The Paper Wall Between Editorial and Advertising is Burning

soapbox-imageThe face of journalism as we have known it is undergoing a facelift. Print publications are under increasing pressure to find new revenue streams, which is placing new pressure on newspapers and magazines to adapt their journalistic approach to meet the needs of both advertiser and subscribers.

One indicator was a recent report in the New York Times that the Dallas Morning News now has sports and entertainment editors now reporting the general manager – advertising – rather than the managing editor – editorial (with thanks to Marc Hausman, The Strategic Guy, for bringing attention to the article.) As Marc points out, this is a new reality for magazines and newspapers, it also points out an age-old problem.

Any of you who have ever worked as a journalist know that you are frequently pressured to make concessions for advertisers, or for the publisher. During my years as a trade journalist I often ran into challenges around stories that might reflect badly on advertisers. The editorial decision was usually based on whether the impact of the news outweighed the potential wrath of an advertiser, and every publisher approaches this problem differently. However, ever since the beginning of the printed pamphlet, editors have had to deal with similar challenges. Even today, in some parts of the world if you print the wrong opinions the local rulers might throw you in the dungeon. In the United States we enjoy freedom of the press, and we rely on that principle to promote contrarian views and to allow the press to serve as societal watchdogs. But there really is no such thing as objective reporting. Every publication has a viewpoint and a perspective, and it’s up to the reader to read between the lines.

Consider the impact Rupert Murdoch has had on the Wall Street Journal. According to a recent article in the UK’s Guardian, The New York Times is claiming that since Murdoch took over, the newspaper has adopted “a combative style more often associated with Fleet Street than the North American market.” The same arguments have been levied against Fox News, Murdoch’s North American broadcast presence. Much of the criticism against Fox News centers on its inability to separate reporting from editorializing. I don’t think the argument is whether or not media outlets are biased, but rather whether they are candid about their opinions and make it transparent when they stray from objective reporting.

And the explosion of online news outlets just complicates things. Now anyone with a computer can call themselves a publisher and start posting editorial content. If they want to make money on that content, then they have to strike a balance to attract an audience, and any biased reporting they introduce will limit their appeal to both readers and advertisers. There’s nothing new here. It’s just the same challenges publishers have always faced but using a new medium.

So the fact that newspapers like the Dallas Morning News are making changes in their editorial approach to attract advertisers is not new, and it’s not surprising. This is a survival tactic, and one that I expect will be adopted by other publications in one form or another. But this isn’t really a fundamental change, but acknowledgement of a trend that is as old as publishing. Money talks, and always has. It’s up to the reader to be informed and be wary, and to identify the opinion, whether advertorial or editorial.

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