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An Uneasy Alliance of News and Ads

Citing a need for healthier finances, newspapers are breaking down the separation of business, editorial departments. Many fear a loss of independence.

March 29, 1998|DAVID SHAW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Similar attitudes long prevailed at most other major newspapers.

No longer.

"Senior editors, for a newspaper to exist, have to engage the business needs of the enterprise they're at the heart of," says Joseph Lelyveld, executive editor of the New York Times. They must realize that "great newspapering is not possible on an unprofitable newspaper."

Newspapers differ, however, on just how--and at what level--news and business departments should engage.

The New York Times limits contacts between its news and business departments to mid- and high-level editors--those listed on the paper's masthead. Those editors are thought to have the experience, confidence and authority that junior editors might lack, especially when it comes to questions of journalistic integrity. Lower and mid-level editors at any newspaper might edit by anticipation, trying to ingratiate themselves with their superiors by making compromises that they mistakenly think their superiors want.

Others argue, however, that the more people at every level who are involved in interdepartmental discussions, the more good ideas will emerge, the more people will learn about how the paper actually functions, the more companywide cooperation is likely to ensue and the better prepared the next generation of leaders will be.

"I quit the Providence Journal in 1986 when I was metro editor because the executive editor was the only one [in the news department] who talked to the ad people," says Joel Rawson. "I wanted to be a top editor, and I figured I'd never learn enough about the business side to do the job right."

Rawson went to the Lexington, Ky., Herald-Leader, "learned all about the business" and is now back in Providence as the paper's executive editor.

"I encourage the editors below me to talk to people on the business side as much as they can," he says.

Knight Ridder--publisher of the Lexington paper, as well as the Philadelphia Inquirer, Miami Herald, San Jose Mercury News and Detroit Free Press, among others--has been a pioneer in interdepartmental cooperation and innovation. Today, reporters and editors at Knight Ridder newspapers routinely receive periodic reports on advertising, circulation and other business-side developments that were once distributed only within their business departments.

Gannett and Tribune Co. newspapers have also been in the vanguard in breaking down walls, but in recent years, many other newspapers--large and small--have institutionalized interdepartmental conversations and communication.

The most innovative of these programs is at the Dallas Morning News, where for the last two years, the paper has conducted two-day "Understanding Journalistic Excellence" workshops in which top editors explain to executives and other employees from various business departments at the paper how the news department functions.

With the help of Jeff Cowart of the American Press Institute in Reston, Va., Morning News editors talk about how stories are conceived, assigned, edited and placed in the paper, and they discuss competitive pressures, serious versus tabloid journalism and why "bad news" so often takes precedence over "good news." They also give business employees an opportunity for hands-on journalistic experience, asking them to plan their own front pages on deadline and challenging them to resolve various ethical dilemmas that journalists routinely confront.

Most important of all, top editors from the Morning News and executives from its parent company, A.H. Belo Corp., try to hammer home the message that an independent, journalistically sound newspaper is a valuable corporate asset--that "editorial quality is profitable. . . . Our prosperity has increased parallel to our editorial excellence," as Bob Mong, executive vice president of the Belo publishing division, put it in one of the closing sessions of the 1997 Morning News workshops.

Last week, the Morning News reversed its proceedings and asked representatives of its advertising, marketing and other business departments of the paper to explain to reporters and editors (and everyone else at the paper) how their departments function. The program was spread over three consecutive mornings.

The 'Editor as Marketer'

More typically, many newspapers--large and small--have begun conducting in-house education sessions under the "business literacy in the newsroom" program created by the Associated Press Managing Editors. The idea is to teach journalists about the business departments of the paper in hopes of replacing barriers, stereotypes and ignorance with mutual trust, knowledge and understanding. This approach has proved particularly useful to editors making major decisions on budgets and staffing.

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