Ad guys in newsroom may not be so bad
I got the same queasy feeling every red-blooded journalist had when I read that the Dallas Morning News seems to be putting advertising-department overseers deeper into the newsroom that any major paper has done before.
But maybe – just maybe – this isn’t such a bad idea. Instead of the advertising people infecting news coverage, maybe – just maybe – the creative energy and constructive skepticism of the newsroom will rub off on the ad guys, who sorely need all the help they can get.
In what was hailed yesterday as a “bold” move in a memo co-authored by the senior vice president of sales and the editor of the newspaper, the Morning News staff was told that “general managers” hailing from the ad department hereafter would supervise several news sections like entertainment, travel, sports, autos and real estate.
The idea is to develop products that will please readers and advertisers alike, leading to fatter top lines and continued employment for what’s left of the newspaper’s shrunken staff. What’s not to like about that?
The obvious answer, of course, is that journalists could be compelled to trivialize, slant or otherwise corrupt their coverage to gain the favor of those new general managers, who presumably will be focused, first and foremost, on selling ads.
Any fair analysis of the agonies suffered by the newspaper business will show that the primary problem facing the industry is a loss of advertising revenue. This results directly from an epic and ongoing lack of imagination and innovation on the part of publishers and advertising executives, not in most cases on the part of their newsrooms.
So, it's not the newsrooms that need fixing. Quite the opposite appears to be the case.
That is why I suggested here a couple of years ago that it would do most newspapers a world of good if they ventilated the Chinese wall that traditionally has separated the business side from the newsroom. As I said back then, if you’ll pardon me quoting myself:
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.
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.
If management at the Morning News is sufficiently enlightened and disciplined to prevent the self-defeating corruption of the paper’s coverage, then maybe – just maybe – this bold experiment could be the beginning of a new kind of collaboration to create fresh and refreshing new products to reinvigorate revenues and readership. Maybe.