It is time to talk of heresy. The former Birmingham Post editor Marc Reeves has said once again that the editorial-advertising divide was the industry’s biggest mistake.
In making that point yesterday at the WAN-IFRA conference in Hamburg, he was repeating – sometimes word for word – an argument he advanced early in the summer.
Essentially, his argument is that journalism and commerce should go hand in hand (and should have done so in the past).
Here are some key paragraphs from his latest speech:
“That artificial divide we created when we put 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.
“It allowed journalists to insulate themselves from the business they were in to the point of revelling in their detachment.”
Reeves, who now edits the West Midlands branch of TheBusinessDesk.com, went on:
“From my side, the inhabitants of the advertising department seemed strange and bestial, whereas I and my colleagues viewed ourselves as passionate and heroic. Heaven only knows what a bunch of pompous prigs we must have seemed to the commercial teams…
I’ve worked with generations of hacks to whom the very idea of passing on a sales lead was regarded as a murderous betrayal of the memory of CP Scott. No wonder so many didn’t see the meltdown coming.
To all of you who are saying, ‘Sorry I’m just a journalist, I don’t sell advertising or organise events…’ I say, tough, that’s just the way it will be from now on. We tried it the other way and it broke.”
He wrote of “the tendency of too many journalists to leave ‘business issues’ to the money men and ‘the management'” and called on journalists to “get down and dirty in the guts of what can turn a small idea into a successful business.”
Only then, he argued, will we have “a lot more answers to the question, ‘where is news journalism headed?'”
By chance, I’m going to be discussing “entrepreneurial journalism” with my students next week, so I’ve been giving this matter some thought.
He has been teaching it for a good while. Four years ago he made clear that the net allowed for a combination of journalistic innovation and business innovation.
It can been seen as a response to the failures of traditional media companies, in both commercial and editorial terms. The journalist-as-entrepreneur empowers the individual – or, most often, small groups of people – by giving them control over every aspect of their business.
Over the years of reading Jarvis’s blog, I’ve noted his growing enthusiasm for student-led innovation. He has encouraged start-ups (such as the crowd-funded spot.us) and applauds the freedom it provides for the journalists who, in the tradition of business, are willing to take the risk of working for themselves rather than others.
None of these pioneering journalists have been overly worried by the division that Reeves deplores, between advertising and editorial. They have not viewed the twin activities of revenue-raising and muck-raking as an ethical problem.
It has certainly been a practical problem to fund journalism (ask Rick Waghorn, one of the first of Britain’s entrepreneurial journalists, who has worked so hard to make a success of his businesses – and blogs here to discuss where we may be heading).
I’m all in favour of innovation and this last seven years has been a rich period for it. Forget Mao. Thousands of flowers have bloomed in the digital era. Some have fallen by the wayside, but – at the dawn of newspapers – so did thousands of titles. Failure goes with the territory.
I also recognise, d’oh, that journalism has to be funded. But the separation between editorial and advertising occurred for excellent and very basic reasons.
When I worked on my first newspaper, the now-defunct Barking Advertiser, one of the main advertisers was a local company called Cape Asbestos.
The company’s product was a killer and the paper often reported on cases of people who had died from asbestosis and mesothelioma. There were persistent calls that the factory should be closed (as it was in, I think, 1966).
Among our tiny reporting staff was a woman whose mother had once worked at the factory and who would later die from the effects of ingesting asbestos dust.
We journalists were unhappy about Cape Asbestos recruiting staff through our paper. Our advertising manager, tasked with providing the revenue that paid for our reporting, was unhappy that we dared to question the placement of the company’s ads.
Of course, it’s possible to argue that if we applied journalistic ethics to the acceptance of adverts, we wouldn’t have taken Cape Asbestos’s money. That would be a plus for advertising-funded entrepreneurial journalism – the right to refuse ads we regarded as unacceptable.
But think it through. Much of the paper’s advertising came from local government, and our paper was a consistent and sometimes trenchant critic of the council.
Could we have afforded to reject Barking & Dagenham borough council ads too, along with those from scores of other businesses with which, for various reasons, we disagreed or that we planned to criticise in print?
I understand the Reeves argument but I remain queasy about journalists acting as advertising sales reps. And it is an aspect of entrepreneurial journalism that gives me pause for thought.
(NB: I entirely accept that a variety of entrepreneurial journalism models do not seek advertising revenue to fund their sites).
There are other problems too (most importantly, the need to retain some form of big media to confront big government and big business) but that’s for another time.
I just don’t want to see reporters acting as ad reps.