Ask the ethicist: Should top editors oversee business initiatives?
Tribune Publishing, whose holdings include the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, announced this morning that it's combining the editor and publisher jobs at its major daily newspapers.
This shakeup runs counter to a long-held tradition in the newspaper industry, which typically splits the responsibilities of running the newsroom and overseeing business initiatives into two separate jobs. Although this division of labor is partially a matter of convenience, it's also meant to keep newsrooms insulated from the taint of moneyed interests. But as the longstanding wall between editors and business staffers gradually becomes more porous, news organizations like Tribune Publishing are experimenting with combining those roles to encourage cooperation and innovation.
But could that cooperation come at the expense of editorial independence that breeds powerful journalism? Below is a question-and-answer session with Kelly McBride, vice president of The Poynter Institute and its media ethicist, on whether news organizations are jeopardizing their journalism by nudging editors closer to the bottom line.
Is there precedent for this move elsewhere in the news business?
Every startup and nonprofit news organization looks like this. In fact a lot of the newcomers to the good-journalism club, like ProPublica and the Center for Investigative Reporting, have experimented with a similar structure. At CIR, CEO Joaquin Alvarado is responsible for both the money and the editorial vision. ProPublica operated that way until 2013 before dividing the responsibilities into two jobs.
Are there ethical pitfalls here to be wary of? If so, what are they?
The traditional reason for the separation of business (publisher) and editorial content (editor) was to prevent the business interests from tainting the editorial product. That was important because publishers needed the audience to trust the editorial product, in order to sell the audience to the advertisers. That mostly worked, but not always. There are some very famous exceptions, like the Staples Center scandal at the LA Times.
The biggest ethical pitfall is that the audience stops trusting the brand. But that doesn't happen just because of a change in management structure. That happens because you give the audience a reason to distrust you, which is already happening. The sheer proliferation of content and content creators, combined with the thinning of ranks and speeding up of the publication process have lead to lots of inaccurate content. On top of that, there is a lot of content that is deliberately meant to trick you, like the worst clickbait imaginable and the stuff created and passed around by trolls.
Since we're already living in this environment where the audience has a lot of reasons to not trust content, it's at best quaint to believe that a church/state separation at the top will help.
How can an editor-publisher minimize their conflicts of interest? What steps can they take to ensure the independence of their journalism?
That's easy. Do good journalism. Track everything and hold your staff accountable. How many corrections do you have? How much engagement do you have? If your audience loves you, it will be because you're giving them good journalism.
Traditionally, an editor had the ability — some would say the responsibility — to come down on the side of journalism when a moneyed individual threatened to pull advertising in response to a critical story. Would an editor with a sharper focus on the bottom line be able to make the same decision?
Those are easy decisions to make because they are so clear-cut. Even with a publisher in place, most editors know what the advertiser's monthly buy is and recognize the hit to the bottom line. And most editors are perfectly willing to take that hit if they are defending good journalism or fighting an unreasonable demand. So I don't think that we will suddenly see any more mass kowtowing to advertisers.
Are their ethical upsides to giving an editor a greater business-side role? What are they?
I'm surprised, but heartened, that they picked the editors over the publishers. Even though some editors have horrible business acumen, thank god they picked the editors, because theoretically they should understand the digital climate better. (And if they don't get the digital climate, they should not be in that job.) But these editors are going to have to get smart fast about revenue.
The biggest upside is that some of these editors might get super innovative about new lines of money. It's no secret that advertising will continue to decline. Maybe, along the way, the editors will start to see that they entire newspaper structure has to be rethought. If this goes well, looking at the entire business model will prompt the editors to start asking questions like: Do we need a separate features department and business department? Should we blow up the entire beat system and rethink how we conceive and produce content? How should audience metrics inform how we deploy our resources?
Do you predict the news industry will see more of these dual roles going forward?
Yes definitely. Because it makes a lot of sense. You can probably hire seven reporters with the salary of one publisher. OK, four reporters and two interns. But it means we need to be grooming a different kind of person to be an executive editor. We need more diversity and innovation in that pipeline.
Managing Editor Benjamin Mullin contributed to this report.
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that ProPublica had one executive in business in editorial functions. In fact, that was the case until 2013.