By Joe Banks
What is it about the word “advertising” that so rankles reporters and editors who don’t feel it’s their job to pay credence to the bottom line?
I have a theory, tested only by my own experiences during more prosperous times. Then, editors had the luxury of ruling the roost, often to the frustration of advertising representatives who were often made to feel like second-class staffers.
Whenever the chamber of commerce or an advertiser wanted some publicity about a service or a new product, there was this awkward dance that transpired that went something like this:
Ad person: (looking at feet): "Uh, one of my clients is wondering about getting a small story in the paper about a new room they're adding."
Editor: "Tell them to buy an ad."
Ad person: "They are, but they'd like a mention too."
Editor: "We're not their public relations company. We report the news. That's not news."
The ad rep would inevitably slink away, quietly grumbling and wondering how to tell his client the bad news—and whether, in doing so, they would cancel the ad (and the commission said rep would have earned).
How demeaning to all parties involved, and how time- and energy-wasting.
This anecdote speaks to the major fault lines that have existed between advertising and editorial interests since Gutenberg was a startup, the fabled “separation of church and state.”
And it needs to end.
The best journalism now being done in this country is being subsidized by businesses. In spite of all of the mind-bending changes to information delivery, from blogging to citizen journalism, the work that matters, the work that affects lives, is still done largely because ad sales representatives can sell advertising around or near those great stories. Multimedia included.
It’s important for readers of J-Source to understand that, because it’s among the reasons advertisers have left print in droves. The only way to reverse that is to recognize that advertising needs to be a partner in the next chapter of storytelling in this country.
That doesn’t mean story line-ups are dictated by the head of advertising. But it does mean a closer and more co-ordinated effort between the two departments that, I suggest, would work better if they were one.
I have my own biases. While my own background is as a journalist and editorial manager, I have been married for 34 years to a woman with an advertising background. Together, we ran a small community newspaper in south Ottawa in the late 1990s. It was a small newspaper, to be sure, with advertising and editorial working in the same room. Everybody could hear each other’s phone conversations—the angry reader complaining about a story, the miffed client complaining about a misplaced word in an ad.
But those close quarters helped us understand that we were all in it together. And, the sales people were an extension of the newsroom, and vice versa. The reps were always on the street, mixing it up with small business owners, who were often the eyes and ears of the neighbourhood. Our best reps would tell reporters about something they overheard from a client, with the qualification, “You didn’t hear it from me.”
I believe that mutual understanding and, by extension, respect, was among the reasons our little papers did as well as they did, and continue to do well today under different management.
That's especially true for startups whose content producers need to be more than simply the sum of their parts.
Editorial produces words, advertising sells around the words. That's true on all platforms. But the church-and-state attitude no longer has a place in the business of media. There ought to be regular overlap of interests, for the benefit of both.
Joe Banks is the co-ordinator of and professor in the Algonquin College Journalism program, in Ottawa, and has been a working journalist, editor and publisher for 36 years. He writes the Media Musings column for J-Source.