Posted by: Jon Fine on April 7, 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.”