Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Why My Library Just Cancelled Its Subscription to Time Magazine

The New York Times published this interesting article today, unfortunately burying the lede in the third paragraph.  Money quote:
...Time Inc. will abandon the traditional separation between its newsroom and business sides, a move that has caused angst among its journalists. Now, the newsroom staffs at Time Inc.’s magazines will report to the business executives. Such a structure, once verboten at journalistic institutions, is seen as necessary to create revenue opportunities and stem the tide of declining subscription and advertising sales.  

Yep.  Time, Inc--no struggling online trade mag--now requires its journalists to report to the business execs, and editors now seek out "sponsored content" (aka "native advertising") as a large part of their professional duties.

Without getting too overtly political, I have long been concerned over the corporate buy-out of American public institutions, whether it's the money behind so-called education reform, a university selling its professorial hiring decisions to the highest bidder, or the Supreme Court (and presidential candidates) solemnly assuring us that corporations are people:

So what does all of this have to do with a library blog?

I just cancelled our library's subscription to Time Magazine, and am in the middle of an email to Time explaining why.

I work hard and spend considerable thought providing quality, authoritative resources for my students.  While we obviously have books or periodicals that promote a particular side or point of view, that bias is generally made clear through content or editorial policy. And, of course, my students and I talk about  using the databases first, evaluating sources, using the CRAAP test, etc.

Now, there is a long history of passing off advertising as editorial content; the public is increasingly sophisticated at recognizing and ignoring advertorials. Advertisers (and the publications) need to make it harder and harder to distinguish between journalistic and sponsored content; thus, it's not always clear which content is an advertisement.  Worse, the Online Publishers Association estimates that 90% of publications offered sponsored content by the end of 2013.

However, Time's decision is especially insidious, using their magazine's  integrity and  reputation as a reliable source of news in order to mask that commercial line. When reading  Seventeen or Sports Illustrated, there's a public understanding of the monetary bottom line, hence students have a certain amount of healthy skepticism when reading their articles. Time, as a straight news magazine, has traditionally drawn a firmer line between its sponsors and its articles, and students read it less critically.

As a librarian, I have a duty to provide my students with material that presents not an unbiased view, but one free of corporate interests--or at least material that makes clear distinctions between content and ads.  It may be a futile gesture, but I'll be cancelling our subscription once school starts again next week, and will definitely add this into my critical literacy curriculum.