O, Brave New World


For some reason, new technologies seem to spawn the notion that old verities and values no longer are valid.

Back in the 1990s, when the dot com bubble produced a booming stock market, the new theory was that the law of gravity no longer applied to stock prices. Something called the “new economics” made sky-high prices OK.

Tell that to all the investors who lost a bundle when the market tanked in 2001.

Then we had the sub-prime mortgage fiasco. No more needs to be said about that.

Now, somehow because of the Internet, the line between reporting and business in a news organization no longer needs to be an Iron Curtain.

Here, from a New York Times article is Exhibit A:

“One thing many of these new strategies have in common is a willingness to transgress time-honored barriers — for instance, by blurring the division between reporting and advertising. True/Slant offers to let advertisers use the same blogging tools that contributors do, to produce content that, while labeled, is blended into the rest of the site. Such marketing deals are central to the company’s plans for future revenue growth. ‘Everywhere I go the whole notion of enabling marketers to create content on a news platform is well received,’ Lewis Dvorkin says. ‘It’s the way the world is moving.’

“Not long ago, such an idea would have been considered heretical, and in many newsrooms, it still is. But clearly, attitudes are shifting. ‘Hopefully we’re breaking down the silliness of how church and state was historically implemented,’ says Merrill Brown, a veteran media executive and investor who is currently building a network of local news sites. Once, most journalists took a posture of willful ignorance when it came to the economics of the industry: they never wanted to sully themselves by knowing the business. The recession has, through fear and necessity, made capitalists out of everyone.”

My favorite part of that passage is characterization of separating news and sales as “silliness”. Elsewhere Brown expanded on his view of how things should work in this new digital world.

[Q] Is there danger in crossing over from business to editorial and back again? Did you ever feel undue influence from one sector over the other, or that your loyalties to either the news or the bottom line affect your ability to do your job?
[A] No, because job definitions are just that, and when you play one role, your commitment is to precisely that role. Although when you’re the EIC [editor in chief] of a media property these days, especially on the Web, you need to both influence the business process and figure out how to adapt to the changing nature of the newsroom in ways that didn’t exist in the past. I don’t believe in the traditional interpretation of what church and state means. I don’t think it’s inappropriate for ad sales people and editors and reporters to intermingle, as long as they know where the lines are. I think one of the failures of media today is the way “church and state” is implemented. Journalists with good ideas and sales staff with good ideas should be able to collaborate in a creative process. I’m for a complete breakdown of what church and state means, as long as ethics remain. I’ve walked that line, and I’d like to think that I haven’t crossed it. Editors need to understand the right place to draw that line, especially in the current environment.

Brown covers himself by paying lip service to “ethics” and we have his word that he’s walked the line but never crossed it. There’s no way of knowing if that’s the case, and even if it is, not everyone has Brown’s apparent impeccable judgment.

I was the EIC of a publication (granted it was print and not digital), and I came to have an acute appreciation for the need to turn a profit to keep the lights on. Nonetheless, I didn’t see it as part of my job description even under those circumstances to run articles or shape coverage in order to facilitate advertising sales. Our readers expected—and had a right to expect—that our coverage would be dictated by our news judgment and that that would be governed by what we thought was important and what our readers needed to know not by what would enhance our bottom line.

In 35 years of journalism at three different newspapers, including 32 at The Washington Post, I can’t recall sitting down at a table with ad sales people to hear what they’d like us to write about to help them sell ads.

The issue is trust and credibility, and when readers start to think that the news they’re getting is being shaped by profit considerations, their trust and confidence in the news declines. And it should.

That’s why the division between “church and state” is enforced by reputable news organizations, because even the appearance of a breach of the separation is enough to undermine credibility.

The values and ethics of the news business—the standards that govern its conduct—don’t, or shouldn’t, change simply because the method of delivery has changed. Accuracy, speed, comprehensiveness, independence and fairness should govern conduct and decisions in covering the news regardless of the medium.

Or maybe I’m just being “silly”.

Leave a Reply