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Not all media are created equal

I don't often comment on competitors. It just seems... unseemly. But I ran across something that just disappointed me and made me ponder journalism and Web 2.0... all sorts of stuff.

So... Kerrigan Media publishes a score of defense related publications -- Military Information Technology, Military Training Technology, Military Medical Technology, Military Aerospace Technology... you get the idea. Kerrigan's latest is Military Logistics Forum, which will apparently be edited by Dawn S. Olney, a former reporter for FCW's sister publication, Government Computer News. During her tenure at GCN, she helped launch Defense Systems. Unfortunately for us, she decided to leave 1105 Government Information Group earlier this year to join a public relations firm, Spire Communications.

That's fine. Those of us on the editorial side of this business understand that move. Most of us have probably pondered it at one point or another. PR generally pays better and generally isn't as stressful. (I said generally!)

And there is also an important role played by PR firms. In fact, some of my best friends are PR wizards. I have great respect for the work that they do.

That being said, there is a big difference between a PR job and a reporting/editing job -- or at least there should be. Our job as reporters and editors is to be seek out the big issues and present them as fairly and accurately as possible. The role of a good public relations person is to represent their companies.

So I was really surprised when I read in the latest issue of Military Information Technology that Olney was going to be the editor of this new Kerrigan publication, Military Logistics Forum.

From the announcement in MIT Volume 11 Issue 4 (I don't see a date and this particular announcement is not posted on their Web site):

Dawn S. Onley joins KMI as editor of Military Logistics Forum

Dawn Onley joins KMI as editor of our brand new magazine serving the defense logistics and transportation community -- Military Logistics Forum.

Onley, an award-winning journalist, is the former editor of Defense Systems Magazine and has been a journalist for more than 15 years. She has worked for Government Computer News and has been a staff writer for major daily newspapers..."

Unfortunately the announcement never makes mention that Onley is also doing PR work.

I actually discussed this with a few of the PR folks that I respect and they were generally surprised by the mixture. Ivy Eckerman, president of Spire Communications, said that Spire specifically is not representing companies that do logistics work.

Soon thereafter, I got an e-mail from Onley:

Ivy told me you called inquiring about my job with Kerrigan's Military Logistics Forum (MLF) Magazine. I'm working as a part-time, off-site editor of the magazine. This means I come up with a good chunk of the story ideas, assign them to freelance writers, edit the stories, and help with art/graphics planning.

My job with Ivy is to offer public relations support to several companies [she named a number of the companies] and help them with media pitches, press releases, arranging and overseeing press interviews, etc. None of my clients are players in the DoD logistics space. In fact, I don't even know of any logistics work that any of my clients are involved with.

The thrust of my editorial vision at MLF is to spotlight logistics and transportation programs/systems/initiatives across the DoD, DLA, TRANSCOM, the military services, agencies and their ports, fuel terminals, ammo plants, supply centers, arsenals and depots. While MLF will certainly cover technology, there are a lot of other non-technical aspects in this area.

I also do other freelance writing assignments and have since I worked at GCN and Defense Systems.

I don't see a conflict here. But I'd welcome feedback from you as to any concerns you might have.

Let me be very clear: I have no interest in criticizing Onley, who I respect. And I'm not criticizing Spire Communications... or Eckerman... or PR people... none of them.

If anything, I would critique Kerrigan -- and not even for doing hiring Onley. After all, we would gladly hire her back if that was an option. But I think one needs to be up front with readers. FCW and our sister publications publish what is called custom publications. These are publications where the content is written and edited with a company. It seeks to provide information, but it doesn't seek an objective perspective. Journalism standards, however, say that we have to label that.

Over the past few weeks, I have been looking at Web 2.0 a lot -- at FCW's CIO Summit last week and generally because the issue fascinates me. But it also means that the world is much less black-and-white and more gray. I think that will be true for government, but it will also be true for journalism.

I remember years ago I had a debate with family friends who were angry with newspapers because they didn't present "The Truth" -- capital Ts in both cases. My argument -- then and now -- is that there is no capital "T" Truth. The challenge these days is to get as much data as one can and make the best assessment one can. That is true in our personal lives -- who do we trust to work on our car... or care for our kids -- or in our work.

Web 2.0 tools, of course, takes that to new levels by tapping in to the power of crowds, which argues that all of us are smarter then any one of us. So we seek Wikipedia, which taps into that knowledge base... and blog...

All of this will mean changes for government... and journalism.

Back to the point at hand... Let me describe how we deal with this 'conflict' issue.

We are always trying to avoid the perception of conflict. That can be difficult -- very difficult sometimes. We have freelance writers who do other work. In fact, some of our writers do outside work. But we prohibit them from doing work related to any IT company -- or government agencies, for that matter. When we cover something that somehow involves something owned by our parent company, 1105 Media, we say so. (FOSE is a prime example.) That allows you to decide if we are covering something merely because it is a 1105 owned event or because it was really valuable. And we do allow writers -- both on staff and freelance -- to have outside lives. They can do outside work, but it cannot conflict -- or appear to conflict -- with the work they are doing for us. (One person does writing and PR for his church, for example.) Even with our columnists and comment pieces, we say where they are from and, when necessary, say what the potential conflict is and we allow you to decide.

Again, I'm not trying to make a federal case out of all of this, and Kerrigan is a competitor, when it comes down to it... but readers need to have a reference point. They need to know where the information is coming from.

It seems to me that Web 2.0 is a lot of work. It requires us to be much smarter. We all need to be skeptical about the world around us. We have to think much more. There is no Truth that comes down from on high. We have to collect all sorts of data and make assessments for ourselves.

There is a role for all of this data, and readers are very smart. They will value them accordingly. But I think we need to be up front with readers because if we aren't, all of us get injured.

I guess I'd be more comfortable if readers knew the editor also worked as a PR person. That would allow you to decide if there is a conflict... or not.

Ah, gray.

The best of times...?

Posted by Christopher Dorobek on May 17, 2007 at 12:16 PM


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