Ventilating the Chinese wall
Ironic? Yes. Cruel? Not necessarily. In fact, a dose of investigative reporting may be just what the industry needs to pull out of the long-running revenue tailspin that threatens to destroy it.
The problem, of course, is that commercial discussions are strictly verboten in most American newsrooms. For sound reasons that contributed over the years to the credibility of modern newspapers, most journalists hold deeply to the principle that the news should be reported without heeding the interests of the advertisers who underwrite their work.
I embraced and upheld the so-called separation of church and state throughout my career in journalism. And I freely admit that I might well oppose crossing the bright line today, if I had not exited the enchanted realm of journalism two decades ago to make my way in the real world of business.
Now that I am on the outside looking in, however, I believe it is time for deeper collaboration than ever between the newsroom and the counting house. While I do not favor razing the Chinese wall that traditionally has separated the two, we have come to the point that it is time to start poking some serious holes in it. The resulting ventilation will do both sides a lot of good.
This urgent and unorthodox suggestion results from my conclusion that the people on the business side of newspapers, whose job this rightfully should have been, have failed for more than a decade to gain a realistic understanding of how their intended customers perceive their print and online products. By “customers,” I mean not only readers but also advertisers – and the largest, fastest growing group of all – non-readers.
Instead of evolving their businessses to address the rapid technological, economic, demographic and social changes that are disrupting the way people consume traditional media like newspapers, publishers for the most part have tried to optimize an ancient and outmoded model in myriad self-defeating ways: forcing through unjustifiable ad-rate increases, monkeying with circulation figures, chopping staff, shrinking newspapers and scrimping on customer service.
My favorite stupid publisher trick occurred at a paper that halted deliveries to long-time subscribers because the newly down-sized circulation department fell behind in despositing the payments arriving in the mail. The faithful customers whose service was suspended, incidentally, were paying full boat, not the money-losing $20-a-year promotional price the paper desperately charges for Wednesday-through-Sunday home delivery.
With the declines in circulation, revenues, profits and stock prices in the last few years proving beyond all doubt that chiseling isn’t a growth strategy, it’s time to try something completely different: building sales. And that’s where the newsroom comes in.
Unlike the executives on the business side who got their jobs by being good, but not particularly inventive, at exploiting the monopoly-like advantages enjoyed by most newspapers until the arrival of the Net, journalists don't have to defend the relevance of their role in an increasingly ineffective business model. As such, journalists are the most objective and least personally conflicted people working in publishing companies.
Further, most journalists possess a peculiar DNA that compels them to kick over rocks to see what crawls out. They, and they alone, appear to be the ones most likely to be motivated and equipped to ask such tough questions as what advertisers really think, what readers really want and, most importantly, what newspapers can do to regain the engagement of the advertisers and readers who have forsaken them.
As journalists become involved in creatively identifying new audiences, new products, new markets and new revenue streams, one alternative that should remain off the table, obviously, is trading cash for news coverage. Putting the news columns up for sale would erode the most valuable commodity a newspaper possesses: Its credibility.
The emergency facing the newspaper industry leaves journalists no choice but to broadly redefine their roles and overcome their near-universal reluctance to getting involved in the business of their business.
If they don’t act to defend the economic health of the institutions that make their valuable work possible, the institutions themselves may be irreparably damaged or lost forever. I can think of no higher calling for a journalist.