The Cut Confronts Its Spon-Con Standards

What happens when “journalist brands” involve actual brands?

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A few weeks ago, a subset of journalists were duking it out over the word “brand,” and specifically whether writers should have one. This is hardly the first time the issue has come up, although the writer-as-brand conversation tends to deploy the word “brand” somewhat narrowly — where the thing being sold is the person’s reputation or the writing they forge it through. “In the way that the influencer uses her image to sell her swag,” critic Allegra Hobbs wrote in a piece about this phenomenon three years ago, “the writer leverages her life to sell her work, to editors and audiences.” But a recent incident at The Cut illuminates some of the ethical and material gray areas in instances when journalist-branding involves actual brands.

The situation involved a writer named Andrew Nguyen who, until February, had worked at the website for nearly four years. The Cut, an online offshoot of New York magazine, began as a fashion blog in 2008 and has since grown to cover a range of subjects. Nguyen, a former stylist and fairly well-known New York drag performer, had come to the site from the fashion side — starting as a fashion assistant and moving up to fashion news writer by the late summer of 2020. (Nguyen declined to comment for this piece).

Fashion journalists, generally speaking, have a different relationship with brands than those on other beats. A tech reporter can’t usually accept a gift from Amazon, or another corporation they cover. But fashion writers, for better or worse, do regularly receive free products from luxury designers or take funded “press trips” to a marketing event or product launch. The Cut, like many similar outlets, allows writers to accept these gifts, if they comply with Vox Media’s guidelines. “The lines at fashion publications especially have always been blurred,” fashion journalist Amy Odell told Gawker. “Let's say, and I’m making this up, Chanel flew a bunch of beauty editors to the French Riviera to show them a new perfume — these things are quite common.”

In recent years, as beauty and style writers grew online followings to rival those of mid-level influencers, these brand relationships took on a new dimension in the form of paid partnerships, or sponsored content. A company might hire a writer or editor to post about their products on Instagram or appear in an advertising campaign. The Cut’s style director Jessica Willis, for example, recently posted an ad for London retailer Matches Fashion and styled a campaign for Calvin Klein (Willis’s hiring announcement disclosed that she would continue working with commercial clients). This isn’t exclusive to the fashion side of journalism — Malcolm Gladwell, the New Yorker writer and podcaster, has starred in commercials for General Motors and given speeches sponsored by Bank of America — though of course it makes more sense for style editors to hawk hair products than podcast historians.

Fairly early into his tenure at The Cut, Nguyen started to receive offers for branded content. The rules on this were somewhat murky. A spokesperson for New York said paid partnerships always had to be approved. But an editor who worked at New York as the practice emerged told Gawker that, because it was new and evolving, editors approached it with a “live and let live” mentality. Staffers asked for approval beforehand, and approval was typically, if not always, granted. Nguyen, for one, had no problem getting partnerships approved. Among other things, he promoted the used fashion app Depop, the fashion retailer Kara, the jewelry brand Studs, and the nail company Dashing Diva, and appeared in campaigns for Amazon Prime and the MTV Video Music Awards. “I greatly appreciated turning my passions into paid opportunities to amplify my work,” Nguyen wrote in an Instagram post, “and it helped me financially, as my editorial salary was insufficient to live in a high cost city like New York.”

That changed in August of 2021, when Target asked Nguyen to appear in their series “Welcome To,” for a video about how he celebrates the Lunar New Year with his “chosen family” of drag performers. By most standards, the fee was massive — roughly 40 percent of Nguyen’s annual salary at The Cut for two days of work (Nguyen declined to say precisely how much). As in the past, Nguyen approached management for permission, in this case, by emailing The Cut’s editor-in-chief, Lindsay Peoples Wagner. She called him directly to discuss it. According to sources familiar with the call, she didn’t approve the request outright, but didn’t seem to deny it either. Shortly after, Nguyen was summoned to a meeting with Human Resources, who told him that, if he proceeded with the shoot, they would have grounds to fire him.

