"We don't need journalists solving the problem of news," Michael Wolff wrote recently in USA Today. "We need people with far more cunning and inventive commercial minds. But there are few of those." I rarely agree with what Wolff has to say, but alas, with these lines he's right.
Rarely do you see an industry where the creators of the product -- that is, journalists and editors -- are so unexposed to how that product is marketed and sold. Somewhere along the line, a wall went up between the newsroom and the business side of journalism. If reporters and editors got engaged in the business side, the thinking went, the news might become tainted and readers couldn't trust it. Separation of church and state became the rallying cry; it was a matter of professional ethics. And we were left with an army of journalists who had no connection to the business model of their industry. They had no clue what their most important source of income (advertisers, that is, not readers) wanted.
Imagine a startup where the people who toiled day and night to create the product didn't understand the people who paid the bills, and were encouraged not to care. It's the opposite in most industries.
Yes, there is a difference between news and other businesses. It's important for the world that news be unbiased and reported transparently. I don't think anyone would argue against that. But one can be ethical without being blind.
Separating editorial and commercial teams is a blunt-hammer approach. Journalists are smart, so let's treat them with respect and even ask their opinion about business decisions. If you can't trust your editorial team to maintain ethics without a wall put up, then they shouldn't be working at your organization in the first place.
If you can trust them, then set them free. Let them mingle with the commercial team. Let them talk to advertisers. Let them go and pitch to agencies (crazy, I know). Let them brainstorm innovative product ideas with the sales team. It's the audience that the advertiser cares about, and journalists understand their readers. Journalists are creative. Journalists have ideas; they are the ultimate storytellers. Who better to help an advertiser figure out how to tell stories than the best storytellers?
Some will read this and cry heresy. But my point is simple: Let's trust journalists and editors to be ethical and empower them to make the business side of their industry better. The wall that exists is not necessary to safeguard ethics, and it's stifling innovation. Time Inc. recently decided to do away with the separation of editorial and commercial -- or at least start having editors report to business-side executives instead of a powerful companywide editor-in-chief. It's no coincidence that Time Inc. is working on some amazing new ad products, including Watercooler Live, which distributes content across all platforms and channels -- desktop, mobile and social. News companies like Time Inc. will be the ones innovating new business models. Journalists can help their struggling industry, but they need to be given a chance.