Journalism in Romania: A Diogenean Essay (Part 5)

Journalism in Romania: A Diogenean Essay (Part 4)
July 8, 2013
Journalism in Romania: A Diogenean Essay (Part 6)
July 12, 2013
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“A Line That Moves Is No Line At All”

I hope we all agree that theoretically, somewhere, there exists a line between what editorial does and what advertising should be allowed to do. The question is: precisely where is it? You cannot decide on a daily basis. The pressures are too great. You have to decide beforehand and stick to it.

In this case (the one we’re discussing where you link a word in a story to an advertiser’s pitch), you have continued – indeed, furthered – the process of destroying that line. Or moving it a bit. And as we said previously, a line that moves is no line at all. So now, in essence, anything is possible.

In fact, if I were the advertiser, I would want to know how many times my link will appear and where it will appear, and in what way it will appear, before I sign a contract. For the money I pay, will it be there 10 or 20 times, towards the front or the back, linked to words that I like, such as “honest” and “pure?” And I want a guarantee that those two words will appear the number of times that you promise.

So now can I, as the vaunted Advertising Director, force editorial to add those two words into a couple more stories? Sure. Why not? Remember, we must have the revenue. Besides, whatever line you imagine between editorial and me has already been broken. It doesn’t really exist. We’re only dealing with gradations. So we’ll insert the word “honest” into these two little stories. Well, maybe once more – that’ll really make them happy. Then take out the word “real” in that story you wrote and change it to “pure.” It means the same thing and we’ll have a new link. Then let’s do it again. We can charge extra for that.

Now once you do that, just think of the possibilities! All is for sale. All the words and the pictures and where they will go. Oh yes, and be sure to mention this. And please mention that. Oh, no, take that out – you can’t mention them.

And now I will ask you: so where was that line?

I know it’s not that easy. I’m not completely unrealistic. This imaginary line, this perfect bright line separating editorial from advertising, has never been perfect.

Indeed, journalism, I suspect, has always had sacred cows, those certain things you don’t touch because they’re too important for business. In the days before the internet, for example, when the great majority of newspaper revenue came from local advertising, no paper in the US that wanted to survive would publish investigations about the sleazy ethics of car dealers or would do long stories about the many reasons not to buy a house. That would be crazy. Auto and real estate ads kept us alive.

And I know there is a place (however uncomfortable) for the cohabitation of advertising and good journalism. Again, about 15 years ago, I took over as business editor at a large regional newspaper in the US. Computers had not yet ruined our lives and business sections still ran typically from 12 to 16 pages, with at least six of those pages dedicated to stock exchange listings.

Now before I got there, it had been a rule at this paper that no advertisement would appear in the middle of those stock tables – only on the bottom or along the sides. The belief at the time among many newspapers was that these “island ads,” as they are called, would confuse readers by mixing too intimately all these grey tables of editorial content with advertising. It gave the appearance, the thinking went, that the stock tables themselves were sponsored by the advertiser.

I thought this was silly. No matter where they appeared on the page, the ads were clearly kept separate by appearing in boxes marked “Advertisement” and in fonts that could not be confused with what editorial produced. Had these ads appeared on pages with headlines and photos, I agreed it could get confusing when placed in the middle of the page. But these pages were fields of flat grey type of mostly agate, or 6-point font, impossible to confuse with photos of cars or the larger bold print of a typical ad.

I felt the same when some newspapers began reviving the placement of ads onto the front page – the most sacred of locations in the newspaper business. To me, real estate was real estate and, within reasonable bounds, any of it might be sold. The principles of journalism were not threatened by a more liberal placement of ads.

Why was it not threatened? Because there was – and there still is – only one overriding principle that makes journalism be journalism, separate from propaganda, that separates newspapering from shilling, that represents the difference between integrity in print from a cheap debasement of the ideal, whether forced by a government or paid for by corporations.

That is the sanctity of the story. The integrity of the words. Not just in reality but also in appearance. The printing of facts without fear and without favor – and making that principle very clear to the reader. In other words, honoring that absolute, inviolable rule, which is that the content of news or the opinion in an essay, remains pure and honest, sacrosanct, and unpolluted by special interests or by advertisers.

