Editors can no longer be ignorant about the financial aspect of publishing. Melina Meletakos discovers how times have changed.
It was Friday afternoon and a Sunday Times ad salesman made his way through the newsroom towards the editor’s office. Pearls of sweat formed on his brow while he waited outside then editor Ken Owen’s office to discuss the placing of ads in the newspaper.
On being summoned, the sales guy would sheepishly stand at the door and whisper: “I would like to extend the size of the front page solus ad of the Sunday Times slightly please.” Or something like that which would mean significantly more income for the newspaper.
“So you want to fiddle with my front page, the front page of a newspaper with a 100-year tradition, a paper that circulates over 500 000
copies a week, a paper that influences the thinking of thousands of South Africans with regards to politics, business and a host of other areas that are pivotal to the success of South Africa?” asked Owen.
“No!” Owen would say. “Close the door on your way out.”
This was in the 1990s and the young sales rep was Trevor Ormerod, now Times Media’s general manager for sales. The picture has changed drastically since then. The once-impermeable wall between editorial content and advertising has become more of a picket fence. This is because the media industry has had to welcome new marketing channels and be more accommodating of advertising as it grasps its sticky financial situation.
“The competition between media owners to get their piece of the client’s budget is tremendous and, very often, he who is prepared to innovate, wins,” says Jodi Calvert, channel strategist at Joe Public.
As the industry tests the accepted limits on where the line dividing advertising and editorial should be drawn, it has also had to question who should be in charge of ensuring the same line does not get blurred.
Calvert says the responsibility lies with the editor, who also has to be business-savvy. “Working closely with editors can achieve great results for advertisers without undermining editorial integrity,” she says.
All media industry players need to pitch in to find innovative ways of adapting to the changing media world, says Anton Harber, Caxton Professor of Journalism and Media Studies at the University of Witwatersrand.
“Nobody is going to survive by clinging to old rules and practices. But that should not mean a free-for-all. Media still depends, above all else, on producing quality and trustworthy information which people want and need,” he says. “When I see an editor announcing a new commercial deal, I raise my eyebrows. When I hear an editor say that he is not really a journalist, my blood runs cold.
“When a journalist becomes a mere content producer, we are forgetting how much we need the skills and attitudes of journalists. If that editor is not looking after the quality and value of the work produced from his newsroom, first and foremost, then they are not doing their job – and financial success will be short-term.”
Cape Argus editor Jermaine Craig says he is unashamed to admit that when he took on his role in September 2013, one of the first things he did was align the newspaper’s editorial strategy with the ad sales team’s needs to sell the product.
“The fundamental role of an editor hasn’t changed, in my opinion. Producing top-notch content is still a priority for me. I’m trying to build a strong team to take the paper to the next level. But, undoubtedly, editors can’t disregard the commercial elements of the business completely,” says Craig.
One of the first tests of this dual role was Craig’s decision to revert to publishing the Cape Argus in a broadsheet format from the beginning of September. He says the tabloid introduced during the Independent Group’s Tony O’Reilly era alienated loyal readers and offered fewer commercial opportunities for advertisers.
“Moving from the compact tabloid format is a decision based on editorial and commercial consideration and we think we will deliver a classier, better-quality product,” says Craig. “(There) is no doubt that commercial consideration is a factor. We have to ensure that the paper is sustainable.”
Ormerod says the young editors coming through the newsrooms now have been more exposed to the obstacles facing the industry.
“Up until about 10 years ago, there were very old-fashioned editors in place who were trained to do business in a very specific way,” he says.
Having a managing director like Mike Robertson, a former editor, helps too, says Ormerod. “He’s commercially and editorially minded, so we have a very well-positioned person helping to see this process through.”
Fergus Sampson, the CEO of Media24’s newspaper division (who resigned last week), says that the company’s editors are legally responsible for all the content that appears in their news product, and are therefore burdened with the final content decision-making.
While editors should always be consulted about decisions related to their product, editorial and commercial teams must work closer than ever before, adds Sampson, as “the close alignment produces faster, informed and prudent business decisions”.
“Our editors actively guide and inform creative advertising options. The tension between the commercial and editorial interests of our products propel innovation and help to produce useful and trustworthy news products,” he says.
Moneyweb general manager and publisher Marc Ashton thinks “it is a bit of a three-party race”. “Your editor is naturally a brand champion, but your sales manager and publishers need to be Rottweilers as well because, if they don’t respect the integrity of the brands, they can’t sell on it down the line,” he says.
Ashton and Moneyweb’s sales team often interact and engage with editor Ryk van Niekerk, and there have been times where they have turned down money from clients because they are not happy with what they are promoting or they haven’t been comfortable with some advert executions that interrupt the reader experience, he adds.
“We have some debates but I think we are all on the same page the majority of the time,” Ashton says.
This has allowed Moneyweb to meet the needs of advertisers better, something Ashton says they were historically poor at. Since he started working at the business news platform in March 2014, his focus has been to develop a sales team that “acts and thinks like an agency and ultimately reports like an agency to clients. When we can do this, we can talk their language and make their jobs easier”.
Alan Duggan has experience as an editor and publisher when he, until recently, filled both roles for sci-tech magazine Popular Mechanics. Significantly, he was also once a newspaper journalist.
“As a former newspaper hack, I have some old-fashioned ideas about maintaining a healthy tension between editorial and advertising. As a former magazine publisher, I fully understand the need to make money. As an editor, I am resolute about distinguishing between editorial and commercial content; that is, if money changes hands, it’s an advertisement, and should be clearly identified as such,” says Duggan.
Asked whether the media industry needs more commercially-minded journalists, Duggan says, “We certainly do, but not if this means cover-to-cover advertorials and rampant product placement. Instead, they should be the kind of people who understand the business of publishing but continue to honour the reader by keeping the editorial content legitimate.”
Creative tension between advertising and editorial is not only possible, but essential, says Duggan. He understands the challenges of the marketplace and the sometimes-outrageous demands of advertisers.
“But I can honestly say that I’ve enjoyed finding solutions that keep them happy without compromising my self-imposed rules.”
This story was first published in the October 2014 issue of The Media magazine.
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