Dec 3, 2009

Selling the news*,**

The Dallas Morning News has decided to tear down the wall that separates editorial and advertising, having concluded the wall is a barrier to revenue. In a memo to staff, Morning News Editor Bob Mong says editors will now report to sales managers and sales managers, in turn, will have a hand in content. It's all about "business/news integration."

From the memo:
To better align with our clients' needs, we will be organized around eleven business and content segments with similar marketing and consumer profiles including: sports, health/education, entertainment, travel/luxury, automotive, real estate, communications, preprints/grocery, recruitment, retail/finance, and SMB/Interactive.

Each segment will be led by a General Manager (GM), a newly-defined role, each reporting to Cyndy Carr, charged with analyzing and growing the business by developing solutions that meet consumer needs and maximize results for our clients. Their responsibilities will include sales and business development. They will also be working closely with news leadership in product and content development.
The amount of jargon needed to explain the proposal is a first sign of trouble. Robert Wilonsky at the Dallas Observer did his best to pin down Mong about what all this means and Wong made an unconvincing effort to brush off concerns. Mong does draw a line between stories and ads, but he sidesteps issues of whether moneymaking pressures will have a direct role in how and what the newsroom covers.

One remaining barrier to prevent unethical behavior, Mong told Wilonsky, is the team of journalists employed at the paper:
Believe me, our journalists aren't shy. If they think this thing isn't working right, they'll be the first to tell you. I talked to a lot of people yesterday, and, yes, there's uneasiness in some areas, and I would have been disappointed if people didn't raise questions.
That's all well and good, but journalists aren't angels. They feel pressure when their jobs are on the line (and will notice that the sales people are in charge). They accommodate higher ups. They aim to please. Moreover, you are what you practice. If you eliminate the wall, eventually people start acting like it's gone. Just take a look at the local television news.

All that said, the integration plan does not appear to include core beats in business or Metro. But it's not clear why they would be kept separate if management, which thinks this new regime is safe and ethical, starts to make money.

A lot of newspapers, including ones in the Los Angeles area, have danced around the separation barrier by creating hybrid general manager/executive editor/publisher slots that give the business side a say in content creation. Most of the time, the influence is limited to special sections and advertorial pieces. The Dallas Morning News has gone much further, and it wouldn't surprise me if it emboldened other newspaper chains to follow suit.

*Update: Although the Dallas Observer reports that the memo went out to all Belo papers, I'm told no one at the Riverside Press-Enterprise received it. It appears this only involves the Dallas Morning News - for now.

**Update II: Dallas Morning News publisher Jim Moroney tells the Dallas Observer that the "business/news integration" plan is about developing niches to attract customers (i.e., making more money). He says the concerns about breaching journalistic standards is "much ado about nothing":
We are trying to understand the local consumer -- what kind of relevant, important news and information does the consumer want in a particular category -- and try to build audience loyalty and more engagement by trying to find the content people most want and that's most relevant and most important. And if we do that, it attracts an audience.


No one will tell Lisa they have to put this picture of this restaurant in the Guide because they're an advertiser. No one will tell Leslie Brenner which restaurant to review.

This is much ado about nothing, and I guess at the end of the day the only way I'll convince people is to tell them to check back in 90 days, 180 days, 365 days and see if anything has changed.


Anonymous said...

Why don't you ask the folks at the Los Angeles Times how that bizarre experiment went for them. Let's tear down the walls and work together crap that Mark Willis was pandering did them wonders. he journalists at the Times weren't shy either, but, a crappy idea still smells.

Here is a novel idea. Stick to what you do well. Editorial writes, advertising sells. Although you need a person in advertising who can spell sell.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to know what brilliant leader hired the consulting company that came up with this "revolutionary" idea to operate a newspaper. How many millions of dollars did it cost? How many employees will be forced out and how much money will this end up costing in lossed revenue.

This has as much chance of succeeding as a cobra and a mongoose teaming up. You can fill in your own.

Anonymous said...

I suddenly feel unclean.

Anonymous said...

Is John McKeon still in Dallas? Isn't this his idea? Didn't he do that at the Times a few years ago? Didn't it fail?

Anonymous said...

yes he is still in dallas and no, not his idea in los angeles. it failed big time.

Anonymous said...

No matter how many times I reread it, I expect to see a picture of Ashton Kutcher at the bottom. And every time I'm disappointed I'm not being Punk'd.

Anonymous said...

12:02, you are looking at this from a rational point of view. It is to bad the Belo folks don't share your vision.

I would sure like to know how much money they spent on this org chart. Maybe they need to take a look at Los Angeles and to a certain extent Atlanta to see how these new structures actually worked.

They didn't and this won't.

Anonymous said...

When the words cluster f--- were invented, this is what they had in mind.

Anonymous said...

There is one simple solution to all this crap. The only way to understand what the reader wants is to - hold on to your seat darlings - have local people run the newspaper. People who live in the city and writers who live in the city and photographers who live in the city know what their neighbors want to read. When the boss and the writers and the rest of the people making the newspapers come form out of town only to work is not the solution. Being stuck in an office from 9-5 does not make one an expert on what the reader wants. Remember Phil Drake over at the SGV Tribune? He knew what his neighbors wanted to read. But he got pushed out by out-of-towners and what do you have left? An exodus of reporters who once they finally figure out their beats, take off because of low morale, low pay and bad treatment from the big wigs running the assylum. Amen.

Anonymous said...

Youzer, you mean people should actually ask readers and advertisers what they want and need? This type of rebellion has cost a number of people their jobs at newspapers.

Anonymous said...

Mckeon seems to be a bit silent on this crap...wonder why?