Beer Blogging, Ethics, Journalists, Payola, and Maybe a Beer or Two…

A few weeks back, a handful of beer writers and bloggers kicked around the issue of writing, ethics, and coziness with the brewers we all cover in one form or another. As the discussion occurred on Twitter, it was necessarily limited to 140 characters, which, frankly, got pretty ridiculous when I added @Beervana @agoodbeerblog @BoakandBailey @stanhieronymous @evanrail @Thirsty_Pilgrim @nagbw to the discussion. Eventually we broke down to Morse Code, but I left the discussion with the idea that these issues should be raised in one of the upcoming Session events hosted by various bloggers. I’m not sure anything will ever come of it but I still think it was a good idea. The next Session, to be held on April 6, will discuss “What Drives Beer Bloggers?” Not really on point but perhaps the subject will be touched upon there.

After having harped on this subject plenty in recent years, I simply let the idea go…until I saw this post by The Potable Curmudgeon today describing the available sponsorship opportunities for brewers and other beer industry folks for the upcoming Beer Blogger’s Conference to be held in July in Indiana.

Now I can’t really tell TPC’s angle on all of this but it seems clear that something isn’t quite right. Now I’ve had plenty to say about the Beer Blogger’s Conference in the past and I’m not looking to rehash that except to note what TPC posted on the sponsorship opportunities:

2012 Sponsorship Opportunities

About the Conference

The International Beer Bloggers Conference is a unique opportunity to connect with the “new media” of beer. Beer bloggers are more than just enthusiastic about their beer experiences. They are actively socializing their experiences by publishing their thoughts on the Internet. There are almost 750 “citizen” beer bloggers in North America and approximately 130 are expected at the 2012 Beer Bloggers Conference, with hundreds more paying attention online.

Elite Sponsorship ($20,000)
Elite Sponsorship is a unique category that provides half of the sponsorship funds to bloggers as a stipend to offset the cost of their attendance. The stipend fund pays the registration fee of up to 100 attending citizen beer bloggers. Elite Sponsors win via a) promotion of the stipends by the conference itself, including
two direct emails to our worldwide list of bloggers, two blog posts, and multiple Tweets, b) connection to the attending bloggers, c) requirements for minimum posts, and d) Premier Sponsor benefits as below (with an extra registration). If you are interested in Elite Sponsorship, please ask for our separate Elite Sponsor
document.

Grand Sponsorship ($10,000)
• Opportunity to organize a special program, such as: participate on a panel or other content session, approved by conference organizers, that highlights your business; sponsorship of a Beer Blog Awards; giveaway promotion; etc
• Staff a table (and optionally pour your beers) during Meet the Sponsors on Friday
• Sponsor listing and logo on website; highlighted in pre-conference packet sent to participants; hang banner at the conference; and recognition during the event
• One blog post on the BBC site and multiple Tweet about your company or organization
• Includes two conference registrations

After Hours Party Sponsorship ($7500) – one available
• Provide beer for an After Hours party Friday from 9:00 to 11:00 PM
• Opportunity to address all participating bloggers during the party
• Sponsor listing and logo on website; highlighted in pre-conference packet sent to participants; hang banner at the conference; and recognition during the event
• One blog post on the BBC site and multiple Tweets about your company or organization
• Includes two conference registrations

Dinner Sponsorship ($5000 plus cost of dinner) Sold
• Provide beer for one of two conference dinners, either at the host hotel or elsewhere
• Sponsor is responsible for handling all dinner arrangements
• Opportunity to address all participating bloggers during the dinner
www.BeerBloggersConference.org info@BeerBloggersConference.org
• Sponsor listing and logo on website; highlighted in pre-conference email to participants; hang banner at the conference; and recognition during the event
• One blog post on the BBC site and multiple Tweet about your company or organization
• Includes two conference registrations plus multiple invitations to your dinner

Lunch Sponsorship ($5000 plus meal costs)
• Provide beer for a conference lunch, either at the host hotel or elsewhere as you choose
• Sponsor is responsible for handling all lunch arrangements
• Opportunity to address all participating bloggers during the lunch
• Sponsor listing and logo on website; highlighted in pre-conference email to participants; hang banner at the conference; and recognition during the event
• One blog post on the BBC site and multiple Tweet about your company or organization
• Includes two conference registrations plus multiple invitations to your dinner

