A number of readers and colleagues keep asking what I think about a recent move at The Dallas Morning News that has 11 news department segments reporting to advertising managers instead of newsside managers. Most of us learned about this from Robert Wilonsky’s Dallas Observer blog that reported the decision and carried the Dec. 2 memo that was sent to staff from DMN Editor Bob Mong and senior vice president of sales Cyndy Carr. Plenty of reaction followed on the Web. Google and see.
My knee-jerk reaction was alarm. News sections reporting to advertising? That smacked of perverse whoring at its worst until I looked further into what’s going on. Except for the organizational chart, which gags me, I don’t see much that’s new. And I don't like the thought of ad people possibly celebrating the long-desired taking of part of "the revenue-reduction department" as, over the years, I've heard ad- and business-side people refer to news departments that aggressively and effectively serve the public interest, which is what they're supposed to be doing.
Collaboration between soft news departments and advertising departments has gone on for decades, and there are policies that support it. For instance, when was the last time you saw news of an airliner disaster on a page carrying an airline ad? When was the last time you saw an expose on red-lining in the real estate section?
Collaboration shows up often in the development of special sections. But at metro dailies like The News and elsewhere, editors generally have developed news content according to news value and not because some business had bought a huge chunk of advertising in a section. In a situation like that, the ad buy tended to be based on the fact that a story was planned on a trend, a product category or the advertiser or whatever, and the story was planned because editors knew it had news value. The story had news value because of readers’ real or potential interest in the topic and need to know. Professionalism in the reporting and presentation of the story ensured a credible piece. A newsy section filled with content like that ensured a product with high news value, which in turn created high advertising value -- a strong vehicle in which to advertise. Sounds to me like that’s what The News is going after. They know as most of us do that credible news value is the single most vital ingredient in creating fertile territory for advertising in any for-profit news product. Advertising revenue floats the boat but doesn't power it. That's the news department's job.
The only criticism I have of The News' step is the new organization. I don’t like editors reporting to advertising. That creates the perception of advertising running newsside, and that’s a perception that can poison credibility, which The News understands and is an issue the Mong and Carr address in their memo.
Advertising exudes a potent presence. If handled in a tasteless manner, it can project a destructive presence, especially in the minds of that half of readership that subscribe or buy a paper principally for its news content. What would parishioners think if, say, they walked in to mass and hanging up there above the altar was a big Drink Pepsi sign instead of a crucifix? And maybe they’d noticed the holy water font sporting a decal for Ozark water. Obviously, Pepsi and Ozark would never pull such a perverse stunt, because they respect lines that separate sacred and secular. In a for-profit news product (and don’t get me started on that), which to me is still a sacred thing, advertising obviously has its place but it should respect where it is and act accordingly. When advertising muscles in on news space, that’s crossing and disrespecting a line and asking for trouble. Perhaps you’ve noticed as I have those god-awful pages in the Star-Telegram where ads chop into news space like bullies bellying up to a reader’s face. Disgusting and as repulsive as an egotistical airhead at a party who impolitely disrupts personal conversation. But it’s salary-paying revenue, right?
I could go on and on about all this as many of us could without even scratching the surface. There are many other aspects of The News' step that are worth exploring. For instance, the ad managers to whom newsside will report have been retitled as "general managers." Did they get a raise? Any raises given to newsside staff who'll be reporting to them? Whatever. Enough said.
To reiterate my concern about The News’ step, I don’t like editors reporting to ad managers. Why not the other way around to avoid threats to credibility? Mong says he and editors reserve the right to step in and to refuse to cross lines that would jeopardize credibility. That's good, but that’s weird. They’re going to say “No” to their bosses in the ad department? What does that say about perceptions of those ad-side people's news judgment and ethics? Why have them as bosses in the first place? But maybe those ad bosses will learn something about journalism. Maybe content that results will be infused with journalistic professionalism and high-quality news value. We can hope. At least hard-news departments like the city desk, state desk, etc., don’t appear to be part of the plan. As Mong and Carr’s memo says: “To better align with our clients' needs, we will be organized around eleven business and content segments with similar marketing and consumer profiles including: sports, health/education, entertainment, travel/luxury, automotive, real estate, communications, preprints/grocery, recruitment, retail/finance, and SMB/Interactive.”
There are some hard-news categories in that lineup, but they all have consumer dimensions as well that lend themselves to softer but still newsworthy coverage. We’ll see whether writers in soft departments generate the coverage or whether the hard-news gladiators get called up for duty.
What are your thoughts?