Doctrinaire journos, TEAR DOWN THAT WALL!

Jeff Jarvis and Roy Greenslade are having at it, arguing about that damn wall in our newsrooms.

Greenslade (top photo) says keep it high; Jarvis (below right) says tear it down. And Marc Reeves (below left), who Greenslade uses as a foil, is bluntly allied with Jarvis and opines that “it is time to talk of heresy”:

“To all those saying ‘sorry I’m just a journalist, I don’t sell advertising’, I say ‘tough, that’s just the way it is now’.”

Putting “the noisy people in a room marked ‘advertising’ and the studious types in another labelled ‘editorial’ was the biggest mistake newspapers and other media ever made,” says Reeves. “It allowed journalists to insulate themselves from the business they were in to the point of revelling in their detachment… No wonder so many didn’t see the meltdown coming.”

This discussion is an urgent one because of the explosion online of entrepreneurial journalism, in which journalists must be one with their business side — because in addition to being journalists, often they are the business. So much for that wall.

Jarvis, who is a pioneer — really an evangelist and guru — of entrepreneurial journalism (he’s been teaching it for several years at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in New York and is starting an entrepreneurial journalism MA program there), says he is “disturbed to hear journalistic entrepreneurs — eg, hyperlocal bloggers — who disdain business and sales, for they will perish just like the dinosaurs who once employed them. They are responsible for their own sustainability.”

Jarvis argues that the “wall” did not really protect a product’s integrity in any event. And he recalls Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger reminding us “about the history of newspapers: It was advertising that freed us from ownership by political forces; it supported independence.”

Moreover, says Reeves, a relationship with advertisers is essential to the production of a product that’s relevant to readers: “It’s never actually been about the content anyway — in print or online — it’s about the relationship with the community you build — it always has been and it always will.…

“If you have a relationship, you’ve got a business. Anything else is just words and spaces – and is as unsustainable an endeavour as you’ll ever see.”

This is why Yahoo  partnered with media’s dinosaurs — newspapers — in its bid to sell local advertising, and why AOL’s Patch may be considering the acquisition of some community newspapers: Local newspapers have (or had, or are presumed to have or to have had) relationships in their communities, including the communities’ businesses and advertisers.

“Once you’ve attracted them to your content you should see what you can do to fulfill all their other needs too — whether or not it involves journalism,” says Reeves. “Hold events, create a club to give them a sense of belonging, help them interact online and sell stuff to each other, and negotiate partnerships.…

“Other businesses are using new technological tools and social media to encroach into territory traditionally marked ‘media’ so why shouldn’t we take a piece of their action?”

• • •

Now, what about asking those editorial people to do some “sales” work? (They need not carry rate cards and contracts  but they must be inquisitive — which is what they’ve been trained to be — and they talk up (p–r–o–m–o–t–e) their product as a vehicle that is worthy of their contact’s advertising. And they should be eager to return with qualified leads for the sales department to follow up.)

Reeves refers to every young reporter’s most dreaded assignment — having to call on the family and friends of someone who’s just died, in a moment of private pain, to extract a public comment and picture:

“To those who say: ‘I can’t sell advertising’, I ask how many death knocks have you done? Exactly, so don’t tell me you can’t sell a little ad space.”

Greenslade (a former editor of the Daily Mail and other UK newspapers and the Guardian’s media blogger) is not yet comfortable with this. “I remain queasy about journalists acting as advertising sales reps. And it is an aspect of entrepreneurial journalism that gives me pause… I just don’t want to see reporters acting as ad reps.”

• • •

Reeves, former editor of the Birmingham Post who is now editing niche Websites geared to local businesses in Britain, points out that “our advertisers are also the people we write about and the people who read our stuff,

“so with every contact me and my journalistic colleagues do three things: ONE, we get a story; TWO, we champion what we do; and THREE, we assess whether it’s worth someone coming back to talk to them about advertising.

Exactly!

And here’s how Reeves’ team chooses what they’ll write about:

“We keep an hour-by-hour check on what stories are well read and which are not, and use the learning in the moment or in tomorrow’s editing decisions. As a small business, we hate waste — it could destroy us, so we’ll ruthlessly reject any activity that doesn’t give us a return in terms of audience attention and/or revenue. There’s no more doing stuff just because it gives us a buzz journalistically. If we’ve spent time doing a wonderfully crafted feature on a certain subject but no one reads it, we won’t do it again.”

Journalists must understand and respect business — their own business, and business in general.

Jarvis says that a newsroom bias “that business itself is corrupting … is one of the key reasons journalism is in the fix it’s in.

“We separated ourselves from the noisy room and the noisy world at our peril; we thought ourselves above it all but we became strangers in our communities because we thought we were high and mighty.”

Finally, Jarvis suggests that Greenslade and other defenders of the editorial/advertising wall should relax.

“Roy, I think your queasiness comes from years of being taught that tomatoes are poison so, even if it’s not true, you’re bound to gag on the first bite. I say that running the business needn’t be corrupting and is, indeed, empowering. The key for us as educators is not to have students avoid the conflict but to teach them how to face it and make the right decisions.”

Amen.

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