Editor & Publisher reported this week that the Dallas Morning News (which is owned by A.H. Belo Corp. (NYSE:AHC)) has done a major restructuring of the newspaper, and one of the most contentious aspects of that re-organization will see the editors of several sections reporting to newly-appointed general managers who also have responsibility for advertising.
The restructuring creates 11 “business and content segments,” including sports, health / education, entertainment, travel, automotive, real estate, communications and retail. The GMs in charge of these segments report to the head of sales. A statement from DMN editor Bob Mong called the arrangement:
“the next step toward becoming the most comprehensive and trusted partner for local businesses in attracting and retaining customers and continuing to generate important, relevant content.”
Judging by some of the reaction to the news, this move by the Morning News is either a) a smart decision that recognizes the economic realities of the media industry, or b) a deal with Satan that will be the undoing not just of the Morning News but journalism as we know it (I might be exaggerating a tad on that second point). Richard Whittaker said “Thanks, Dallas Morning News, for making your journalists look like they are owned by ad sales and making life harder for all reporters.”
Some wondered whether the arrangement meant there would be a “potential quid pro quo between ad buys & arts coverage.” There were plenty of skeptics in the comments on a Dallas Observer post about the move as well. And U of Massachusetts journalism professor Steve Fox said simply that “This will end badly.”
Elaborating on that thought later, Steve said “See Weymouth, Brauchli, Washington Post for reasons why,” referring to the incident where the Post (WPO) set up private “salons” at the publisher’s house for selected advertisers to mingle with reporters and editors, something it later scrapped and apologized for. The widespread perception at the time was that the Post was effectively selling access to its editors and reporters (since the salons were “sponsored” by specific advertisers), and that this created a potential conflict of interest in terms of their news coverage.
Not all of the reaction to the Dallas move has been negative, however. Several people from within the media business responded to me on Twitter that they thought more outlets should recognize that journalists and ad / marketing staff need to work closer together. Alan “Newsosaur” Mutter seemed cautiously optimistic about the prospect, saying they could create fresh and interesting new products (provided they could “prevent the corruption of the paper’s coverage”). And journalism prof Mark Hamilton said that most of the sections involved weren’t exactly bastions of enterprising journalism to begin with. Editor Bob Mong, meanwhile, promised in an interview with the Dallas Observer that he personally would ensure that no one crossed the line between editorial and advertorial.
Should the Chinese wall between editorial and advertising become more porous, or be torn down completely? I’m torn on the subject, frankly. I realize that journalism needs to bend and evolve, and that harsh business realities have to be taken into account, but I’ve also seen the damage that can be done when ad concerns drive — or even shape — coverage of a story. In the end, I agree with Mark Coddington, who said that working *with* the ad and marketing departments may not be such a bad thing, but that having editors of sections *reporting to* people who have specific ad revenue goals might be. As columnists love to say, only time will tell.
A publication that is driven completely by advertising would look a lot like Demand Media. Read the Wired magazine profile of the company and see if you think that would be a good thing or not.