Bottom feeders in the media pond

There was a lot of fuss last month at the major US online publisher Gawker Media, where editors have resigned in response to the company removing a controversial story. It concerned the old argument of whether commercial interests should influence editorial integrity, and whether times have changed.

Journalist and publisher David Hepworth argues that the divide between advertising and editorial in traditional news media wasn’t a philosophical thing. It was because traditional news publications were financed partially by readers and partially by advertisers. Keeping advertising and editorial apart just acknowledged this.

Hepworth’s argument is this: “(if) you’re an internet media business like Gawker (where readers don’t pay) you only have one revenue stream. That’s the advertiser. Or sponsor or commercial partner or whatever you call them. In this new dispensation, where the advertising is the only source of cash, the advertising will always win. A child could tell you that. This is the new Jerusalem the Gawker people eagerly built. Now they’ve got it, they don’t seem to like it.”

However, the trade press in your industry (and every other industry) made its peace with this so-called ‘new’ model years ago. ‘Controlled-circulation’ journals have always been 100% advertiser-funded, yet the most successful have still maintained their editorial independence from the advertising sales department. That isn’t easy to do, I can assure you. But good advertising sales people realise that editorial independence means more readers and more response, which is what they’re really selling.

It’s odd to see the consumer press, as it moves online, struggling with something the trade press largely solved forty or fifty years ago. Just as the trade press discovered, publications which are governed by their advertisers or charge for ‘editorial’ will never be more than bottom-feeders in the media pond.

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