Sunday, May 3, 2009

A new role for editors - tear down the walls

Newspapers used to be more like utilities. Nobody could compete with their ability to collect and distribute classified advertising. And nobody else had their reach in a geographic area. So other advertisers needed them, too. But the world looks radically different today. Newspapers have to be more entrepreneurial. That’s a difficult shift to make, one that can cause a lot of angst. So what’s the appropriate relationship between editorial and advertising in this new environment?

My bottom line is that revenue is everyone’s problem today. Everyone in a news organization should at least be allowed to propose ways to bring in more money. Even better, people should be encouraged to think of new sources of revenue (and savings) for the health of their organizations - and their ideas to improve the performance of their companies should be welcomed. To me, this requires a much closer relationship among people working producing content, selling advertising, marketing, and providing customer service.

Perhaps the most controversial part of my recent post about lessons for editors from the demise of the Rocky Mountain News was the statement: “Don’t worry about walls, or the separation of church and state. Instead, worry about values, that the entire organization and the community understand what makes you distinctive and worth caring about.”

One critic said my approach resulted in editors allowing newspapers to be destroyed in the name of being “innovators.” Another said, “your suggestion not to worry about walls between marketing and advertising strikes me as a huge mistake. History and Sam Zell tell us there are very, very good reasons for those walls.”

Let me describe more fully what I’m thinking about the role of the editor when it comes to the advertising department. First, I don’t believe it’s healthy for a news organization to be a free-for-all, where advertising reps shop proposals to help their customers with any editor they can find to listen to them. That’s chaos. Nor, of course, do I believe an editorial slant should be promised as an enticement for advertisers. But I do believe it’s critical for the top editor or his/her representative to be at the table when new revenue initiatives are discussed, developed and evaluated. Why do we think American newspapers are so full of advertorial content? One reason for that development, I believe, is that in some places it’s easier for advertising to produce its own “journalism” than find a way to work with editorial. That’s a disaster.

Local news organizations need to have an identity, and it’s one of the roles of an editor to build, maintain and protect that character through the type of journalism and other information services they provide. This doesn’t mean editors need to go on sales calls – although personally I think there are cases where it could be helpful for a client to understand what is being imagined and there’s no better person to explain that than the editor. But it does mean that editors need to be part of the group at their news organization approving new approaches to growing their businesses and signing off on how their work is represented.

There’s no question this can take the editor away from the daily bustle of the newsroom. But think back to when the founders of newspapers were creating these businesses. Those owners cut a wide swath. So should today’s editors. They should be the voice arguing that what's best for the customer is best for the organization, regardless of the institutional hurdles that stand in the way of delivering what people might want.

Newspaper advertising departments used to operate like order takers. It can’t be that way any longer. Local news organizations need to provide services to advertisers and help them build their businesses. The world moves much faster today. If advertising folks aren’t working side by side with journalists, aware of what they’re trying to do and looking for opportunities for their clients in the community, too much is lost. The same holds true for marketing staff. How are newspapers going to develop viral marketing if the marketing people aren’t working with editorial types in real time? And the same holds true for customer service folks? How are newspapers going to deliver new products to people where and when they want them if customer service people aren’t looking for opportunities in real time?

I think newspapers need to think of themselves more like the weeklies of old, where one person did many things over the course of the week. I’m not saying an advertising rep should be writing a story, or a journalist selling an ad. But they should be talking, sharing their understanding of the community, its needs and the possibilities of their work. They’re in this thing together and right now the battle is for survival. That means people need to know what they’re fighting for. But editors can’t tell them if they’re not on the front lines.


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