Premier Sponsorship ($4000)
• Staff a table (and optionally pour your beers) during Meet the Sponsors on Friday
• Sponsor listing and logo on website; highlighted in pre-conference packet sent to participants; hang banner at the conference; and recognition during the event
• One blog post on the BBC site and multiple Tweets about your company or organization
• Includes one conference registration

Event Sponsorship ($1000)
• Staff a table (and optionally pour your beers) during Meet the Sponsors on Friday; this is the least expensive option to be able to pour more than one of your beers for all conference participants
• Does not include conference registrations

Live Beer Blogging Sponsorship ($400)
• Bloggers will have five minutes to taste, review, and blog or Tweet about one of your beers
• You will reach 10 tables of bloggers with about six to eight bloggers per table
• Does not include any conference registrations but you must have someone present to pour

Now some of this may seem somewhat innocuous, while some other parts may seem a touch close to payola. You can check out which breweries and organizations have already ponied up their money to hang with the beer bloggers. You may also note something unusually similar about the sponsors. All told, it looks like the conference founder, Zephyr Adventures, has finally found a way to make beer blogging pay. Just not for the bloggers…

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Brewers Association Cancels Flawed Beer Journalism Awards Program…

Just in from my beer writing buddy Don Russell (aka Joe Sixpack) that the Brewers Association has decided to end its five year run of the Beer Journalism Awards, recently renamed in honor of the late beer writer Michael Jackson.

And while I have never been a particular fan of the awards, which involve cash payments and travel accommodations paid for by the Brewers Association, an industry trade group, and several craft breweries, it is sad that beer writers are left without a means of promoting their efforts and judging and awarding the best among them. Over the years, the BJA honored many talented beer writers and it would be nice if that laudable practice could be continued in a less ethically challenged manner. I’d be interested in hearing what others think about continuing these efforts in the future.

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A Brief Recap and Review of the 2008 Great American Beer Festival…

The annual Great American Beer Festival has just concluded another eventful run in Denver and I just returned back to Boston after an early morning flight. During the trip, I spent time in both Colorado Springs and Denver, with attendance at two of the 27th annual festival’s sessions. This year’s incarnation continued to build upon the event’s successful history, if with some troubles. There is no question that with more than 2000 beers available on the floor from more than 450 breweries, the GABF remains an impressive logistical undertaking and a feat of coordination. This year’s event sold out for the second straight time and did so two weeks before the opening session. With all of its success, the festival stumbled in one critical area: crowd management. In giving access to the 46,000 people who attended the event, several thousand were forced to stand in line for more than an hour before entering the festival. Inside the convention hall, the festival was packed, even during the normally light Thursday session. Despite its gains, the GABF may have reached its tipping point in terms of population.

The festival gives attendees, especially those in the industry, an unparalleled opportunity to hob-knob with other beer lovers, brewers, and pub owners and this year didn’t disappoint. For those interested, there were countless side events and late-nights at the GABF’s unofficial headquarters at the Falling Rock. For my part, I especially enjoyed meeting Don Younger and getting to spend some time with my old friend Toshi Ishii of Japan (and England, Norway, and countless other brewing locales).

Beyond the usual events and overwhelming number of beers present, the festival this year appeared to lack a bit of the enthusiasm and sense of wonder that it has in the past. It’s a bit hard to put your finger on exactly the cause, be it the down economy or some other reason. In any event, brewers were in shorter supply at their tables and in attendance during the event itself than in years past. The focal point of the week appears to have shifted away from the convention floor itself and into the city and state more generally.

Without question, where the brewers left off, the burgeoning new media picked up. Bloggers were omni-present, with many reporting directly from the festival floor or the adjacent media room. For those who weren’t able to attend the event, you could read near-contemporaneous accounts from a wide variety of sources. I was particularly impressed with Draft Magazine’s work during the event, including its video interviews with a dozen or more brewers and other beer folks directly from the festival floor.

And while I’ll have more on the GABF here and in Beverage Business in the future, including on Anheuser-Busch’s strong specialty releases (excluding its oddly British ‘American Ale’), the Siebel Institute’s sensory evaluation course, and the somewhat surprising announcement of the return of SAVOR, I wanted to offer a few thoughts on the event. By the numbers, the BA handed out 222 awards out of more than 2900 beers entered in the competition, rounding out to about 7.5-percent of beers entered picking up a medal. Stop to think about that number for a moment. We often hear beer geeks complain about the GABF and nit-pick particular selections. But in the end, fewer than 1 in 13 beers received a medal and just over 2-percent received the much-coveted gold. When you think about the breweries that win multiple medals, fest after fest, questions about the judging process have to be laid to rest.

