Jul 12, 2010

Ask them if they want to buy an ad while you're at it...

Some media critics have never liked the idea that newspapers insulate their newsrooms from the business side of the operation. In the critic's mind, this unnatural division has created rooms full of dreamy, soft-headed writers and editors who, in their veal-like state, simply don't get the pressures real people (such as publishers and ad managers) face in the real world - as though prohibiting reporters from taking story ideas from the advertising staff makes them unable to comprehend where the money for paychecks come from.

Of course, journalists are no more ignorant about, or insensitive to, financial issues than anyone else who doesn't make enough money to have a mortgage or a diversified stock portfolio. It's not the line drawn around advertising that keeps journalists in the dark, it's insufficient salaries. If journalists aren't watching the market, it's because they can't afford to be in it.

But even that is a stereotype - one that holds truer for younger reporters; not so much for veterans who cover complicated financial matters, from area real estate and business deals to government budgets and pension funds.

Which is why the argument, made by some media watchers, that removing the wall separating business and news we will create an entrepreneurial journalists better able to hopscotch through the fractured mediascape, and keep their own publications thriving, is complete nonsense. Unemployment and shifting opportunities will inspire the so-called "entrepreneurial" journalist. But no reporter benefits from learning how to tie stories to big ad buys, or write compelling advertorials, or keep the "important people" happy. This isn't going to remake journalism more authentic or more valuable.

One way newspapers are accelerating the business-editorial mashup is to employ editor-publisher hybrids. Already big in MediaNews Group's LANG chain, the role seems to be catching on and is likely to trickle own the management ladder.

Michael Sigman at Huffington Post writes about some of the predictable consequences when business and editorial freely mix. His examples, including the recent Los Angeles Times' "Despicable" ad wrap and a firing at the Chicago Reader, drive home the point that when the wall is removed, only one side compromise and only one side benefits.

If publications want to blow up the boxes and rewrite the standards by which they operate, then by all means experiment - honestly and transparently - and see how readers react. But don't rationalize that it's going to lead to better coverage. Shifting/blurring the line is simply shifty/blurry ethics.


Anonymous said...

I totally disagree with your comments about journalists understanding the business side of media. The comments on your blog prove my point. They are some of the most naive, clueless thoughts about what ails the industry that you could find anywhere.

Anonymous said...

what ails the industry is greedy publishers who don't care about quality of stories as long as something gets on the page to fill open space left by unsold ads.

Gary Scott said...

The most naive anywhere? Interesting.

Also, I never said they understood the business side of media, just that they aren't clueless about how companies run, how they get paid, etc.

Anonymous said...

I think they are clueless. Look at the 2nd comment here. The problem is greedy publishers? C'mon, how naive is that? If you understand how the business works you would never make that comment. Journalists do great things and fill an important role, but this isn't one of them. They are the alter-egos to the sales people who have their own set of pros and cons.

Gary Scott said...

You assume that the second comment comes from a journalist.

But set that aside, my point was not that journalists will save the day with their business knowledge. And I doubt that preserving editorial integrity is going to keep wobbly papers afloat. But I do know that degrading editorial integrity is the worst thing a paper can do, since this is the one asset they have that sets them apart from any other "information provider."

What I meant to attack was the faulty logic used by those who would like to knock down the wall between business and editorial, which holds that editorial is some coddled bunch of fools protecting an ideal at the expense of the company. I'm saying that journalists aren't fools and their ideals not the reason for the industry's decline.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I can agree to that.

Anonymous said...

the reason for the decline is a business model that doesn't work any longer. Sliding circulation and readership. Advertising that is gone or will be gone at a rapid pace. Reduced expenses from the last tow points causing editorial to vastly cut back. New habits of younger information readers who wouldn't be caught dead with a newspaper. You can milk it, but the cow is dead bovine mooing.