More On Abrams Research, And Dan Abrams' Response To My Column About It

Posted by: Jon Fine on April 07, 2009

Last week I wrote a column that touched on a company called Abrams Research, a newish company for which I had less-than-kind words.

Briefly: Abrams Research is a marketing/communications firm that plans to assemble a panel of paid experts to advise companies on corporate and media strategies. The thing that’s kicked up a fuss is that its founder, former MSNBC anchor Dan Abrams, is advertising that this expert panel includes active journalists.

It’s typically verboten for working journalists to serve as corporate consultants within their areas of expertise, which often tend to be—unsurprisingly!—related to the areas they cover. Many of the most prestigious media brands have pretty clear-cut ethics codes against journalists—even steady freelancers—acting in such a capacity. (BusinessWeek’s ethics code would forbid participation; I’m sure many other publications’ standards would, too.) Abrams is pretty quick to point out that there are no reporters from the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal on his expert panels. But that sort of ducks an obvious question: if the best of any breed recommends you don’t do something, might it be a good idea not to do it?

Anyway, today, in Mediabistro’s daily media podcast, Dan Abrams made some remarks about that column.

Mediabistro was founded by my wife, Laurel Touby. (She sold it in 2007, and remains there as a senior vice-president.) As the column noted, following what had been previously reported, Abrams is entertaining the idea of launching a Web site to cover media.

This fact-set touches on what Abrams brought up several minutes into this morning's Mediabistro podcast (which unfortunately does not appear to be fast-forward-able):

It is interesting to me the timing [of the column]...Jon suddenly takes an interest in criticizing my business four and a half months in, for the same issues that you point out that people mentioned in the beginning, when lo and behold, there's rumors that I could be creating a content producing site about media, that lo and behold, might compete--might, according to Jon--with mediabistro.

Well, isn't that coincidental, that suddenly Jon is publishing his concerns about my business?

I had my say with Dan’s thing and he’s certainly welcome to have his say with mine. But the implication that there’s any personal defensive (or offensive) maneuver intended with that column is flat-out wrong. My association with Laurel is, as you might imagine, pretty well-known internally at BusinessWeek--and we talked about it internally before the column ran--and my piece included a disclosure noting the situation. (UPDATE: And if I were so concerned with competition to my wife’s business, I probably wouldn’t so often offer praise to mediabistro competitor paidcontent.org in my column and elsewhere.)

Anyway, the potential launch of a media site is not what I found troubling about Abrams Research. It’s the situation with working journalists serving as corporate consultants, as I mentioned above. (Ever since Abrams Research’s launch I’ve been pretty vocal about this view in social situations with media types, as at least one associate of Abrams—with whom I had a long discussion about said view--knows well.)

There’s also the matter with how Abrams Research portrays itself on its Web site and in its promotional materials. In interviews, with me and with other journalists, Dan Abrams is quick to stress the presence of “former” journalists on his panel. (Which neither I nor others who’ve raised eyebrows at Abrams Research would have problems with, by the way.) But neither the Abrams Research Web site nor its promotional materials make much use of the word “former” when it comes to journalists.

I’m not the only one who found this odd. In the course of reporting the column, I interviewed Steve Brill, the entrepreneur behind Clear and many previous media ventures. (Specifically: Brill’s Content, American Lawyer, and Court TV, where he once employed Abrams. I briefly worked for Brill’s Content—disclosure alert!—before getting canned by Brill himself. Oh, geez, let me just point you to this all-purpose disclosure post. I’m in that sort of a mood.)

Brill, who is on the advisory board of Abrams Research, possesses both a bear of an intellect and an exacting eye for media ethics. In the interview, he civilly but firmly took issue with some criticisms that have been leveled at Abrams Research. (He also brought up the conflict mediabistro had with Abrams potential media site, but allowed that issue was for BusinessWeek to decide internally.)

After some back and forth, I read Brill a few promotional statements that appear on the Abrams Research Web site. Including this one:

A Fortune 500 business believes the financial media has focused unfairly on a small change in accounting practices rather than significant increases in revenues.

Abrams Research can bring together top financial journalists to advise that business on how to best convey its message.

To which Brill replied:

“If that is the description—journalist, present tense, covering a story, can talk to people--if it’s what you’re saying, I think that [Abrams Research] needs a new description or a new business model.”

“The real issue is what news organizations would those journalists belong to who would take that assignment [consulting for Abrams] if it conflicts with what they’re doing . . . [But] if the implication is that what they do is they will provide Jon Fine or someone in their network to advise Barry Diller on how to launch a new media product, then that is an implication that ought to be avoided or clarified.”

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Reader Comments

Mitchell Davis

April 9, 2009 03:14 PM

Experts and Journalists are very different....

--Mithcell Davis
www.ExpertClick.com

Kirk Cheyfitz

April 11, 2009 10:13 AM

Jon -- Skirting around the issue of whether Abrams is a disingenuous blowhard, I think the real focus should be that his (relatively) new venture is not an isolated phenomenon. Rather, it attempts to tap into rapid changes in the practice formerly known as advertising that have been in motion for a decade or so and now are threatening to kill off our newspapers (with other ad-supported media--magazines and TV--not far behind). The sea-change in advertising is inexorably turning all brand marketers into publishers who, increasingly, need the help of storytellers from journalists to novelists. As a former reporter (Knight Newspapers, et al), I've helped build a business over the past decade or so that employs the skills of journalism and other content-creation specialties to help provide information and entertainment to people on behalf of brands. I've been fascinated (you might say obsessed) by the changing media landscape and have been speaking and writing about it for a long time (most recently at The McGraw-Hill Media Summit on a panel hopefully titled "The Future of Advertising.") I must tell both you and Dan that this appears to be an irreversible trend. If properly harnessed, it could help provide the revenue to rescue the newspaper business and provide needed funding for the future of journalism. The squabble between you and Dan is simply one more example of how tough it is to separate news and commerce and potential conflicts or perceived conflicts. But we aren't going to get to the serious conversation about journalism's future if we are all distracted by seemingly personal squabbles. For one view (mine) on how all this might shake out, take a look at this: http://bit.ly/1BxuGe .

I really enjoy your blog, by the way. Thanks for it.

James Kristie

April 14, 2009 02:01 PM

Good piece on Abrams -- hard-hitting as it should be. Every time I read about what Abrams is up to I think of Harry Karafin.

A lot of today's journalists and publicists probably don't know the story of Karafin -- a star Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who went bad when he decided to offer media counseling to clients he was covering. It was a huge scandal in journalism in the 1960s:

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,843617,00.html

Here is a pullout from the above-cited piece:

"Other businessmen who paid for Karafin's services now say they did so reluctantly. 'I don't like to deal with Harry,' said one client, 'but he can do things for you. It's like castor oil. You don't like to take it, but sometimes you have to.' "

Googling "Harry Karafin" will turn up numerous other cites. I recommend to Dan Abrams and anyone thinking of associating with Abrams Research to refresh themselves on the Karafin story as a cautionary tale.

Jim Kristie
http://jameskristie.blogspot.com

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The media, entertainment and marketing worlds continue to shapeshift on a near-daily basis, as new forms arise and old assumptions erode. Where is it all going? No one really knows. But on this blog BusinessWeek’s media writers Tom Lowry and Ron Grover promise to provide ample helpings of scoop, provocation, and sharp analysis as they track and annotate this constantly changing terrain.

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