The year we stop taking sides

“Like many concepts that have outlived their usefulness, the wall between business and news was taken to absurd limits, creating a culture of divisiveness that lingers on today.”

This is more of a plea than a prediction.

tim-griggsAt one point in my career, as I laid off another round of journalists as the editor of a regional newspaper in North Carolina, I had an epiphany. I had to help, or at least try my damnedest, to keep journalism alive rather than being a journalist myself. So I made the seemingly too-rare leap to the “business side.”

Flash forward a few years, when a senior colleague — who I otherwise admire greatly — told me the most important thing an editor can do is “keep the lawnmower out of the rose bushes” — a reference to fending off the evil “business side” from doing god-knows-what damage to the newsroom.

Ugh.

In 2017, I hope our industry — or at least more of it — kills the damning cultural vestige of church vs. state. Let’s start by abandoning references to “sides.”

Like many concepts that have outlived their usefulness, the wall between business and news — intended to keep advertisers’ interests from influencing news coverage decisions — was taken to absurd limits, creating a culture of divisiveness that lingers on today. And the division of labor between the two, while efficient in the monopolistic era of print, now incapacitates many news organizations that are trying to figure out how to handle necessarily blurry roles. Where should audience growth responsibility live — with the newsroom or the business? What about product? Technology? Analytics? Testing? Design? User experience?

This isn’t about org charts and reporting lines. And it’s not, for the love of god, about merging the editor and publisher jobs to cut costs. The “side” thing is much more real and tangible and destructive. It’s about how we behave, how we work together, how we tackle shared problems. It’s about how we see journalism as a greater good and, yes, how we do everything we can — appropriately, responsibly — to make money. It’s about teamwork. The term “sides,” on the other hand, implies opposition, like armies or tennis players.

When folks with P&L responsibility — publishers, GMs, marketers, sales reps, finance leaders — refuse to work collaboratively with their newsroom colleagues, we lose. When journalists refuse to understand the basic economics of the business — or play an active role in contributing to those economics — we lose.

Some startups of late aim to be built differently. And some initiatives at “legacy” news organizations preach this, too.

So, that’s my plea for 2017: Let’s lose the ego and the control and the “that’s-not-my-job” mentality. Let’s burn down the artificial divide between people who make money and people who spend it. Let’s be one, united in our pursuit of important, community- or world-changing journalism and smart, effective business practices to support it.

But I’ll settle for a baby step: No more “sides.”

Tim Griggs is an independent media consultant and advisor and former publisher of The Texas Tribune.

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