Journalism’s leaky condom

Roy Greenslade airs his internal struggle over journalists getting closer to business in a very interesting post reacting to former Birmingham Post editor Marc Reeves, who says that it was a mistake to separate editorial and ad sales people. Says Greenslade: “I understand the Reeves argument but I remain queasy about journalists acting as advertising sales reps. And it is an aspect of entrepreneurial journalism that gives me pause for thought.”

I responded in the comments:


This all sounds well and good–the high moral stand–but I’ll ask you the question I am often asked: How is the journalist going to eat?

Last week, Rafat Ali, founder of, told my CUNY entrepreneurial journalism class that when he started, he was a one-man operation and if it was going to be sustainable he had to sell ads. PaidContent grew. He hired reporters. He hired sales people. But he was still was very much in charge of the business–the sales staff’s boss–and knew well that he had to be loyal first to his journalistic credibility, and value. So, he told my students, he turned down some ads that weren’t relevant to his readers. Of course, he built a wonderful service, highly respected, and sold it to the Guardian.

Institutional, industrial journalists are too used to the idea that codes and walls will protect their morals. No, they must be their own protectors. The same conflicts and interests exist for everyone in a news operation and everyone must guard against corruption or the asset loses its value. Indeed, I believe that by teaching journalists that business itself is corrupting, we became terrible stewards of journalism and that is one of the key reasons journalism is in the fix it’s in.

Today I am disturbed to hear journalistic entrepreneurs–e.g., hyperlocal bloggers–who disdain business and sales. For they will perish just like the dinosaurs who once employed them. They are responsible for their own sustainability. I believe we must teach those skills to journalists and that is why I started the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism to train both students and professionals.

Roy, when the journalists are in charge of the journalistic enterprise–when they are founders or are key, strategic managers of that enterprise–they can and must navigate the conflicts you outline and I’d argue they are in a better position to do so–if they are qualified in business. Whether or not they sell the ad, the conflict and choices are the same.

I learned this lesson when I started Entertainment Weekly in an industry full of standards and codes and walls and even so found my managers (editorial as well as business) trying to profoundly corrupt the enterprise for the sake of business ends and I did not have sufficient business cred to fight them down. Codes and walls turn out to be translucent and leaky moral condoms; false comfort.

Let’s also remember what our boss, Alan Rusbridger, says about the history of newspapers: It was advertising that freed us from ownership by political forces; it supported independence.

Also remember that every hack trying to get a story onto Page One–or onto the list of most-emailed on the wall of the Telegraph newsroom–is responding to the marketplace, that of readers. And I think that’s a healthy influence (so long as the journalist isn’t slavishly following that carrot but knows to add value). We separated ourselves from the noisy room and the noisy world at our peril; we thought ourselves above it all but we became strangers in our communities because we thought we were high and mighty.

So, Roy, I think your queasiness comes from years of being taught that tomatoes are poison so, even if it’s not true, you’re bound to gag on the first bite. I say that running the business needn’t be corrupting and is, indeed, empowering. The key for us as educators is not to have students avoid the conflict but to teach them how to face it and make the right decisions. That is why I teach entrepreneurial journalism.