Publishing’s church-state wall is crumbling? Good riddance

The historical divide between editorial (church) and advertising (state) has morphed from publishing’s sacred cow into a red herring – a way to deflect the discussion away from an entrenched culture that can’t let go of outdated, unsustainable ways of doing business.

The issue has re-entered the spotlight following the release of the New York Times’ internal-yet-widely-circulated Innovation report, and also as Time Inc. nears its formal spin-off from Time Warner. Time CEO Joe Ripp, you may recall, caused a stir last fall when he announced, as part of the hiring of Norman Pearlstine as chief content officer, that editors would report into the group presidents of their respective divisions.

“We believe effective collaboration across business and editorial lines is imperative if we are to succeed as an independent company.  With the headwinds facing our industry, we must approach our business through a more entrepreneurial lens and break free from bureaucracy.  We are confident this new structure will create a strong partnership between business and editorial, promote creativity and result in a cohesive vision for each of our brands that will be essential to long-term growth.”

The pronouncement caused much angst among critics who promptly decried the death of the church/state divide or, heaven help us, of journalism altogether. Now it’s the New York Times’ turn under the microscope.

A call for collaboration

The 10 staff members who researched and wrote the internal report, which was originally published, somewhat ironically, by BuzzFeed, were frank in their criticisms of the Times’ slow transition to digital. While they did not recommend wholesale reorganization, they did strongly encourage better collaboration between editorial teams and business functions that are focused on what they call the reader experience.

At the Times, there’s no shortage of resources in those reader-focused functions: approximately 30 people in analytics, 30 in digital design, eight in R&D, 120 in product development, and a whopping 445 in technology. So how does the Times’ editorial staff leverage this deep digital talent pool? Not well, apparently.

The report cites “widespread concern” in the newsroom “that it is inappropriate to speak with colleagues on the business side’s payroll.” A leader in one of the Times’ reader experience departments commented, “Everyone is a little paranoid about being seen as too close to the business side.”

The barrier often results in duplicate work or work with “limited utility” for the newsroom – because designers and developers are simply guessing at editorial needs and priorities. “We can sit around and come up with ideas all day long up here, but they have no legs without editors,” Ian Adelman, digital design director, says in the report.

The authors’ recommendations emphasize better collaboration:

“We still have a large and vital advertising arm that should remain walled off. But the many business-side departments and roles that are focused on readers need to work more closely with the newsroom, instead of being kept at arm’s length, so that we can benefit from their expertise.

We are not advocating a huge new bureaucracy, disruptive reorganization, or a newsroom takeover of these departments. We are simply recommending a policy shift that explicitly declares that Reader Experience roles should be treated as an extension of our digital newsroom – allowing for more communication, close collaboration and cross-departmental career paths.”

A more radical approach

Not every publisher advocates such a measured approach toward a digital transformation. Zillah Byng-Maddick, the newly appointed CEO of UK enthusiast publisher Future, recently promised wholesale changes in order to fix a business model that she said “isn’t working hard enough, isn’t sustainable and needs to change.” From the Guardian’s David Hepworth:

[Byng-Maddick] said there would be redundancies and for those remaining promised a very different way of doing things. For a start the business would no longer be structured round content types. Instead a single content and marketing team would produce all content.

Centralizing editorial staff for such a diverse portfolio of brands – Future has titles that span technology, cycling, crafts and cinema – is a bad idea in its own right. This type of streamlining/cost-cutting rarely (never?) improves the quality of the editorial content. But adding marketing to the content mix will completely muddy the waters and erode any editorial independence that once existed. If Future heads down this path, expect its business to crumble as good journalists leave and readers lose faith and trust in the editorial product.

So why is all the concern about the crumbling of the church/state wall a red herring? For one thing, it’s not a new phenomenon. Advertisers (and, as an extension, publications’ own sales teams) have long tried to exert their influence on editorial coverage. From Hepworth’s post about Future:

“Like overheated suitors, advertisers used to lean against the wall between church and state. … hoping against hope that they would be the first one to punch a hole in that structure. … They wanted to be the one to get their brand on the cover, their product featured on the editorial pages without the pesky words ‘advertorial’ above it, their editorial credits more numerous than any of their competitors.”

Some publishers – especially smaller shops – have been more accommodating than others. In a recent discussion about native advertising, the head of a tiny niche publisher commented, “One advertiser asked me why should they buy a native ad when they can continue to pay us to write articles about them?”

Most editors with any chops, however, diligently guard against the unwanted advances of overzealous advertisers and salespeople. And they should continue to do so. But there’s a difference – a huge difference – between maintaining editorial independence and finding ways to collaborate with the business side to ensure that the editorial products they’re developing can actually make money, directly or indirectly.

Translating editorial into business value

A recent report about the lack of digital tools in news organizations, published by the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy in the Sanford School of Public Policy, describes this problem and the way to resolve it:

Getting the full value of [editorial] work requires … that newsroom executives coordinate with their business counterparts to make sure the work gets the marketing, promotion and sponsorship it deserves, given its power to engage news consumers.

That’s a conversation that doesn’t always come naturally in organizations that have church-and-state walls between journalists and the business types. But it’s a conversation that many of the people who have done pioneering work in data journalism know needs to happen if the audience and stories their work generates are going to help the industry’s bottom line.

The Times report, unfortunately, highlights a newsroom culture that actively discourages any type of business collaboration:

“The newsroom has historically reacted defensively by watering down or blocking changes [suggested by reader experience departments], prompting a phrase that echoes almost daily around the business side: ‘The newsroom would never allow that.’”

For news and magazine publishers to survive in the digital age, we need to move beyond the tired church-and-state debate toward more productive discussions about the value a publication brings to its audience, and the ways in which all parts of the organization – editorial included – can work together to create a model for sustainable growth and profitability.

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