Freebies & Spon-Con: Journalistic Integrity in Fashion
Influencer-editors tread the murky waters of brand partnerships while employed at publishing houses.
Who doesn’t like free stuff? Better question: who doesn’t want to get 40% of their annual salary for just two days of work? In fashion journalism, one of the major perks of the career was the spectacular brand gifts — which could include anything from free luxury products to all-expenses-paid international press trips. So now, in the era of decimated media salaries and influencer-editors, publishers are feeling their already dwindling market authority shrink even further as individual contributors make side-deals with brands. One such deal got Fashion writer Andrew Nguyen fired from his role at New York Magazine’s The Cut. Nguyen revealed that he was offered 40% of his annual salary for participating in a video with big-box retailer Target. When Nguyen asked for his employer's permission to participate in the sponsored content opportunity, they ultimately denied his request—which was a sort of an unusual outcome.
While Nguyen decided he’d rather buck suggested HR guidelines, which led to his termination, others in the field have had to make similar career decisions. In 2020, Harper’s Bazaar Special Projects Director Chrissy Rutherford left her high-profile role at Hearst Magazines to pursue influencing full-time, revealing that her income opportunities significantly increased once she left the grasp of the magazine. “The rates that we were — or that we weren’t getting — were not aligned with what I actually felt like I deserved or what I knew I could get outside of Hearst,” said Rutherford speaking with the Business of Fashion. “I obviously recognize that part of using editors is, of course, that we’re not going to cost as much as going and hiring an influencer that has a much larger following, but still, [their] rate was offensive.”
Sponsored Content in Fashion Journalism
The case for journalistic integrity is in question when it comes to fashion and sponsored content. After receiving product and compensation from a brand, is an editor able to write about the brand without bias? Without being linked to a major publication, is a writer just as valuable to a brand?
The policies at media companies regarding spon-con and brand partnership for employees have been so unclear, yet, prohibitive that many editors have gone the Rutherford route and have successfully transitioned to six-figure full-fledged influencers. In her newsletter, former Cosmopolitan magazine editor-in-chief Amy Odell revealed that Hearst tells employees brand partnerships are not allowed, though many still make brand deals on their personal social channels. Hearst also offers editors somewhere in the range of $1,000 for brand deals the company sources for the editor. Whereas Vogue takes a 40% cut. Odell also highlighted some of the reasoning behind why publishers frown upon paid brand partnerships for their employees:
Editors get their social following by being employed at "This Important Media Brand"
This is a conflict of interest because publishers sell ads to these brands too
Publishers can’t pivot their sales teams to function as influencer agencies