The separation of "church and state" in publishing
For a long time — I don’t know how long, but it certainly predates my brief existence on this planet — the publishing world has talked about “church vs. state.” The concept is simple. Advertisers want to inject themselves into a publication, and journalists want to keep their writing pure.So, if you are going to advertise in the New York Times, you must do it in a way that does not encroach upon the content that would otherwise exist on that page.
In the publishing world, “church and state” is dogma.
And, yet, it is a dogma so brainless and idiotic, that the only way it could possibly exist in the modern day is because generations of publishers have brainwashed themselves into accepting it... much in the way that young North Koreans view Kim Il Sung as their immortal leader, or the way a New England village stoned one citizen each year in Shirley Jackson’s "The Lottery."
“My father learned it from his father who learned it from his father...”
There are a lot of reasons why print is dying. And the separation of “church and state” is amongst the biggest ones. Perhaps it stands atop the list.
The problem with journalism is that journalists feel a sense of entitlement that they don’t have to pay attention to the business. Their job is to write. Or to edit. And if the CEO or the sales executives can’t turn a profit, well, then they’re not doing their job.
And if the parent company stops offering health benefits, or puts a furlough plan in place, or refuses to hire any new writers, well, that’s just the nature of the beast. A journalist needs to keep his head up and continue writing great pieces...into the sunset.
Well, some of us are young enough that we actually have to think about the future. Some of us are young enough where the distant future — 20 or 30 years out — will still represent a meaningful fraction of our lives. And a world without publications is not one that will be very pleasant.
And one of the ways that we can ensure healthy publications is to tear down the wall that stands between "church" and "state."
Editors need to understand business. They need to know exactly why it is that modern publishing houses can’t sustain themselves. They need to see a connection between content costs, user engagement, advertising rates, and the future of the companies that put food on their tables.
Advertising executives need to understand what the hell they are selling. In most cases, they have no idea what they are selling. And that’s the good ones. The not-so-good ones just make shit up entirely.
And as technology becomes a bigger and bigger part of the publishing ecosystem, everyone needs to learn a little bit of nerd-speak.
As I have mentioned before, the coming together of writers, engineers, and salesmen is the name of the Publishing game in the 21st century. But it’s not just about them communicating.
It’s also about them understanding how this all works. And actually giving a crap.
An editor needs to realize why a $1,500 piece of content is not a sustainable concept. And if content is going to cost a fortune to create, then it needs to be part of a larger story that includes advertising sponsorship. If you are going to fly a bunch of models to Egypt and do a photo shoot amongst the Pyramids... then somebody has to pay for it.
Publishing CEOs need to lean on their editors to do things that — until now — very few editors have had to do. They need their editors to wear the CFO hat once or twice per month.
On the first day of my new company, I am going to sit down with my editorial team and give them this speech, verbatim: “You are my editorial team. You have an editorial budget. You have a pageview goal. You have a quality bar. Make all three work.” That’s it.
They will very quickly learn how to manage a budget. If we need to cut freelancer costs, it won’t be because some "mandate from above" trickled down into their newsroom. It will be because they looked at the company’s P&L — the very same one that the CEO reviews each day — and the financial statement painted a picture in which editorial costs need to decrease.
Maybe it’s because revenue came in light, and so their newsroom is at odds with an 80 percent gross margin. Or maybe it’s because the average number of page views per article has imploded, and so we can’t spend $80 on each story. Or maybe it’s because Beauty content is driving no traffic, and they would rather re-allocate that freelancer budget towards Fashion.
Who knows? There are a million distinct reasons why a newsroom would need to reshuffle its priorities.
And every one of those reasons can be competently discussed with a team of editors, every single one of whom is presumably (a) a grownup, (b) college-educated, and (c) smart. Most of my editorial team will have degrees from places like Northwestern or Columbia — schools that would not have accepted me — so I’m pretty damn sure that they can read a simple financial statement.
And when my advertising team promises Starcom that we can do a custom homepage takeover with a rich media overlay that predicts each reader’s favorite Skittles flavor, then that salesman will have to bring me a dataset to prove that user engagement did not crumble on that particular Thursday afternoon.
And he will have to buy a bottle of Scotch for whichever engineer worked until midnight to execute the campaign.
Whenever a bunch of old media suits visited our office at Bleacher Report, the first thing they observed was that “everyone is just sort of sitting out there on the floor.”
Nobody had offices. I didn’t have one. Our regional sales chief sat a few desks down from me. Right next to the Operations guru who executed his deals. And when he had a question about campaign feasibility, he simply walked 50 feet to the nearest Editorial cluster and asked them what was possible.
We didn’t have Sales on one floor and Editorial on another. Nobody was hiding in cubicles or behind office walls. And that is what a modern publishing house needs to look like.
Because the walls between "church and state" are as damaging as the walls that keep Advertising on one floor, Editorial on another, and Engineering in a remote location. It does not work. It will not work in the 21st century.
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]