Mr. Publisher, rebuild that wall!

The news is spreading about the Dallas Morning News memo to its employees explaining how the editors of various sections will now report to sales managers, who are being renamed general managers. Robert Wilonsky does a great job in this blog post detailing how the issue started and even has interviews with the paper’s editor and publisher.

As a former journalist, the concept of having editorial content people reporting to advertising people gives me the shivers. When I posted the original story to Twitter the other day, I commented, “I weep for the future.” My comment was predicated on the one made to me by Becky Johns when she sent me the post with the note, “Read and weep.”

There has always been an invisible wall — and sometimes a physical barrier — between the editorial and advertising departments at newspapers. It’s been there as a protective barrier for employees on both sides, as well as their customers — the readers on one side and advertisers on the other. Journalistic integrity and credibility are two of the pillars that have kept journalism strong in this country. They have helped readers trust that what they are reading is not tainted by bias. It also has kept advertisers confident in the paper’s power to attract an audience that will, in turn, see their ads.

Certainly, advertising is an incredibly important part of any newspaper, because it is, after all, a business. Advertising revenue is what drives the newsroom budget and determines the size of the paper’s news hole. But I’ve always seen advertising as a necessary evil and certainly nothing that should be embraced by the editorial staff.

I found the following two things the most interesting:

  1. The publisher was most bothered by the line, “In short, those who sell ads for A.H. Belo’s products will now dictate content within A.H. Belo’s products…” that was in Wilonsky’s original post.
  2. The publisher’s comment that, “This is much ado about nothing…”

It seems to me that the publisher is bristling at the idea that editorial staff will be affected by what their new managers — remember they used to be called sales managers — is because Wilonsky cut a little too close to the bone. I don’t know how anyone can see this as anything but editorial reporting to sales.

I also can’t believe the publisher suggested people are over-reacting to this news and we’re supposed to believe nothing is going to change in terms of the editorial decisions the paper makes. Really? If nothing is going to change, then why reorganize? The paper’s management claims it’s going to help make things more audience-focused. But, their memo to employees clearly states, “Their (general managers) responsibilities will include sales and business development. They will also be working closely with news leadership in product and content development.”

You cannot have a manager in charge of sales and not expect them to try to influence the news when working with leadership on “product and content development.”

It’s been called a bold idea, but bold doesn’t always mean good. In this case, it’s a bad idea that needs to be abandoned before it can do any real damage. Mr. Publisher, rebuild that wall!

(Wall photo courtesy of frankartculinary via Flickr.)

How will we get our news?

hownews panelI attended a forum last night focused on the future of journalism titled, “How will we get our news?”

It was hosted by the Central Michigan chapter of the Public Relations Society of America and the Michigan State University chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America. Featured panelists were Ron Dzwonkowski from the Detroit Free Press, Cindy Goodaker from Crain’s Detroit Business and Bill Emkow from MLive.

The event was centered around the One Book, One Community project in East Lansing and its focal point was described as such:

In The Soloist, Steve Lopez laments the demise of newspapers, with their power to tell a story and inspire action. What is the future of the news industry in this age of blogs and on-line news?

One thing that became abundantly clear throughout the night was that there are no easy answers when it comes to the future of journalism — in terms of reporters being given the time and resources to do their jobs properly and businesses being around that can actually sustain the delivery of news in the traditional formats. Yes, shocking news here — newspapers are for-profit businesses. For some reason, people don’t seem to think it’s acceptable for a newspaper to make money, lest it abandon its altruistic nature. But publishing a newspaper costs money, and 85 to 90 percent of the revenue for most newspapers comes from advertising.

It also became clear pretty quickly that old-school journalists are struggling to figure out how to deliver news online while the online folks are frustrated by the newspaper people who think the answer is to simply reproduce the papers in a digital format.

I tweeted from the event, as did a few others. I believe we had a journalist or two in the audience who might write about the event, but those who were following #hownews on Twitter last night already have the story. A bit of irony there, I suppose — that a microblogging platform scooped traditional news outlets on covering a story about the future of journalism. Perhaps a local news organization could have sent a reporter to tweet from the event and then write up a standard news story later. That’s a method of reporting I don’t see being used often enough.

Here are a few of the topics discussed last night that I’d like folks to weigh in on:

  1. One panelist suggested that without major media, online news sources wouldn’t exist — that they are all fed by the mainstream media. Agree or disagree?
  2. Do readers still exist for long-form, investigative stories since everyone likes quick, short news now? Have we, as a society, lost any meaningful attention span?
  3. The average age of readers of the Detroit Free Press and Crain’s Detroit Business is mid-50s. Dzwonkowski said, “the typical newspaper consumer is a dying breed.” He also said, “Young people are consuming a lot of information, but they are consuming it unedited.” He’s worried that no one is bothering to check and double-check the facts and make sure a story is coming from a qualified, reliable source. Do you agree?

One question I asked of the panel and would like to hear your response to as well is: how can we get all people, regardless of age, to once again trust that journalists are doing the proper legwork and providing accurate stories from credible sources? I’d start by getting the Glenn Becks and Keith Olbermans of the world off the cable TV news stations and put them on “The Opinionated Screamers Channel” so people take them with the grain of salt they deserve.

How would you start?

(Photo courtesy of Jessi Wortley Adler – @minij)