Redefining Publishing's Church & State Separation for the Digital Age
The concept of a wall between “Church” (editorial) and “State” (the business side) has fallen out of fashion in the publishing world as a relic of our print-centric past. The world has fundamentally changed, the pundits tell us, and we can no longer afford such a luxury.
Yes, new business models, the fast pace of Internet time, and constant strategy tweaks are obliterating our industry’s notoriously rigid department boundaries. (Thank God!) But our readers haven’t fundamentally changed: They still don’t want to be fooled, and they still look to us for excellent reporting, not for words that have been sold to the highest bidder.
We need to redefine what the separation of Church and State means for the digital age, not abandon the concept entirely.
But, first, a definition, because even in the pre-Internet age the publishing world wasn’t always clear what the separation meant. The best definition I’ve seen is from journalism professor Ira Basen: “the idea that editorial decisions would be made independent of the wishes of advertisers” – though these days you need to include sponsors, business partners, licensees, and others in the definition of “state.
Some journalists have taken the separation to mean there should be an adversarial relationship between the newsroom and the evil business side (except on payday). Others take a less black-and-white approach, noting that priests vote and politicians attend church.
Even in the heyday of newspapers and magazines, the wall between Church and State has always been a bit porous. For years, for example, the American consumer-magazine industry largely ignored the growing body of evidence about the harmful effects of cigarette smoking, not wanting to offend a major source of ad revenue. After all, the High Priest — AKA the editor in chief — typically reported to a president or someone else with P&L responsibility.
But at least the journalists, sales reps, and other minions of Church and State could be kept apart by physical and institutional separation. No more. Digital publishing necessitates a constant state of new-business development that topples departmental silos and requires that content making and profit making be part of the same discussion.
People who used to sell just ads now find themselves brainstorming with their clients about possible content sponsorships. At many publishers’ digital operations, journalists now have primary responsibility for audience development, which in the pre-internet days was a strictly business-side function. Developing new ventures transforms editors into project managers and then into product managers, with responsibility for creating sales opportunities or even revenue-generating deals.
For an upcoming conference, the American Society of Business Publication Editors summarized the challenges facing a 21st century editor: “You must find new and varied streams of revenue. You must preserve your brand. You must provide value to your audience. You must provide value to your advertisers and business partners. How do you do one without compromising another?”
Most people I speak with on the State side have no desire to tarnish our brands or subvert our journalism. Those who sell digital ads for magazine publishers know they have two aces up their sleeves — brand reputation and highly engaged audiences, both of which are built on a track record of creating addictive content. Lose that and they’re relegated to fighting an unwinnable war for massive numbers of eyeballs at minuscule CPMs.
The SEO folks will chime in that the search engines’ algorithms are increasingly tuned to favoring reliable information on reputable web sites. (See “9 Lessons Publishers Should Take from Google’s Leaked ‘Search Quality Ratings Guidelines.’)
The challenge is that we can no longer rely on org charts, job descriptions, or separate seating arrangements to maintain journalistic integrity. Now it’s about mindset and corporate culture. It’s about Church and State being in the same pool but swimming in their own lanes. It’s about people who are part Church and part State struggling at times to keep their roles separate. It’s about how we communicate our values within the organization, especially to new hires who don’t have a legacy-publishing background.
There are right ways and wrong ways to do native ads. I don’t think readers are offended by “brand storytelling” or sponsored content, as long as we’re clear about what’s going on and who’s calling the shots. And whether through organizational structures, written policies, or frank discussions, we can pursue these emerging opportunities while still insulating our journalists from commercial taint.
Cooperation doesn’t have to mean prostitution.