Attendance at the GABF by New England brewers, even where the Brewers Association’s Board of Directors is presently chaired by Rich Doyle, CEO and founder of the region’s largest craft brewery, continues to be poor. Of the 472-plus breweries in attendance, only 16 attended from New England. Of those in attendance, New England brewers managed to take home only 3 GABF medals, with Cambridge Brewing winning a gold in the highly competitive experimental category for its Arquebus, a bronze for Amherst Brewing Company’s Ryeteous Red, and a bronze in the aged beer category for Boston Beer’s Samuel Adams Utopias 2003. All told, New England brewers took home just over 1-percent of the total medals awarded. When you compare that to the impressive showings of a town like Philadelphia, let alone the Mid-Atlantic or California and Colorado regions, and New England’s performance is very disappointing.

As a final note, I want to extend congratulations to the winners of the Brewers Association’s Michael Jackson Beer Journalism Awards, including Lew Bryson in the Trade and Specialty Beer Media category. While I personally disagree with journalists participating in the awards, Lew is a good and thorough writer and I look forward to reading his winning piece.

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Why Reporters and Journalists Should Not Participate In The Beer Journalism Awards…

Entering its fifth year, the Beer Journalism Awards is a program sponsored by the Brewers Association trade group that seeks to recognize “outstanding media coverage that increases beer enthusiasts’ understanding of the diversity and flavor of American craft beer.? Originally started by Ray Daniels, the original Director of Craft Beer Marketing for the former Association of Brewers, the program has proven a popular conduit between the association, which represent small American craft brewers, and the writers who cover the trade. According to the Brewers Association, the program has grown in submissions by 156% (58 in 2006, 136 in 2007), with a greater number of entries expected in 2008. The program has also been newly renamed in honor of legendary beer writer Michael Jackson, who passed away in 2007. Past winners include Lisa Morrison, Stan Hieronymous, Julie Johnson Bradford, Fred Eckhardt and several others.

The 2008 awards is sponsored in part by the Boston Beer Company, the Brooklyn Brewery, and the Rogue Ales Brewery. The program highlights the work three journalists each year in the following three categories:

  • Consumer Print Media: For work appearing in general circulation consumer print publications such as daily newspapers, as well as consumer-oriented news, food, and lifestyle magazines. Any publication that is not routinely focused on beer qualifies for inclusion in this category.
  • Consumer Electronic Media: Eligible work includes coverage which runs on broadcast or cable television or broadcast radio as part of a program aimed at a general consumer audience. Content that appears on the Internet on a general interest consumer site in which the site name and the preponderance of content are not concerned with beer will be considered in this category.
  • Trade and Specialty Beer Media: This category includes work appearing in publications and on programs that routinely focus on beer in their editorial content. This would include newsprint “beeriodicals,? and magazines concerned primarily with beer or brewing as well as programs that routinely concern themselves primarily with beer. Internet sites where beer is the primary focus will be considered in this category. Internet radio programming dedicated to beer is also included in this category. Please note that these awards focus on beer appreciation, so content that is significantly concerned with “how to? aspects of brewing beer as a hobby or profession will not be considered. Should a question arise regarding the proper classification of an entry according to these categories, the Brewers Association will be the sole and final arbiter.

Entries can be advanced by the journalist or by a member brewer with the permission of the journalist.

The three winners of the competition, the closing date for which is July 31, are expected by the Brewers Association to attend the awards ceremony at the Great American Beer Festival held in Denver, Colorado, in October. The association pays the airfare from the recipient’s home state (up to $350), two nights in a hotel, Denver-area ground transportation (up to $50), $23 per day food per diem for each recipient, and an honorarium of $500. Winners of the Beer Journalism Awards are excluded from entering the category they won in for three years after winning.

I have entered the competition in the past, as well as a predecessor competition sponsored by the North American Guild of Beer Writers. In going over my work for the past year, I began to take a closer look at the somewhat vague and indefinite criteria listed in the Brewers Association’s guidelines. Over the past year, I have mainly written columns and news pieces for BeerAdvocate Magazine, columns and feature articles for Beverage Magazine, and a miscellaneous assortment of pieces for this website. And while I have generally been happy with the quality of this coverage, and it has attracted interest from both consumers and the trade, I initially wondered more about the criteria behind the judging of the Beer Journalism Awards. My interest was also piqued by the inclusion of a guideline, which I believe is new this year, that “only coverage/stories on ‘American’ craft beer will be accepted.? Considering the controversies raised over the Brewers Association’s definition of ‘craft brewer’ and its deliberate announcements that it was not trying to define ‘craft beer’, I started to think a bit more about the competition in general terms.