Impossible, you say? Well, if it is, don’t blame the advertising department or the advertisers themselves. They’ll do whatever they can and whatever they can get away with. That’s the only business they know.

It’s the job of others to stop them and to keep them in check. Because advertisers (and the advertising department) will always want to influence as much as possible what goes in the publication. In fact, if advertisers had their way, they would have you produce a catalog for them while maintaining your brand value and keeping all of your readers. They don’t see, they don’t know, they don’t care it’s not possible.

And that’s why there are publishers. To break up the fights. To protect the brand value. To plan for the future. Yes, the advertising department will always try to take over and do whatever they want. And the editorial area will never want to sit there and talk about budgets.

In fact, if you can hire someone who can find a good story, report it, write it, edit it, show concern for the budget, assist in accommodating new sources of revenue, help create advertising ideas for “special projects,” work directly with agencies enthusiastically – well, it seems to me you don’t need anyone else, do you? Come to think of it, your publication doesn’t even need you.

But no, until you find that superhuman employee, it’s the publisher’s job to act as the grown-up. They must accept the responsibility to keep the publication alive, not just in the short-term but with an eye to the future. This means they must have the guts to say “no” to the temptations of revenue that will destroy the brand value, and instead to protect the integrity of the editorial content – the reason, after all, the publication exists.

I’ve worked with good publishers, diligent and idealistic. (They were never happy people.) Always squeezed by advertisers for favors or special treatment, they knew to balance their responsibilities meant some agonizing decisions. But they always kept advertising away from editorial and would stand in-between any time it was needed. And especially, they knew that if the advertising executives thought the only way to succeed was to raid editorial and to force them to compromise their principles and profession, then they didn’t know their job and they didn’t know their business.

But for many here, it’s too late. In magazines and newspapers, publishers opened the door, and watched (even encouraged) while advertising effectively presided over meetings. You say it was allowed because of the crisis? Well, the crisis is over and now what have you got? Some advertising returned, but the readers you are losing probably will not. Because you lost sight of what you do. You lost sight of what you are. And now you see the results of becoming something else.

So look at your sales. What have you become? Publications that should thrive can barely survive. The quality newspapers sell maybe 15,000 copies a day in a country of 20 million. Why are you in business when almost no one likes your product? If you truly knew what you were doing, you’d be selling 10 times that number in Bucharest alone.

Yes, but it must be easy to convince your owners that it’s not really your fault. There are many reasons for the decline in readership that are true. But nothing destroys a publication as much as being unnecessary in the lives of its readers, whether it’s because you offer nothing they relate to or nothing they think matters.

And whether you are a newspaper or a magazine, I suggest your numbers are not the result of your never-ending crisis (consumers still have a few lei to spend for things they enjoy). The falling numbers are a result of you abdicating your responsibilities, of you losing your way and of you falling headlong into a game that has nothing to do with journalism.

Perhaps it’s because you think the rules don’t apply. Only your misguided attempts at short-term survival. You reason, perhaps, that you can cheat all your readers as long as it helps you get through another month.

Well, all that sounds convincing. And it might work in the office, but not on the newsstands. Readers don’t care about your problems, only what you put in their hands.


All right, I’ll stop and get down from my soapbox.  And now that I’m done, let me do you a favor and give you the gift of a great business idea.

One of the biggest missed opportunities in financial journalism here is the issue of personal finance. Retirement. Planning. Planning for children. Planning for college. Insurance. Investing. Saving. It’s a big market everywhere. There are some great publications. There could even be one here.

But now think about it closely. Given the state of ethics you’ve created among journalists and publications, would you (as a journalist) believe any advice you were to read here? Would you trust the suggestion that this or that financial product was truly the best? What if you saw an advertisement by that recommended company in the same publication? What are the odds (would you think) that someone paid for the opinion? Would you believe it was real? Would you keep buying the publication?

No, I didn’t think so. And so there you go. Just one small example. The real cost of having no standards, no ethics, no integrity – at least not enough for readers to trust. You have blocked yourself from achieving success with your misguided tactics thinking no one would notice and by ultimately forgetting (or maybe never knowing) what business you’re in and what you should be.


A Simple Conclusion

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