Friday, December 04, 2009

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.

27 Comments:

Blogger Dave said...

I said a related thing after attending the CUNY/Jarvis event where we met last year. That is, there's been a shipload of innovation on the content side of the business but amazingly little on the ad side. At the CUNY event on *business* model, virtually all of the presentations were on content innovation and a little bit on charitable handouts.

I think you make a great point that the innovators in the newsroom can have a positive effect.

6:42 AM  
Anonymous Mike Donatello said...

Alan, as much as I agree with the sentiment of your post, I disagree strongly with your characterization of the newsroom as "most likely to be motivated and equipped to ask such tough questions as ... what readers really want." In my 20-plus years in this industry, I've often found those on the editorial side to be LEAST concerned about what audiences want. Instead, there remains far too much conviction that the newsroom is in the unique position of knowing what readers OUGHT to or SHOULD want, even if readers don't "know" that themselves. Often, such hubris flows directly from the top of the newsroom pyramid.

Luckily -- and perhaps as a result of the downturn -- this attitude shows signs of weakening. And, certainly, not every newsroom fails in this way; my current gig, for example, is a welcome exception. Still, the editorial arm of the industry has a long way to go before it can be realistically be characterized as audience- or market-centered.

7:51 AM  
Blogger Davis Merritt said...

There is no way this can be good for journalism or, long term, a newspaper's credibility and thus its social utility. When journalists' performance reviews, compensation and decisions are controlled by people with other than journalistic motives, the entire enterprise is compromised. It is naive to believe that in a time of shrinking employment many journalists will go over the heads of their new, non-newsroom superiors to report ethical pressures.
This will, however, accomplish the unstated goal of many newspaper owners: driving more of those pesky and inconvenient "journalistic purists" out of the profession.

8:17 AM  
Blogger Carrie Brown said...

I agree - and left a comment on Mark Hamilton's similar blog post to that effect: http://www.tamark.ca/students/2009/12/03/help-my-editor-is-a-sales-manager/comment-page-1/#comment-454401

Carrie Brown-Smith
Assistant professor, University of Memphis
@brizzyc

8:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

At every paper where I have worked, that was no Chinese wall between the newsroom and the ad department -- it was concrete. They were on one floor, and we were on the other. You say this could be healthy for the economic future of newspapers, but I see only minefields and caution signs with flashing lights. We were on different floors because we had different jobs. Put them together, and how long before the sales staff pleas for a good story on the opening of a new shopping center, just on the grounds it might bring in some ads later? How long before the ad department objects to a story on the grounds it will hurt the efforts of sales staff to sell ads? How long before the business section is asked to put together a puff piece on the executive running a store? Even if this parade of horribles never occurs, readers will suspect it is after reading some stories, and rebel. This is truly a terrible idea.

9:16 AM  
Anonymous Steve Woodward said...

Two points:

First, I have to agree with Mike Donatello about newsroom hubris. During my 30-plus years as a newspaper editor and reporter, the prevailing sentiment has been: "We can't have the readers running 'our' newspaper." Ironically, newspaper journalists are the first to recognize the need to change this attitude, yet they can't bring themselves simply to ask readers and advertisers what they want. That reluctance seems embedded in our DNA.

Second, I've been mystified by the absence of advertising people from discussions about the future of newspapers. We journalists yammer endlessly among ourselves about revenue models, but the folks who know most about revenue are seldom there. Do they know something we don't?

9:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The one thing I learned from this business is that appearance is reality. No matter the safeguards and limitations put in place, it looks unethical and just plain wrong for a newspaper to have ad executives in the newsroom.

11:44 AM  
Anonymous Wm. F. Hirschman said...

I have to agree with my old boss, Buzz, but in stronger terms. In my 40-plus years of journalism at several papers in several states, the influence of the business side has never, repeat never, been a good thing for the quality and integrity of the product. They have a completely different view that is understandably antithetical to journalism. Just to start with, this obliterates what little credibility we have left. We had and have some limited problems in newsrooms being too disconnected from the street, but to contend that this is the solution is beyond disingenuous.

12:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why don't we put some of the journalists in a position on the business end of the building to make impacts there?

It seems the backward way to go to put ad people in the newsroom!

1:26 PM  
Anonymous Mystified said...

I have been a tech journalist in a small country in Asia for the last 10 years. We had a meeting with the ad guys recently to address our falling readership and this is what they had to say:

"journalists must attend all their clients product launches, and being busy is not an excuse"

"we should give more positive coverage to key advertisers. in fact, if they buy x number of ads, we should promise positive coverage"

my paper has a circulation of about half a million and we are a listed company.

let the ad guys in i say, and we all burn in hell


"demanded" that we attend all their advertisers product launches an

3:47 AM  
Anonymous Paul Camp said...