The rationale was that Nguyen had written about Target before — a short article from last May, about a new collection of dresses designed by Christopher John Rogers, which ran under the headline: “A Very Good Collaboration That’s About to Drop.” To H.R., this evidently constituted a conflict of interest (New York declined to comment on the specifics of Nguyen’s employment). To Nguyen, who wrote about the incident on Instagram, it seemed like an arbitrary enforcement of a rule that had never been clearly articulated. He did the shoot anyway. “I made the decision to participate in the Target video as a way to advocate for my story,” Nguyen wrote, “which I have every right to tell.” The video came out on Jan. 19, and three weeks later, he was fired.

By the ethical standards of most newsrooms, Nguyen’s case presents a clear conflict of interest: he wrote about a company favorably, then made a compensated appearance in an advertisement for that company, against the explicit direction of his supervisors. But in the context of The Cut and fashion writing broadly, the standards are a bit less clear. For one, The Cut publishes sponsored content itself, some of it written by editorial staff. And many of The Cut’s other fashion writers have participated in branded promotions, including Peoples Wagner, who reported Nguyen to H.R. Peoples Wagner deleted her Instagram shortly after Nguyen posted about his termination, but she has boosted ad partnerships in the past. It was under her leadership at Teen Vogue, for example, that the magazine published an uncredited and suspiciously rosy article about Facebook, which they later marked as “sponsored editorial content,” and, after pushback, eventually removed. Recently, staff writer Asia Milia Ware (Peoples Wagner’s former assistant at Teen Vogue) plugged UGG’s new collection of “organic essentials” on Instagram, just three months after interviewing the company’s latest spokesmodel. After Gawker contacted New York for comment about the apparent conflict, they added a disclosure to the article.

Notably, Ware’s Instagram post had been internally approved, as required for all employee promotions. But if Nguyen broke company policy by participating in the shoot, no one who spoke to Gawker could clearly articulate what that policy had been. “It was never technically defined for me,” a former employee told Gawker. “Rules never really emerged,” an ex-editor added. “It was sort of a case-by-case basis.” When I contacted New York for comment about their policy, they said that they “rarely approve” requests from staff to participate in branded partnerships, and only do so when confident they “do not pose a conflict of interest for our independent journalism or interfere with the work of the editorial staff.”

The spokeswoman pointed to the guidelines of their corporate owner, Vox Media, which defines “conflict of interest,” as “a personal or family relationship, personal financial investment or donations, or working for or promoting an organization that they’re covering.” Should a staffer have a conflict of interest, the guidelines say, they will either be recused from coverage or disclose that conflict. The guidelines don’t account for circumstances where the conflict arises after the coverage, as was the case with Nguyen. The New York spokeswoman declined to comment on why the magazine could not have amended a disclosure to Nguyen’s post, as it did with Ware’s.

Nguyen and some of his supporters see this as a labor issue. Through the New York Magazine union’s pay transparency project, Nguyen learned that he was making roughly 15 percent less than other colleagues at his level (notably, the study only published median salaries, but staff reportedly shared more specific salaries internally). He had asked for a raise last year, but gotten little traction. If The Cut wouldn’t pay him more, his reasoning went, he should at least be able to make up the difference on the side.

The union declined to comment for this piece, but his firing took place while they were finalizing their first contract. Like many newsroom shops, the contract negotiations aimed to protect staffers’ ability to participate in freelance work — a category that could include writing an article for another publication, but also, theoretically, paid partnerships like Nguyen’s. At the same time, many newsroom unions have fought for safeguards against being forced to write ad-sponsored material for their own website — a circumstance not unlike what Nguyen was doing for himself.

Odell, who recently wrote a Substack post called “Let There Be Spon,” told Gawker that it was only a matter of time before newsrooms came around to staff sponsorships. “People are making a fraction of the salaries that they used to be able to earn in this industry,” she said. “It’s really natural for editors at many publications to be fielding these offers for sponsored content — and I can understand financially why they would want to accept them.”

At the very least, the recent proliferation of sponsored content in journalism suggests that those who disagree may eventually be in the minority. It doesn’t help that, at The Cut and perhaps elsewhere, the policies seem to have been unevenly applied. But for writers who aren’t looking for the digital media exit ramp, the fact remains that endorsing a company you have covered betrays a fairly basic rule of reporting. “I can understand,” Odell said, why “managers would think that there was an ethical concern.”