerful for brand building generally and product launches specifically, product-oriented publications and their advertisers are especially prone to temptations to stretch and/or break regulations around labeling paid content. Ironically, such deceptions are executed in an effort to appear more authentic to readers. Authenticity is all-important because reader loyalty often hangs in the balance. Many readers gloss past Advertorials, and more than a few of us perceive Advertorial as devaluing both the advertising brand and the publication. When a publication starts selling an advertiser’s products – which is increasingly the case in product journalism – the boundary between editorial and advertising can become so inordinately blurry that previously loyal readers can quickly lose faith in the publication’s ability to uphold basic journalistic standards.
“Many readers gloss past Advertorials, and more than a few of us perceive Advertorial as devaluing both the advertising brand and the publication.”
Reader Backlash is Real
Audiences are worked up about product journalism lately, and they’re voicing their dismay. I believe this backlash is a result of people now understanding two things from first-hand personal experience: 1) people build themselves as brands on social media, and 2) many people write public product reviews on websites. This so-called democratization of branding and product journalism has given rise to a highly skeptical and savvy readership.
Because people understand first-hand what goes into building and maintaining a brand on today’s digital platforms, people are adept at detecting and decoding branding strategies. On top of that, brands are growing emboldened about steering journalism in their favor, and Branded Content is increasingly prevalent. The result is more nepotism for the new breed of skeptical and savvy readers to detect and reject.
“It’s a shame that beautifully crafted journalism can appear dubious, yet our hope at Beyond The Dial is that reader backlash continues to hold all publications (including Beyond the Dial) to some standards, however vague or crowd-sourced those standards may be.”
Regarding people acting as reviewers on sites like Amazon, the web has helped democratize product journalism into something akin to Wikipedia. People generally understand what it feels like to put proverbial pen to paper vis-a-vis a product and to present their thoughts to the public. Even within these citizen review forums, savvy readers sniff out paid fluff reviews, which most of us can detect because the reviews are formulaic and perhaps a little too enthusiastic. The contrast between an authentic Amazon user review and a slick professional review in a magazine with slick ads surrounding it is stark, and people are, unfortunately, increasingly distrustful of the look and feel of high-quality professional product writing today. It’s a shame that beautifully crafted journalism can appear dubious, yet our hope at Beyond The Dial is that reader backlash continues to hold all publications (including Beyond the Dial) to some standards, however vague or crowd-sourced those standards may be.
“…you will see the first-person pronoun “I” throughout Beyond The Dial. Our aim at all times is for readers to know where we’re coming from.”
Who Cares? It’s Just Products.
We often hear people cavalierly dismiss the need for product journalists to uphold traditional journalistic standards. One colleague even told me that what we product writers do doesn’t qualify as journalism, which seemed to me a categorical denial of responsibility to readers. These attitudes are pretty common: ours is a lower breed of journalism, one that mostly concerns itself with the consumption of capitalism’s material goods, and rarely with capitalism’s relationship to government, society, justice, and the environment.
Some editors and publishers are overt about this acquittal of product journalism. The argument goes like this: what we report on isn’t going to impact justice and human rights and democracy and so on; therefore, because the ethical stakes are lower for product journalism, so too can be its ethical standards. This argument is an obvious attempt to justify questionable practices vis-a-vis advertisers; no one would raise the topic otherwise. We at Beyond The Dial take issue with this argument, and we are setting policies intended to maintain a strong contract with our readers and to signal to advertisers that we will not tolerate overreach. Before we look at those policies specifically, let’s consider the basis upon which we feel it necessary to set them. There are three main pillars that form that basis.
1. We Are Watchdogs
A new wave of progressive demands for social and environmental justice is being laid onto corporations in exciting new ways. In many parts of the world those demands are being codified into law. Whether its fair wages, carbon emission reduction, safe working conditions, non-discriminatory hiring practices, and so on, corporations are among the most powerful social and environmental actors on the planet. That includes all makers of all things, including watches. As corporations push their green and justice messaging harder than ever today, we product journalists have a responsibility to hold corporations to their own claims, as well as to basic progressive standards.
2. Maintaining a Culture of Journalistic Integrity
Upholding traditional journalistic ethics at all levels helps prevent bottom-up corrosion of journalism more generally. We at Beyond The Dial believe that we must uphold truth-seeking as the central concern of our journalism, even if we’re writing about a seemingly insignificant wrist watch. The idea is to not only deliver quality journalism, but also to exemplify journalistic integrity whenever and wherever possible as a form of advocacy – perhaps even as education in some instances. We believe this responsibility exists despite the relative unimportance of our chosen topic, because ethical corrosion can take hold in the most mundane places and begin to spread.