As readers of this website are aware, I’ve written a few times (a few too many some have said) over the past year about the ethics of beer writing and their importance in plying the journalism trade. After pondering the subject and doing some additional research, I went back and reconsidered my work over the past year. Avoiding too much self-reflection, suffice it to say that much of my work, especially in the Unfiltered column for BeerAdvocate and on my website, is contrarian in nature and hardly the kind of pro-industry prose that one would assume to fair well in a competition sponsored by a trade group. And in fact, I have written several articles about the Brewers Association itself or touching upon its policies and actions, some of which I agree with and others that I do not. And that is when I stopped to reconsider the Beer Journalism Awards and whether writers and journalists, on an ethical level, should be participating in them.

In trying to make up my mind, I decided to speak with Julia Herz, Director of Craft Beer Marketing for the Brewer Association and the person in charge of running the Beer Journalism Awards. Ms. Herz has done a very effective job of refocusing the association’s once scattered approach to marketing. From the outset, it is easy to understand why the association and its trade members would want to sponsor an awards program for journalists who cover their business efforts. In this respect, the awards, which “help our members acknowledge and recognize coverage of American craft beer,? serve as another marketing tool that helps court favor from the journalists. It encourages positive coverage of craft beer and brings journalists into the association’s fold. In short, it’s smart business for the association and its members to embrace those who cover their business interests.

While the Brewers Association and its staff would not likely deny this goal, they also speak about reaching out to writers who often toil in anonymity and rarely receive much compensation or attention for their efforts. “In our business, there is not a lot of time for brewers, who get a lot of love from the media, to say ‘thank you’ directly to the journalists,? said Julia Herz.

Ms. Herz was also able to answer some questions I had about how the judging process works. After the entries have been received, approximately 20 to 30 judges will receive copies a select number of entries for their review. The judge panel is comprised of Brewers Association staffers and member brewers who have not nominated any entrant. The top three or five entries are then provided to a new set of judges in a final round of judging.

The association provides an evaluation sheet that lists the judging categories and criteria, which include accuracy, quality of writing, and whether the entry overall “meets the objectives? set forth by the competition. According to Ms. Herz, these objectives include assessing whether the entry “increased consumer understanding of the diversity of American beer, whether it discussed the 1400 plus small breweries in America, whether it educated consumers about various beer styles produced in the U.S., and whether it discussed beer flavor characteristics or pairings with food.? In determining whether the entry focused on ‘American craft beer,’ the association does not define the term according to Ms. Herz. Instead, the Brewers Association allows judges interpret the guidelines in their own, personal ways. Accordingly, an article focusing on Blue Moon or Michelob Porter could be considered as coverage of American craft beer, depending upon the judge’s interpretation.

In discussing the possible ethical issues facing writers who are considering participation, Ms. Herz noted that “certain journalists cannot accept the awards due to the rules of their organization or publication.? She also noted that participating journalists can decline any part of the remuneration offered as part of the contest.

From my perspective, I see several potential ethical problems with participating in the Beer Journalism Awards. As many contest participants may be only occasional journalists, let’s start with the note that certain journalists are actually prohibited from participating in the awards. At the Kansas City Star, all editorial employees, full or part-time, freelance or contract, regardless of their position, title, beat or personal circumstance, are covered by the newspaper’s Code of Ethics. The Kansas City Star’s policy starts with this caution.

If we expect readers to view us as credible, then Star editorial employees must aggressively seek and fully report the truth while remaining independent and free from any legitimate suggestion that their independence has been compromised.

After detailing a litany of possible situations and the prescribed ethical actions, The Star then covers ‘contests.’

CONTESTS

Staff members may not enter articles, photographs or graphics published in The Star in contests that are not sponsored by professional journalistic organizations. An exception would be a contest of journalistic excellence sponsored by a foundation, university or organization deemed by the managing editor or Editorial Page editor to be free of commercial, partisan or self-serving interests.

