Does combining the role of editor and publisher compromise editorial integrity and quality? In March, Peter Bruce gave up the editorship of Business Day. For a while last year he was not only editor, but publisher too. The lines between these two roles have become more blurred globally, heating up the ‘church and state’ debate over whether one person can hold both jobs.
When Bruce was appointed to the dual position, Wits University journalism professor Anton Harber called this move (in his blog, ‘The Harbinger’) “an extraordinary breach in newspaper tradition”.
While Harber conceded Bruce was apparently the right person to provide strong leadership during a turbulent time in BDFM’s history, he made the point that there are good reasons to keep these roles separate. A publisher is concerned with strategy and profitability and must deal with advertisers; an editor’s purview is editorial independence – and ne’er the twain shall meet.
“One of the roles of the publisher has traditionally been to keep advertisers and shareholders off editors’ backs. Limiting undue influence on the news-driven decisions,” Harber said. “Theoretically, at least, the editor was free to make principled decisions based on what readers needed to know and the publisher had to watch his back with advertisers.”
Arguments over such separations are hardly new in journalism. But the wall between advertising and editorial takes on new implications in the era of the web, which is redefining the value chain and business model of news publishing. BDFM itself has made big changes over the past few years, with a digital first policy and implementing cross-platform advertising packages. Bruce led many of these changes – but not without conflicts between his dual roles, said Harber, such as retrenching journalists. As a publisher he would have to push for this, but as an editor he should protect his staff.
As print experiences an existential crisis, with falling readership and a concomitant drop in ad revenue, combining the insights of both sides can be beneficial to the sustainability of publications. Gisèle Wertheim Aymés, editor and publisher of Longevity magazine, says, “You want to be immersed in your brand. And you are far more immersed as an editor than you are as a publisher. You get far more insight into how you could use the content for the betterment of all parties.
“But a journalist isn’t trained to spot a commercial opportunity… the publisher has an insight into this that the editor lacks,” says Wertheim Aymés. To be able to combine those roles provides a richer, more integrated product, she argues.
Wertheim Aymés’ experience in publishing runs the gamut from editorial and sales to media strategy. She has launched many magazines, including ELLE and ELLE Deco (and seen many close, she adds). She took Longevity from moribund readership to a strong brand that she says readers trust. Readers know they get unbiased content and her role as both editor and publisher doesn’t compromise her. “If you look at Longevity’s consumers, they are in the upper LSMs. They are sophisticated and know when you are masquerading advertising as content,” she says. If readers felt they could not trust the brand, they would vote with their wallets and the advertisers would follow them, she adds.
Alan Duggan, editor and publisher of sci-tech magazine Popular Mechanics (and a former newspaper journalist, which is significant), reckons the dual role can work, just so long as the brand custodian makes a clear distinction between the need for revenue and the interests of the audience. “Clients looking for something other than FPFC [conventional full page full colour] strategies regularly come up with ideas that push the boundaries. Of course they are perfectly entitled to do so, and sometimes these proposals enter a distinctly grey area. It’s my job to prevent them from hijacking our content, but it’s also my duty to come up with an alternative that delights the clients without betraying the trust of our readers. So far, Popular Mechanics has managed this balancing act quite effectively,” Duggan says.
“Anyway, if I was ever tempted to subvert the rules in pursuit of the green stuff, my colleagues would quickly put me straight. They are not at all wishy washy about protecting the brand’s integrity,” Duggan adds.
The line between advertising and editorial in magazines may be a little less firmly drawn than with newspapers, where the stakes that rest on editorial independence are often higher. In magazines, it is possible to run paid-for content without compromising ethics. Wertheim Aymés gives the example of SA Homeowner, which would feature a product (a tap, say), running the price beside it. Readers knew to treat the magazine as more of a catalogue and never said they couldn’t trust the content, she says.
However, it is possible to bring advertising into the content of newspapers and make it work, says Wertheim Aymés. “Imagine how excited you would be to open your copy of the Sunday Times and to get a whiff of perfume! The Times of India is growing. People trust what they say. They add to the experience by putting scent on the pages to advertise a Unilever product. It’s not editorial, the content doesn’t change.
“The traditional model is on its way out. Newspapers are tactile now. When readers turn the pages they want to be excited. And why not? It doesn’t compromise the content.”
Publishing editors have certainly become more acceptable in markets overseas, particularly in northern Europe and Asia, says Cherilyn Ireton, executive director of the World Editors Forum (WEF). “It may be that the fused role works better in particular environments: in mature markets where there is absolute and unquestionable respect for freedom of the press, on small or niche newspapers, and in situations where the cost of having two separate roles in unaffordable – particularly in the early stages of development,” says Ireton.
“There are also examples in self- or family-funded newspapers where one person fills both roles successfully. There are a few leadership models for directing a newspaper – and while separation of roles between editor and publisher is ideal, there are examples where a dual editor/publisher role works equally well.
“The editor/publishers with whom I have come into contact are first and foremost editors: they respect journalism and the need to protect the news agenda from commercial pressures. Having them lead both editorial and commercial functions can be far healthier than one where the enmity between editor and publisher can actually inhibit success,” says Ireton.
She has cited the positive example of Erik Bjerager, editor in chief and managing director of the Danish national daily, Kristeligt Dagblad, and WEF president.
Wertheim Aymés argues that a lot depends on the culture of the company. “I’ve known publishers who didn’t need any titles to interfere with editorial,” she adds. She attended the International News Media Association (INMA) conference in New York recently where the separation of powers was discussed. “I listened to the world’s top MDs on this exact topic. It’s very clear that the days of editor and publisher are over and that there is no contradiction [between the roles] any longer… There was a lot of debate about it at INMA. It is thought that the web will free the dynamic, because the web works that way. It crosses all sorts of boundaries.”
She cites Branko Brkic, founder and editor of news website Daily Maverick. “Isn’t he a publishing editor and their chief editorial curator? Yet no one questions [his integrity].” Ultimately, understanding the brand and the bottom line will benefit the product, says Wertheim Aymés.
“My strategy as a publishing editor is to strengthen the brand as much as possible. I understand Longevity’s personality. You’re an organism and your job is to tell people what’s going on. You have to be immersed in the environment, understand the landscape. If a person controls both the business and the editorial stream, it will help make the publication more profitable. Sanity prevails when you are aware of the margin. And does it compromise what you are writing or publishing? No!”
This story was first published in the May 2014 issue of The Media magazine.
IMAGE: Gisele Wertheim Aymés
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