First, I am with you, Alan, editors DO care about what readers (and more importantly non-readers) want. It's an old school lament that editors are arrogant and care only about spoon feeding readers and site visitors what the editors think the audience ought to care about. In fact, perhaps with the exception of the large-market dailies, I doubt this has ever been true.

Second when it comes to the idea "that journalists could be compelled to trivialize, slant or otherwise corrupt their coverage" good luck with that folks. By and large editors are dedicated to attracting as many readers as possible WITHOUT trivializing what they hold to be dear: honest reporting of what they see as the facts and some reasonable approximation of the truth,

7:42 AM  
Anonymous Bob Rosenbaum said...

I agree that it need not be a bad thing. I've seen it work effectively and honestly in the B2B environment; then again, I've also seen it operate as a snake pit, too.
What disturbs me about DMN isn't that they're ventilating the wall, as you aptly put it, and putting ad people in the newsroom. It's that they're putting ad people in charge of news sections. Both the ad and edit departments of newspapers need to figure out a new culture of working together. Until now, journalists have been the dominant voice at newspapers, and I don't think you change the culture by simply turning it updside down. You need to change the culture with a structure that seeks balance between the two voices. I'd be more optimistic about DMN's plan if they were bringing in some people from outside who have experience with this. But they're simply leaving it up to people who have entire careers based on NOT doing what now needs to be done.
Finally, I'm not sure this really addresses the reason that advertisers are leaving newspapers. The problem isn't that they're unsatisfied with the way newspapers cover the news; they're unsatisfied with the direct response they receive compared to other digital-based forms of marketing. The ad problem isn't the execution of print journalism, it's the medium.

8:00 AM  
Blogger Dennis Robaugh said...

Treating each newsroom department -- sports, entertainment, etc. -- as its own product line with a unique content niche, its own business leader in the form of a GM, and an opportunity to innovate/evolve on its own is an experiment worth trying.

The bundle that has been the traditional newspaper fits the old model.

We'll see how this unfolds, but it could be one way newspapers can adapt to fit how readers use and consume news and information.

8:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Dennis has a good point. As someone who has worked in both news (as a reporter/anchor/producer) and in business (as owner of a B2B company), it's important to look at the individual topical areas of news as unique product lines with specific revenue goals, target markets, marketing plans, and so forth.

Journalists need to think more like marketers. That doesn't mean writing stories that are pro-advertising, or that give glowing reports on advertiser products. Rather, it means knowing how to GENERATE INTEREST in a story, how to hustle to promote their own stories. Just being a good writer and good reporter is no longer enough. Journalists must now do what every employee in every other industry must do: justify his or her existence by demonstrating a DIRECT link between his or her work and increased readership and, ultimately newspaper revenue.

9:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As newspaper brokers, we appraise hundreds of newspapers every year. If one fault continually comes through, it is the lack of merchandising within the pages of so many newspapers so as to create a marketplace for an advertiser's goods. A little merchandising goes a long way. That said, a little input from the ad sales department usually does the trick.

9:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am amazed at how consistently I disagree with you. Every single post and interview. As someone who has been working for many years in media ('old' & 'new') on both the business and content sides, I can attest that, without exception, allowing profit/ad interests to infiltrate journalisic credibility is wrong. In my experience, once ads enter the mix, they drive evrything.

It is admirable that you do try to suggest innovative ideas to save journalism, but you are curiously & consistently barking up the wrong tree.

1:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with Bob Rosenbaum. The problem is that advertisers have already made their decisions to put their money in cheaper, targeted ads that they find more effective, rather than traditional mass appeal ads run in newspapers and magazines. They are doing this because they are getting a better business return. I don't see how putting ad salesmen in the newsroom changes those business decisions.
I do resent the apparent underlying concept behind this move that suggests newsrooms are not business-oriented, which I do not think is true.

5:42 PM  
Blogger Mindy L. O'Neall said...

What about the old model of newspapers make sense for an online model? It doesn't- that is why, IMHO, NO ONE is doing online advertising well.

Content driven by advertisers is bad. It's wrong, and it's a disservice to the readership and ownership of any publication. So I don't believe the newsroom needs to change their product. Broadcast media, in particular, have already screwed up real journalistic reporting, training readers/viewers/listeners to get their media based on their political agenda. However, the attitudes of the newsroom must change. No longer can content and advertising be separate. They must work in an environment which will benefit both sides.

