Editorial Wall, or Prison Wall?

There’s been some fervent debate in recent days about the risks of an entrepreneurial role for editors. (Note: By the term editor I mean any journalist, whether writer, reporter, or editor.) Does being involved in the business side of a media enterprise mean being involved in sales? And does breaking down the sacred wall between editorial and sales mean that editorial must be tainted?

What set off this latest skirmish was an article in the Guardian by Roy Greenslade (lately a fecund source of inspiration for B2B Memes) concerning UK editor and blogger Marc Reeves. In a speech last June, he argued that editors should get involved in all sides of a business, even if that meant selling advertising. The way Reeves put it was particularly blunt:

“And 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.”

I admire the plain speaking, but my first reaction was, Are you nuts? Realistically, the average editor is probably the last person you would want to sell advertising. Compared with the average salesperson, he or she is a relative introvert. Taking advertising orders is one thing, but actively selling is quite another.

But even if this practical objection is sound, the theoretical one—that any involvement by an editor in sales necessarily influences editorial content—is not. Is it really so difficult to honor editorial ethics and pursue business interests at the same time?

Historically, most publishing enterprises have replied that it is, and have discouraged editorial involvement in business. This was the point of a comment in an ongoing discussion of Greenslade’s article on in a LinkedIn group sponsored by The Media Briefing (you’ll need to join the group to see the discussion). Therein, Martin Cloake argued that content creators have been deliberately kept on the sidelines:

“Traditionally, it’s been people from the ad/sales side who have risen to top positions in media companies. They in turn have pushed the view that journalists aren’t commercially savvy. In many cases they are the people who see content as just the stuff between the ads.”

Indeed, you could make the case, twisted though it may sound, that editors did not so much create their codes of conduct as have those codes imposed on them by the business side; that those codes were not about editorial freedom as much as editorial constraint; and that the editorial wall is just as much a prison wall.

My point is not to disparage editorial codes of ethics. I’m a big fan. But we should think of them not as editorial codes but publishing codes. And editors can help make that happen not by remaining imprisoned in their ivory towers but by getting involved in business.

One commenter on Greenslade’s article argued that there is considerable appeal to editors in being able to tell pissed-off advertisers, “I’m nothing to do with advertising.”  I’ve used variations of that line in the past myself. But, really, it’s lame. The advertiser knows it and the editor knows it. Worse, it can sound weak, ignorant, and arrogant. As a representative of your company, you’re telling customers that you couldn’t care less about their business. Spoken from a business point of view, the gist of the answer should be the same (i.e., no bending to advertiser pressure on editorial). But that answer should also be informed by an understanding and appreciation of business, both the editor’s and the advertiser’s.

In another response to Greenslade, Jeff Jarvis argued that editorial codes and walls “turn out to be translucent and leaky moral condoms.” When journalists have key business roles in their enterprises, he said, “they can and must navigate” ethical conflicts and “are in a better position to do so” precisely because they are qualified in business. “Whether or not they sell the ad, the conflict and choices are the same.”

And though he didn’t explicitly make the same conspiratorial argument I’m toying with here, he seemed to suggest that the business deck was deliberately stacked against him in his editorial past:

“I learned this lesson when I started Entertainment Weekly in an industry full of standards and codes and walls and even so found my managers (editorial as well as business) trying to profoundly corrupt the enterprise for the sake of business ends and I did not have sufficient business cred to fight them down.”

I understand why editors have been shackled for so long. By their nature, they are disruptive. In a traditional media business, that was a problem. But in a new-media world that thrives on disruption, editors may at last be breaking through their prison walls.