Thu, 08/17/2017 - 09:29

Posted by David McKie on December 19, 2012

No journalist would ever suggest that commercial interests should override editorial independence. But as Canadian Press editor-in-chief Scott White explains, some editorial managers are saying the time has come to reinvent and re-examine everything – including knocking some holes in the metaphorical wall between those who produce content and those who sell it.

By Scott White, Editor-in-Chief, The Canadian Press

When Ivor Shapiro worked for Chatelaine magazine, the rules of algebra were not followed when nature called.

The shortest distance between the editorial department and the washroom was a straight line that took journalists through the department that sold advertising for the magazine. But there was an understanding that a more circuitous route was the proper, or ethical way.

“At Chatelaine, there was actually a door, a physical door between the editorial department and the business department,” recalls Shapiro, chair of Ryerson University’s School of Journalism. “The editors literally were not allowed to go through the door. It might be the fastest way to the washroom, but we would go the other way. The editor (of Chatelaine) actually used to freak out if she saw editors going through that door.”

Eventually, that editor who watched to make sure her staff didn’t walk through that door was fired, Shaprio says. And when the next editor came in “that door was opened a lot, literally. And now I'm sure there ain't no door.”

And if that door is gone, is it a bad thing? It’s a question being asked more and more as media companies are reassessing a sacrosanct rule of journalism: that there must always be a “church-state” separation between the newsroom and the part of the organization that makes money.

No journalist would ever suggest that commercial interests should override editorial independence. But some editorial managers are saying the time has come to reinvent and re-examine everything – including knocking some holes in the metaphorical wall between those who produce content and those who sell it.

David Skok, Acting Director of Digital at Global News, was the 2012 Martin Wise Goodman Canadian Nieman Fellow. While attending Harvard Business School during his fellowship, Skok collaborated with Prof. Clayton Christensen – an international expert on business innovation and disruption. They applied Christensen’s theories on strategy and innovation to the news industry and suggested there are lessons for the media to learn from other businesses that have gone through technological disruptions.

In the most recent edition of Nieman Reports, Skok wrote the following provocative statement: “Our traditional newsroom culture taken in aggregate has blinded us from moving beyond our walls of editorial independence to recognize that without sales and marketing, strategy, leadership and, first and foremost, revenues, there is no editorial independence left to root for.”


Asked to expand on his thoughts about the integration of marketing and editorial departments, Skok said he is not suggesting the walls of editorial independence be broken down.

“Original journalism should continue to have no place in marketing or sales for the obvious reasons of editorial integrity,” he said. “What I mean by my comments is more high level. First, we need to expand the definition of what news is. By that, I mean, what constitutes the jobs-to-be-done that traditional news organizations are called upon to fulfill. For example, if one of the jobs to be done is to provide a platform for discussion around a particular issue, then why not involve the marketing and sales teams in coordinating an event around a particular issue?’”

Marketing, says Skok, must become far more aligned with editorial.

“What I always say to the reporting team here (at Global) is that publishing the story is only the beginning of the job. The other half of the job is making sure that people can actually read and interact with your work. This means pushing it out on social media – not just by tweeting, by perhaps by paying for sponsored Facebook/Twitter posts, engaging with your readers who leave comments and working on publicity with radio stations and broadcast. In the same vein that authors are now their own publishers and marketers, journalists should also be marketing their work.”

At The Canadian Press, editors are being encouraged to work proactively with the news agency’s sales and marketing team. As a news wholesaler, CP doesn’t face the same ethical dilemmas of working with sales staff as other news organizations that depend on advertising revenue. CP makes money by selling its editorial services, so there should be a natural affinity for the two functions to be integrated.

“The editorial group needs our feedback that we’re getting from our clients about the type of content that they want to get from us and what they’re willing to pay,” says Michael McCormick, a member of the CP sales team. “So then it makes sense for all of us to come together and to go down that path to produce it. What’s the sense of going into a bubble and producing content that no one really wants to buy or see?”

Skok says sophisticated feedback through the use of digital metrics should be used intelligently.

“Obviously we shouldn’t stop reporting on the stuff that doesn’t get eyeballs, but having said that, if a story doesn’t have impact by targeting the right eyeballs, then we have to ask the difficult question: Was it worth it?”


This article was written as part of an Executive MBA assignment at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management about the integration of the editorial and marketing functions at The Canadian Press. White worked on the assignment with fellow MBA candidates Arun Agarwal, Karen Chuk, Abid Kabani, Andrea Ng and Adolfo Uribe.


"The first duty of a publisher is to stay in business."

Not sure who first said that; I've heard it attributed to the former Globe and Mail editor-in-chief, Dic Doyle. In any case, the idea is coming up on two centuries old. It dates from the 1830s, when "penny press" publishers began to liberate themselves from ties to partisan political backers by creating a mass audience and selling advertisers their ability to reach it.

New York publishers were the pioneers -- the first to recognize that "sales and marketing, strategy, leadership and, first and foremost, revenues" (to use David Skok's words) would create a sustainable revenue base for news-gathering. Pulitzer and Hearst refined the model; British and Canadian newspaper publishers followed. One of the most successful was Joseph Atkinson of the Toronto Star. 

Aggressive promotion was a significant part of this strategy from the beginning. Much of it was undertaken by news organizations, but individual columnists and correspondents churned out books based on their news exploits and undertook extensive speaking tours. These folks had no qualms about marketing their work. Neither did privately owned news agencies such as United Press International, or co-operatively-owned agencies such as Reuters selling their services outside their home markets. Now that The Canadian Press is a for-profit agency, it's not surprising to see client relations and marketing move closer to the strategic core. 

Editorial departments don't need an impermeable firewall between themselves and promotion or marketing. (Who wouldn't want their work to be promoted?) But where advertising sales are concerned, they do need to be wary. This would have been the reason for the washroom peculiarity Ivor recalls. And as both David and Scott acknowledge, it remains essential to bar advertisers from influencing news decisions.

That concern is as important as ever -- especially as news organizations seeking new revenue streams move more aggressively into custom publishing, develop new forms of advertorial and infotainment, and forge partnerships with non-news organizations centred on news events or issues.

Such endeavours don't necessarily compromise editorial integrity. But they should be carefully designed and transparent.

For example, David asks: "Why not involve the marketing and sales teams in coordinating an event around a particular issue?" Well, if prominent newsmakers appear at an event organized or co-sponsored by a news organization, how much should we be told about who's paying for what, and under what conditions? Or, if a news organization puts on an event featuring a reporter who covers a particular beat and gives preferential access to advertisers in that sector, should it tell the world about the arrangements?

I can recall conversations with advertising sales people for whom editorial integrity was an important concern. They knew it was one of their big selling points.

There's nothing wrong with co-operating to make a business model sustainable. But if that model includes reliable news that's independently gathered and edited, it also needs a clear and public division between the editorial church and the advertising state.

Happy holidays, everyone!

J-Source and ProjetJ are publications of the Canadian Journalism Project, a venture among post-secondary journalism schools and programs across Canada, led by Ryerson University, Université Laval and Carleton University and supported by a group of donors.