Editorial must make sure it doesn’t become marketing. Maybe we need a code.

Citywire, a famous online publication known for its hard hitting analysis of retail financial services and more, is now offering a fund buying service in liaison/association with JP Morgan’s fund platform. This probably makes excellent business sense for the publishing company certainly on one count and no doubt in one column of the balance sheet. But what does it do for the publication? Should readers be concerned?

Well no-one is trying to hide the service. It’s not white labelled. It was lead story on the site one day this week. There is no subterfuge. But, as far as I can see, there’s no explanation or suggestion from the editorial side that Citywire sees even the suspicion of a conflict of interest here. Surely there’s a potential for one and maybe they should say how that would be handled or more significantly, how they would protect against it.

I must say Citywire and New Model Adviser have always been rather big on spotting real and potential conflicts of interests in other people’s business models as IFAs know all too well.

Of course, we live in a world in which Interactive Investor has existed for almost 20 years offering editorial but also what amounts to a big fund supermarket. Moneysavingexpert has very lucrative paid for links simply because of the sheer number of hits it gets, though, it says, not biased ones , and it now has Moneysupermarket as a parent. The nationals have always had tie ups, for example, the Guardian with Skipton Financial Services for buying funds and financial advice that definitely carries the paper’s branding.

It was interesting to see the Guardian’s money editor Patrick Collinson making sure he had mentioned the charges levied by this service when he did a comparison of the cheapest ways to buy funds. He is obviously determined to maintain the integrity of the editorial on his watch.

In fact, the Money Debate understands that there have been attempts to actually be an online financial adviser on the part of some publications, rather than the current practice of using clever taglines such as ‘be your own financial adviser’.

IFAs have often complained about journalists ‘advising’ the public, sometimes thought not always without qualifications. (It must be said some money editors have always been very hot on their staff getting qualified). It is a different scale of argument and you run into very serious issues about press freedom when you start suggesting giving Canary Wharf scrutiny of editorial. Yet I do wonder about some commercial tie ups in the online world that are not disclosed upfront.

In many ways, explicit disclosure of a tie up such as with JPM and Citywire is probably the model for murkier parts of the market including some editorial titles.

The Money Debate has no particular insight into particular titles, but we tend to think that some of these tie ups are the inevitable result of publishers in general facing a great deal of commercial pressure. The yield on online advertising is simply not as good as with print but print may be on its last legs at least for mass distribution daily and weekly titles. Given these challenges, papers and websites with strong customer loyalty will inevitably look for ways to exploit this, in much the same way football clubs do.

But does this have implications for editorial? I know a lot of Citywire journalists, and while one or two may be a little arrogant, there is no question about their integrity.

But what happens when Citywire or its other titles approach Hargreaves Landown or Chelsea Financial Services for comment? Could these fund distributing firms turn around and say – in many ways – now you are in the business of asset gathering – aren’t you a rival? If something went wrong, say with the admin, are other publications going to phone up Citywire and ask for comment?

Perhaps we need to thrash out a code of conduct or even some rules for titles that hold themselves out as independent publishers, commentators and unbiased sources of news and information but offer these links. Otherwise the risk is they find themselves in a grey area where editorial meets marketing.

I don’t really think Citywire is there yet, but as with ‘commission-driven’ advice, one has to say there are some risks.

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