Wick Communications

Another brick in The Wall

In Guiding principles on 11 Jun 2010 at 8:27 am

I want to talk for a moment about The Wall. Not the Pink Floyd album I used to listen to at ear-splitting volume in the dark of my parents’ basement … the other one.

I’m talking about the wall that traditionally was said to separate advertising from editorial at the nation’s best newspapers. Scary topic, I know.

Back in the day, news types would go on about their independence from financial concern of any sort. They would froth at the mere mention of advertisers influencing copy. They would use their shift key a lot in these discussions, conjuring the capital letters and capital ideas of the First Amendment, the Fourth Estate and so on. We were incorruptible. We were invincible!

Or course, many readers never believed any of this for a second. A lot of people always thought the big car dealer called the editorial shots. Sometimes the critics were even right.

The truth is The Wall was always an artificial construct – useful as a symbol of the credibility necessary to sustain true journalism, but also the kind of overwrought, self-important terminology that, ironically, tore away at that very credibility.

I want to be careful here. I absolutely am not suggesting that news originates in advertising. I’m not suggesting that, in these hard times, we should cave to the whims of those who pay for space in our paper. I am not suggesting that ad reps know better than editors when it comes to content. Absolutely not.

There was a terrific story in the AJR last year that covered this ground really well. I was struck by what Bob Steele had to say to AJR writer Natalie Pompilio. He’s the Poynter Institute’s Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values. From the story:

(Steele) says the idea of a solid Berlin Wall-type structure between advertising and editorial is outdated. He’s long seen it as more of a picket fence: Each side has clearly delineated roles and principles, but “you can talk over the picket fence. If there’s a gate, you can go back and forth,” he says.

I think that, while Steele may have been laughed out of newsrooms back when I was listening to Pink Floyd, he may be right today. Part of the reason is that technology has changed what journalists do in profound ways.

  • Restaurant reviewers have all-but been replaced by Yelp. Nobody’s worried about a firewall between the flood of often conflicting information there and anonymous reviewers who may even have a financial interest in the restaurants being reviewed.
  • Mommy bloggers were long ago outed as shilling for companies that give them product in exchange for positive reviews.
  • Your advertisers are even now reaching your readers on their Web sites and via Twitter, offering all manner of content without any pretense of journalistic responsibility.

And on and on. Additionally, you may have noticed that the pace has quickened. There is no time to mull your product. Now you are in a virtual race to get stuff on the Web. That means that the ad rep who is in the field as much or more than you are has valuable information for you. She knows both when a restaurant acquires a new chef and when the city is considering repaving Main Street. You still have to filter it and consider the source. But that doesn’t mean you dismiss it outright the way I did when Pink Floyd was big.

Look, I realize I’m walking on the third rail here. Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not telling you to turn over your news product to advertisers. I am telling you to hear them out. It’s in the best interest of everyone, including your readers.



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