Ok- so what's the AE's to do to continue generating revenue for content driven publications? Admittedly, innovation and creativity finds a place here. With online publications, it must be more than banner ads. With online publications, it begins with an experience of the site. An experience which will provide an opportunity for an advertiser to reach out and personally touch a qualified prospect without a "pitch". The game of advertising has reversed hands. Now it is the choice of the consumer to ask for what they want.

For advertising executives, it's a time to separate the mundane transactional salespeople from the relationship management partners. Seems soft and fluffy, but it follows the trends of advertising in general. Consumers want more products that are philanthropy driven, earth-conscience, and local. The AE who understands how to present this message in a way that offers an experience to a user, without blatant selling is going to win.

Newsrooms have to confront this time as an opportunity to preserve the journalistic content, while providing an experience for users, and a service for advertisers. Afterall, aren't we all working on the same team?

1:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Consumers want more products that are philanthropy driven, earth-conscience, and local."

Speaking as a consumer, I want products that contain unbiased factual information relevant to my life.

Neither the newsroom with its "earth-conscience" agenda, nor the ad room with its marketing, can deliver this.

10:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alan, you are correct that many, perhaps most newspaper sales staffs are clueless. But it is naive to think that the newsrooms are any better. Both have been stuck in the monopoly state of mind for so long that they do not realize how out of touch they are.

Dennis Robaugh and Anonymous 9:00 AM are on the right track. Newspapers need to start treating both content and advertising as products, and those need to be coordinated and refined to meet the needs of both readers and advertisers. But that will not come from putting ad executives in charge of content any more that it would come from putting editors in charge of advertising.

The Chinese wall should stay in place, but both sides need to answer to a new (well, new for newspapers) part of the business: modern, product-focused, research-driven marketing. Some newspapers give lip service to marketing, but I have yet to find one that has empowered marketing to drive the bueiness.

8:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chinese walls or Japanese paper walls – who cares, as long as there are solidly defined walls between journalism and advertising.

I am amazed that no one of you mentions LA-Times and the infamous former publisher Mark H. Willes. As far as I recall and understand - from admitting quite a distance (Stavanger, Norway to Los Angeles, California) Willes teared down the walls in the LA-Times. The result was a formidable loss of integrity and credibility comes to journalism, and ultimately to a substantial loss of business comes to advertising. If I recall right, quite a number of high ranking journalists left the newspaper and LA-times did not regain parts of its popularity and public standing until Willes was retreating out the back door.

Point is - reporters have nothing but credibility to offer. Advertising and credible reporting can not be juggled by the same person. Not because one person can’t have two thoughts at the same time, but because credibility is not something you get on your own – but earn by the reading public. If a newspaper or a reporter looses integrity and credibility the advertising department has nothing to sell.

We have to bark up some other three to see if we can find a new and better business model for the credible and profitable news organization.

1:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am appalled that in all the comments posted, not a single sensitive news-conscious person decry the use of the derogatory phrase "Chinese wall". I rarely take offense to misuse of terminologies and references. However, I am sad that a highly educated and highly aware group like this would allow this to slide. I like to believe that most of the commenters and poster could come up with a better alternative than "Chinese wall" even if it had been a popular journalism lingo.

6:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anon 6:46 - Good point.

I suggest "Asian-American Wall" as an alternartive.

2:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Am I missing something, or isn't the the term "Chinese wall" referring to the Great Wall? I would not think that would be considered derogatory.

In any case, I had not heard the term before this blog, and that was my immediate assumption.

5:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I rest my case.
--- earlier poster of "I'm appalled ...."

6:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

From Steve Woodward, "Second, I've been mystified by the absence of advertising people from discussions about the future of newspapers. We journalists yammer endlessly among ourselves about revenue models, but the folks who know most about revenue are seldom there. Do they know something we don't?."

I can contribute here. Advertising sales people are usually rebuffed and told to stick to their knitting if they offer suggestions about improving revenue models to aging advertising management. The newspaper business side is run by print-centric white males over 55, and there is truly an attitude of disdain and condescension leveled at advertising staffers (read younger, female) who dare to offer suggestions. Sad.

10:47 AM  
Anonymous Otis said...

I sell ads for an Asian newspaper (print and online), so feel free to take my comments with a grain of salt, but I think that placing all of the blame for ad revenue loss on the ad sales guys is juvenile at best. Advertisers go where the readers are. The last time I checked, ad guys were not responsible for making the content that readers have been abandoning en masse.

Could ad sales people be more creative? Of course, but all of the creativity in the world on the advertising side won't suddenly make an anemic audience look sexy to an advertiser.

1:23 PM  

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