“The idea is to not only deliver quality journalism, but to exemplify journalistic integrity whenever and wherever possible as a form of advocacy – perhaps even as education in some instances.”
What happens when a product journalist, editor, or publisher starts to commit little transgressions? We would argue that, eventually, a culture emerges in which letting things slide is the norm. I’ve been privy to professional environments in which letting things slide has not only been normalized, but has even become cynically celebrated through a kind of irreverent sarcasm aimed directly at the journalistic standards these people are not only failing to uphold, but the importance of which they appear to have only the most cursory understanding. As may already be obvious, nearly all of these transgressions have to do with favoring advertisers over readers. The product journalist who pulls punches in a review or conceals corporate patronage may not be committing the crime of the century, but is, nonetheless, contributing to a culture in which corrosion of basic journalistic ethical standards is normalized. No matter how small our contribution, we at Beyond The Dial plan to uphold a culture of journalistic integrity.
3. Reveling in Independence
We revel in independence. Independence means being able to write exactly what we want to write, and to report what we feel is necessary, regardless of how it reflects on our advertisers. At Beyond The Dial, our Creator’s Guide is all about following our passions, telling our stories, indulging our subjective perspective, and staying faithful to those impulses that got us into watches in the first place. To maintain that kind of independent spirit, we simply can not get overly entangled with advertisers. Our natural inclinations as independently minded people – independent enough to start our own publication – have, interestingly, led us back to fairly traditional and conservative journalistic standards. We call it The Wall of Integrity.
The Wall of Integrity – Upholding Traditional Journalistic Standards In Disruptive Media Spaces
To uphold the basic commitments outlined above, we at Beyond The Dial have set a number of limitations and standards that form what we call The Wall of Integrity. One one side of the Wall of Integrity is our journalism, and on the other side are our revenue streams. Among the limitations that form the Wall of Integrity, are the following:
- no press releases
- no branded content
- no seo-driven content
- curated advertisers and ads
- unique products offerings
- exposed biases through indulging subjectivity
- getting personal with our audiences
1. No Press Releases
We refuse to take press releases and report their contents out to our readers. Not only is this practice already done at nearly all other watch publications (thus lacking the originality we strive toward at Beyond The Dial), but reporting from press releases also effectively hands the proverbial pen over to brand publicists. If we are writing about a product, then we have handled that product in person and will present our opinion in a Hands-On Review. This limitation doesn’t mean we aren’t up to speed or interested in current trends in the industry, but we are happy to let others broadcast the daily watch news and to redirect the time and energy we save toward our long-form journalism.
This also means that we have opted out of the common practice of exchanging these press-release write ups for continued support through advertising – an implicit agreement between publications and brands that no one should ever acknowledge out loud, let alone in writing, but which, to our dismay, some people do anyways. We also give up a ton of SEO-optimization by refusing to publish from press releases, because the more a blog publishes the words “Seiko” or “Rolex” the further up the search engine results they go. We knowingly sacrifice tit-for-tat ad accounts and SEO optimization in hope of gaining your trust, but also to free us up to do the kind of storytelling we believe in.
2. No Branded Content
To review, there are basically three kinds of content: 1) Independent Content, that which has no specific financial relationship and is written for its inherent value; 2) Sponsored Content, which is backed by a brand, but which should result in independent journalism regardless; and 3) Branded Content, which is also known as Advertorial, in which a brand pays the publication to produce specific content that promotes the brand and/or its products. We deem Branded Content to be advertising dressed up to trick readers into seeing journalism, and it just isn’t something we are willing to do for multiple reasons, some of which we will clarify below.
3. No SEO-Driven Content
We refuse to reward and/or privilege our content internally. We do not reward content based on how an article performs in terms of hits and engagement times, which are common metrics used to gauge the relative monetary value of a single piece of writing. We may monitor the number of readers and visitors we have, but we do not assess one article against another in our internal revenue model.
As you can imagine, it would be easy to sit down knowing that article X performs wonderfully and begin to write article X1, X2, and X3. That’s an unacceptable strategy at Beyond The Dial because it let’s your audience’s behavior dictate editorial decisions, because it leads to repetitive and bland journalism, and, importantly, because we’d have to abandon our core principle that we will write about our passions, and indulgently so.