No awards of significant value may be accepted from any organizations other than those just described. In cases where a staff member’s work was submitted by some person or group outside The Star, the employee should check with a supervisor to make sure the award can be accepted.

No staffer may use The Star’s name to enter any contest without the approval of the managing editor or Editorial Page editor.

I believe The Star’s policy and guidelines describe a traditional approach to journalistic ethics. A quick review of the policies of news media outlets across the country confirm this general prohibition to be a standard in the industry.

The Orlando Sentinel’s Editorial Code of Conduct provides:

Contests and awards. Staffers should not enter contests sponsored by trade or advocacy groups – even if those contests are administered by a journalism organization or school – because they may exist primarily to promote those groups’ agendas. The Editorial Department maintains a list of approved national, regional and state contests whose central purpose is to recognize journalistic excellence. Staffers who want to enter contests not on the list must first obtain the permission of the Managing Editor or Editorial Page Editor. Staff members also should refrain from accepting unsolicited awards from trade or advocacy organizations.

The Fort Worth Star Telegram’s code of ethics counsels

CONTESTS:
Staff members should not enter contests without approval of managing editors or the editorial director. With approval, they may enter contests sponsored and judged by selected journalistic and professional organizations. Entry fees for a select number of contests will be provided by the Star-Telegram.

The Los Angeles Times requires:

Awards

Staff members should enter their work only in contests whose central purpose is to recognize journalistic excellence. The Times does not participate in contests that exist primarily to publicize or further the cause of an organization. Under no circumstances may staff members accept awards from groups they cover. A staff member who is offered an award should consult his or her supervisor before accepting it.

New Hampshire Public Radio informs its employees:

XII. Miscellaneous

1. We do not enter journalism contests or competitions when they are sponsored by groups that have an interest in influencing our coverage. All entries for contests or competitions must be approved by the Managing Editor or designee.

And finally, and more comprehensively, the New York Times provides:

Entering Competitions and Contests

45. Staff members may not enter local, national or international competitions sponsored by individuals or groups who have a direct interest in the tenor of our coverage. They may not act as judges for these competitions or accept their awards. Common examples are contests sponsored by commercial, political or professional associations to judge coverage of their own affairs. Senior newsroom managers may make exceptions for competitions underwritten by corporate sponsors if those are broad in scope and independently judged by journalists or disinterested public figures.

46. Staff members may compete in competitions sponsored by groups whose members are all journalists or whose members demonstrably have no direct interest in the tenor of coverage of the field being judged. Staff members may act as judges for such competitions and accept their awards. For example, a staff member may enter a university-sponsored competition for coverage of foreign affairs but not accept an advocacy group’s prize for environmental coverage.

47. Each newsroom’s management should maintain a current list of competitions it has approved. Staff members who would like to enter others should consult the responsible news executive. A critical factor in approving a competition, whatever the sponsorship, is a record of arm’s-length decisions, including a willingness to honor unfavorable reporting. Staff members who win unsought awards from groups that do not meet the criteria established here should decline, politely explaining our policy.

A problem that occurs within the beer writing and journalism community is that many reporters operate as freelancers for publications that do not clearly set forward their ethical requirements. Worse yet, as I have written before, many editors ingratiate themselves in to the beer industry they cover to an extent that their employees and contractors would not otherwise know any ethical issue was raised.

Even though the publications that I write for generally do not have written ethical code, I have decided not to participate in the Beer Journalism Awards for a number of reasons. First, as noted about, participation in a competitive event that allows a reporter’s work to judged by the subjects of the work is professionally inappropriate and has a chilling effect on the reporter’s objectivity and independence. It allows the association, with a vested interest in a particular type of positive coverage, to pick and choose the pieces they believe best fit their interests. The Beer Journalism Awards, however well-intended, is not a journalism contest but a competition to determine which journalists can best portray and market the Brewers Association and its brewer members. Second, it is clearly inappropriate for a reporter to accept financial remuneration from the subject of his or her work. I believe this to be a core and irrefutable ethical guideline for journalists and reporters. And finally, I’m troubled that a journalist or reporter can be nominated by a member brewer with the permission of the journalist, a recent addition of the contest that the Brewers Association has heavily promoted on its electronic listserv and to brewery members. This all-too-cozy partnership between the reporter and the subject, which occurred 40 times last year, threatens a journalist’s independence. I personally do not believe that reporters can ethically participate in the Beer Journalism Awards and would counsel fellow journalists to either decline to participate or to withdraw their already provided submissions.

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