Today, I Become a Heretic: Tear Down the Editorial/Advertising Wall

From my earliest days as a newspaper reporter, I was schooled about the “Chinese Wall” that separated the righteous work of the newsroom from the necessary, if unsavory, goings on of the advertising sales group. On our side of the wall, we basked in our superior knowledge that we understood what was best and right and righteous for our readers.  On their side, they did the smarmy job of convincing media buyers at ad agencies to book more pages in our publication.

At least that’s how we saw it, and one look over the wall was all we needed to know we were right. It was, after all, the roaring 80s and the sharp suits and tales of sales meeting debauchery were enough to assure the rumpled journalists on my side of the building that we were doing God’s work, and we would not be pushed around by a bunch of sales guys hustling for their commissions.

The narrative became even more important, it seemed, as the tech companies we covered began to make their IPOs and more money poured into our publication. I made of point of parking my beater Nissan next to the sales director’s BMW, if only so that when he walked to his car each evening he’d know I was still inside writing my high-integrity copy to wrap around the seemingly endless ad pages he sold into our book.  Even while we believed we were re-inventing trade publishing (we reporters and editors preferred to call it “special-interest” journalism), we knew that the hustle of the sales team was paying our comparatively meager salaries, and we were glad for it.

We just didn’t want ad salesman on our side of the wall.  When one would inevitably show up, eager to introduce the reporting staff to a new company with a new product (read: “advertiser”), the editorial team would stand in solidarity.  It was our place to determine which companies and products were news worthy.  We know what our readers want (despite the fact that we rarely had time to actually talk to any of them). “You,” we would say with our asses firmly on our shoulders and our integrity thoroughly protected, “go back to your side of the wall.”

And so they did and so it was.  A model that worked for generations. Journalist write. Salespeople sold ads. Better if we never really spoke.

I was reminded of those days today as I dived into the readings and comments for Tom Warhover’s Journalism and Democracy capstone class here at the Missouri School of Journalism.  I have volunteered my RJI project to Tom’s class of 23 soon-to-graduate seniors and in return, I get their insights not just on my project but also on the violently disrupted field of journalism they are about to enter.

Among today’s readings were two essays in Neiman Journalism Lab’s 2014 Predictions series.  The first, by News Corp executive Raju Narisetti, argues that it was time for those on the editorial side of the Great Wall to relinquish their role as “sole custodian of the news(paper) brand, the true keeper of what the masthead is really meant to represent.”    In the second, Juan Antonio Giner, president and founder of Innovation Media Consulting Group, made the case for a re-imagined newspaper product, arguing that “day old news won’t cut it in print anymore.”

Both pieces champion change as the only path to newspapers’ survival.

Narisetti writes with near-contempt for journalism:

If publishers are to build sustainable business models through a combination of advertising dollars, reader revenue, and smart adjacent businesses, then one of the biggest stumbling blocks will be this prevailing, meek public acceptance of the newsroom’s primary ownership of the brand by those in product, advertising, circulation, marketing, public relations, and indeed by many publishers.

Just because a news “brand” was almost never leveraged for anything other than journalism for decades doesn’t entitle a newsroom to its veto-proof card, especially when such power currently comes without real accountability to help sustain the brand, not just the brand’s perceived reputation but also its financial health.

In other words, a clear partition still separates editorial and advertising, but those pesky writers and editors need to pass the power over the wall and let the business folks work this out.

For Giner, the situation is more dire:

In the past, every 24 hours, our newsrooms were able to produce a print newspaper with exclusive content, and readers needed to pay for our daily selection of the most relevant and interesting news and stories of the day before.

But that model has crashed. It’s dead and doesn’t work anymore.

He goes on to make a strong case for a different kind of newspaper product and focuses on editorial management to lead the charge, noting that his proposed “day after” newspaper model requires new work flows and new content management technology.  Giner either assumes or misses the point, however.  He, like Narisetti, argue for change, yet imagine news media organizations that continues to be bound by the Church/State divide. It’s a bit like railroad tycoons imaging the new era of aviation and assuming planes will use the same tracks and stations as their predecessor transportation.

And here is where I become a heretic.  The sanctity of the Church/State separation was critical for a business model in which advertising revenue paid for news that would only be deemed credible if newspaper men (mostly) were not influenced by those same ad dollars.  “But that model has crashed,” Giner says, rightly. “It’s dead and doesn’t work anymore.”  As news media seeks reincarnation in a new era, let’s not assume that the edit/advertising divide continues to serve its strong purpose.

More probably, I submit, the editorial and advertising sides of the house need to burn down the house and start anew together, this time with clearly and carefully aligned interests that focus ad and edit personnel on the singular goal of creating quality, credible journalism that sells, in what ever forms and value exchanges they might imagine. This is exactly what entrepreneurial media companies have done to so completely disrupt traditional news media, and it is exactly what traditional news media needs to do if they are to reinvent themselves in the face of this disruption.

The future of journalism looks a whole lot like great journalism in forms that we are only beginning to imagine.  I simply can’t imagine we’ll get to that future using the frameworks that brought the industry to this brink.

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