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Loosen the newsroom’s chokehold on the brand

“The privileged status a newsroom enjoys ought to come with accountability and a responsibility to help sustain both journalism and the business of journalism.”

Any American editor will proudly tell you that the newsroom — and especially The Editor — is the sole custodian of the news(paper) brand, the true keeper of what the masthead is really meant to represent.

raju-narisettiAnd if you ask anyone on the business side at most American publishing houses — especially in the advertising/sales department — you will likely hear a grudging acknowledgment of this odd reality, an admission that the newsroom does have the final, veto-proof say on the vast majority of issues involving the use of the brand.

There is a good reason for this unchallenged, even if incongruous, reality. For decades, when newspaper ad departments were essentially order-takers, simply “booking” ads and incoming revenue, all that a news brand — such as The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times or The Washington Post — stood for, was entirely the journalism, which until very recently was merely the physical newspaper. There was little need to “extend” the brand, to find new ways to use the masthead’s name — and more critically, the news brand’s relationship to customers — to generate other revenue. Over time, the editor and the newsroom’s grip on what the brand is, what it should be and also what it couldn’t be, became embedded in the very foundation of the Church and State demarcation. A fait accompli, if you will.

Just how has this “newsroom owning the brand” manifested itself in most mainstream American newsrooms? In 2013 alone, we saw:

  • High profile, creative journalism experiences mostly run ad-free, with highly engaging acts of digital storytelling actually generating negative revenue for publishers (because even normal ads on the website were deliberately “designed out,” essentially turned off on these pages, instead of accommodating new kinds of sponsorships/ads).
  • Conversations about how a publisher’s advertising team and their non-news content-creators can engage and work with deep-pocketed brands wanting to become storytellers have stalled over some genuine and largely unproven newsroom fears that sponsored content/native advertising will be the ruin of their news brand.
  • Media critics, usually former editors/reporters who don’t have the burden of funding a newsroom — continue to feel rather well qualified, as de facto guardians of the news brand, to use their bully pulpits to publicly challenge any and all brand extensions, be it events, a themed cruise or any branded, paid-for service, including even the mere existence of shopping on news web sites.
  • Newsrooms and editors blithely citing “reader perception” issues, often without any actual and measurable evidence, to stonewall transparent and user-friendly ecommerce hyperlinks or, heaven forbid, serving contextual product ads.
  • Paywalls are owned by circulation when it comes to generating paying customers for journalism, yet newsrooms continue to insist on owning critical content levers that can be used by circulation to help drive conversion of “drive-by” audiences into paying audiences.

Now, wishfully, let us fast forward into 2014.

If publishers are to build sustainable business models through a combination of advertising dollars, reader revenue, and smart adjacent businesses, then one of the biggest stumbling blocks will be this prevailing, meek public acceptance of the newsroom’s primary ownership of the brand by those in product, advertising, circulation, marketing, public relations, and indeed by many publishers.

Just because a news “brand” was almost never leveraged for anything other than journalism for decades doesn’t entitle a newsroom to its veto-proof card, especially when such power currently comes without real accountability to help sustain the brand, not just the brand’s perceived reputation but also its financial health.

Don’t get me wrong. The complaints that editors — and many journalists — express, often mostly in private, about their “business” side — they don’t read or understand the product; they can’t seem to sell what news does well but always want something new; they only care about closing an ad buy and not about readers — aren’t entirely made up, even if they are way overdone.

But for the news brand to succeed and a publishing house to find sustainable business models for journalism (usually the single largest expense for a publisher), the brand has to be co-owned: by those who create journalism, those who can turn that journalism into a product, those who try and monetize that product, and those who support and promote that entire package. Editors, by virtue of their critical role as maestros of journalism, will always be first among equals in any publishing house that values honest, independent journalism. Still, the privileged status a newsroom enjoys ought to come with accountability and a responsibility to help sustain both journalism and the business of journalism.

For 2014, here are six specific suggestions for publishers to help loosen the newsroom’s default chokehold on the news brand, and try to more formally connect daily acts of journalism to the long-term business of funding that journalism:

  • If the newsroom cites potential reader “confusion” or “perception” as the reason to simply not do something that doesn’t seem like it will hurt the news brand, ask for evidence. Chances are most journalists/editors haven’t actually talked to many readers, if any at all, recently, and are not beyond projecting their own confusion/perceptions on to readers. Sure, there is a good place for personal skepticism to inform decision-making, but that can no longer be a substitute for actual reader feedback.
  • Create formal reader-survey processes and A-B testing mechanisms that everyone — including the newsroom — agree, in advance, will be used to help settle merely subjective disagreements on issues related to redesign, fonts, modules, and, especially, the use of labels. (Native advertising, anyone?)
  • Since editors are prone to talking the mobile and digital talk but not necessarily walking that talk, ask key newsroom staffers to take on specific goals aimed at getting more people to consume more journalism, especially on mobile. For instance, first mapping and then tracking the mismatch between audience peaks and intra-day story publishing patterns on web/mobile.
  • The editor — or the designated liaison between newsroom standards and advertising — should always be able to turn down ads, especially when obstructive (and annoying) ads are being pitched as innovative ads. But ask then if the newsroom standards team will also agree to take on the goal of actually approving at least five new ad campaigns in a year — especially ad templates that are truly innovative and can engage readers and appeal to advertisers.
  • Offer to create an ad innovations team made up of representatives from news, product, technology, ad operations, and ad sales. The team is charged with coming up with new ad formats that first meet the newsroom’s approval and are then taken to clients. Ask the editor or an influential newsroom nominee to head up this team. This structure can also help deal with the unwillingness of some newsrooms to even share, ahead of time, the broad topic that a new reader experience, such as those spawned by The New York Times’ Snow Fall, is going to be used for, therefore making sure the ad department can’t really monetize it fully.
  • For publishers with paywalls, if the newsroom’s homepage team wants complete control over what stories are set free or moved behind a paywall, they must then agree to take on joint goals around conversion (moving visitors to readers to paying subscribers) with the circulation department.

Nothing can be worse for a news brand than no longer being able to afford to pay for and publish what actually created an enduring brand. Constricting revenue sources and opportunities without actual evidence of negative brand impact has been a self-inflicted problem stemming from newsroom brand ownership that is not shared by key stakeholders. When it comes to digital, there is a collective amnesia, which goes against our industry’s experience, about how journalism and advertising, when designed to work well together, works best for our customers — audiences and advertisers alike. The revenue generating departments of a news brand, which have either become complacent or diffident in a digital world where potential clients have endless alternatives to the often single news brands being pitched, can’t use their lack of brand ownership as the excuse to not innovate on behalf of the news brand.

Publishers have simply been too afraid to hold newsrooms accountable for their lack of cooperation around both creating and integrating innovative revenue-generating opportunities for the very news brand that everyone actually has a vested interest in preserving.

Here is hoping that in 2014, the news industry will find a good answer to this long-ignored question of who should own the news brand.

Raju Narisetti is senior vice president for strategy at News Corp.

Updating regularly through Friday, December 20