4. Curated Ads & Advertisers
Advertisements are part of any environment in which they exist, and we are curating both the brands we work with as well as the ads they run in order to assure that their presence only enhances the Beyond The Dial experience. For this reason, we are only running campaigns that are specifically designed for Beyond The Dial. As an effort to uphold social and environmental standards, we vet our advertisers for best practices in both arenas. If somehow a brand doesn’t align with our basic tenets – largely summarized under The Aesthetic Revolution – then we will not work with them.
5. Press Junket Narratives
One area of concern for product journalism is the press junket, typically paid for by brands to lavish journalists with everything from first-class flights to exotic locations to luxury hotel and dining experiences, all in conjunction with the brand sharing a new collection or some other thing they want in the press. We have placed these junket trips on the income side of The Wall of Integrity, and we consider them to be akin to Sponsored, and not Branded, Content because we will maintain total control of the narrative. We maintain control of the narrative by: 1) telling stories of our own experiences on the junkets (exemplified in this report on a Longines trip) rather than just spitting back what the brand tells us; 2) by using the opportunity to interview CEOs and other employees on topics we deem important (e.g., social and environmental initiatives); and 3) to do our very best to bring our readers into those experiences through descriptive narrative reporting. In the end, what we aim to do with press junket trips to to report back to you, our readers, from our own points of view.
We admit that these trips are fun, luxurious, and even ego-boosting; how else does a journalist live like a royal – even if only for a few days? Yet we remind readers that the allure of these trips fades pretty quickly because travelling as a journalist is rather exhausting. The brands, seeking maximum returns, book us solid with activities from early AM to late in the night (often while fighting jet lag), and these trips require that we work after hours in hotel rooms to gather our notes, images, recordings, and so on. But all of those highs and lows become the travel-based story we tell at Beyond The Dial, and we promise to keep our allegiance with our readers.
6. Sell Unique Products
We are excited to open our store and offer products, and because we don’t sell Advertorial we will need to rely on selling products to help support Beyond The Dial. Yet we are unwilling to become a mere dealer of pre-existing products. We have two reasons for this decision: 1) we want to create beautiful, high-quality, eco-friendly things; 2) we refuse to get into that all-too-tricky situation of selling mainstream products we write about. Looking ahead, we plan to fill our store with Beyond The Dial branded products, though that will also include collaborations with other brands. However, you can count on us not to become a retail outlet for major brands’ standard catalog items.
In terms of writing about our own products, we of course will promote them to our readership, but promise to do so in a manner that maintains our ethical positions as outlined here. We also plan to market “gently” so as not to crowd our journalistic space with self-promotion.
7. Expose Bias By Indulging Subjectivity
The short version is that exposing one’s subjective thinking is an act of transparency which, ultimately, serves objectivity. During the 20th Century the notion of objectivity was questioned, challenged, and to some degree discarded in favor of recognizing that all points-of-view have inherent subjective biases. As product journalists, we indulge our subjectivities for three specific reasons: 1) it robustly solves the problem of acknowledging bias, 2) the very nature of evaluating products as beautiful as watches is to indulge one’s subjective aesthetic sensibilities, and 3) unlike authoritative objective statements, subjective statements carry an inherent invitation to readers to form their own opinions and to continue the conversation. Accordingly, you will see the first-person pronoun “I” throughout Beyond The Dial. Our aim at all times is for readers to know where we’re coming from.
8. Get Personal
We sometimes express highly personal aspects of how we relate to watches and other products. We receive messages from people saying they’ve had similar relationships with their watches, and that they’re relieved to hear that other seemingly sane and rational people also indulge in what can only be described as intimacy with their watches. Let’s call it horological companionship. By offering up personal accounts, we reach out across the void between writer and reader and establish deeper truths that can only grow out of sharing our inner lives a little more openly than is the norm for product journalism. Getting personal also works as a prophylactic against false statements, because we are each establishing a track record against which insincerity will be relatively obvious.
Dear reader, we want to thank you for joining us on this journey Beyond The Dial. We sincerely hope that our prioritizing you, our esteemed readers and listeners, is meaningful and important to you, and that our small efforts to uphold traditional journalistic standards will, in the long run, keep you coming back to us.
Allen, David, Greg, and James