News Leadership 3.0

April 23, 2008

Editorial independence: Let’s get real

Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal takes a new direction
Ensuing debate promotes a myth about newsroom independence
How do you define editorial independence?

The tussling over ownership—and now direction—of The Wall Street Journal has created a lot of headlines. I do not know enough to have an opinion about Rupert Murdoch’s plans to add more non-business content to the Journal. What bothers me right now is the way the phrase “editorial independence” is being thrown around in blog posts like this one that seem to suggest that editors can ignore the business environment in which the news organization operates and the business strategies of the larger organization.
I wish that were true. But I define editorial independence more narrowly: Journalists must make decisions on what to cover and publish independent of factors such as whether it involves advertisers (think “Why is that store opening on Page One?”, friends of the publisher (think: “Does that person’s obituary really warrant a prominent teaser?”), might embarrass the news organization or its staff (think corrections or that DUI arrest) or even prevailing community opinion (think brave newspapers during the Civil Rights era).
At the same time, editors in real life make those decisions within the context of a business strategy. For example, if the business strategy of a newspaper in Community A is to be highly local, editorial independence does not allow the editor to routinely expend significant news gathering resources on reporting outside the circulation area. If the business strategy is to build audience on the Web, editorial independence does not allow the editor to drag her feet on developing and staffing a good Web site.
I confess, I am cynical about the phrase “editorial independence.” In my years as a consultant to newsrooms, I have been in more than a few where more than a few people used phrases like “editorial independence” when they were thinking “I don’t want to change.”
As Forbes reported last week, editors are spending more time than before on business strategy and have to be keenly aware of the business context in which they make editorial decisions. Last night, I asked a few editors for a reality check on this development and its effect on editorial independence, Here are a couple of quick-turnaround responses to share. (I’ll post more as I get them and please join the discussion in comments.)

Bob Zaltsberg, Editor, Herald-Times, Bloomington, Ind.

Editorial independence can and should be the same in 2008 as it was in 1998 or 1988 or 1978. But an editor must be aware of the business issues that are facing our industry and be willing to have the newsroom participate in covering legitimate topics that also have appeal to the business side. What I mean is, an editor must defend the newsroom standards and principles regarding playing favorites or pursuing (or not pursuing) stories that will benefit an individual or business, just as we always have. But an editor must also understand that good stories for a section (or Web site) targeting young readers or wine drinkers or moms or people interested in health issues are not that much different from having a whole department that covers sports and creates special section content for NCAA tournaments or high school sports previews.

It’s also important for all sorts of reasons that we participate in our company’s strategic planning process. In a strong, serious media company, the strategic goals are going to include attracting and retaining readers/audience. We have to lead that effort, whether its in print or online. We can have editorial independence AND work with our colleagues on the business side. In fact, we must.

Caesar Andrews, Executive Editor, Detroit Free Press

The day-to-day direction of newsrooms works best if decisions are made based on the top priority of serving readers. So tactical matters - which individual stories to cover, what angles and sources to pursue, where to place stories - ought to be driven by journalists making choices they can defend based on the journalism involved. Without ignoring ideas and thoughts and concerns from outside the newsroom, these choices should be independent-minded.

The larger role of divining a workable big-picture strategy for covering the community is more complex. It extends well beyond the newsroom. It has to make business sense. Others get to weigh in. Newsrooms cannot afford to wall themselves off. In fact, they should want the perspective of smart people from different non-news corners of the company. In an era of tighter resources and more competing sources of information, there’s just a greater need for more precision in targeting audiences. Strategies have to do double-duty. They have to result in credible news coverage that attracts and satisfies a changing pool of readers. And they have to at the same time attract advertisers who find unique value in our news products, so much so that they are willing to bankroll a significant part of our overall enterprise. Creating that reality demands less rigid departmental independence in shaping business strategy. But done the right way, heavy coordination should not taint the daily decision-making best left to newsrooms.

UPDATE: Here’s an additional response from Carlos Sanchez, Editor, Waco Tribune-Herald:

From my perspective, editorial independence means that I have the freedom to go where ever the news takes me in my community and beyond—if it affects my community. It means that I can take on the sacred cows if, by taking them on, our readers are illuminated in some way. It does not mean taking on the sacred cows simply for the sake of taking them on.

It is not only foolish, but irresponsible not to weigh the implications of any story that we are pursuing against the impact it will have on our community. That should extend to the impact on business that a story may have on our institution. I’m not saying we should be dissuaded against taking on stories that might impact our bottom line; I am saying that I feel a keen responsibility to understand the implications any story might have on our bottom line and inform my publisher of those implications.


These editors are exactly right. In a nutshell, editorial independence means putting the readers’ interests above the interests of advertisers,  community leaders, special interest groups or, as you state, the publisher’s friends.

But being in tune with and helping shape the business strategy of the newspaper company? That’s vital, too. But, to me, it isn’t part of the definition of “editorial independence.”

Editorial independence can and should be the same now as it was in 1998 or 1988 or 1978.

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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