In his lunchtime speech at news:rewired, Marc Reeves, former editor of the Birmingham Post declared what he thought to be the biggest mistake made by newspapers:
That artificial divide we created when we put the noisy people in a room marked ‘advertising’ and the studious types in another labelled ‘editorial’ was the biggest mistake newspapers and other media ever made. It allowed journalists to insulate themselves from the business they were in to the point of revelling in their detachment. I’ve worked with generations of hacks to whom the very idea of passing on a sales lead was regarded as a murderous betrayal of the memory of CP Scott. No wonder so many didn’t see the meltdown coming.
This, perhaps more than anything else, got me thinking about how the recession had changed things in newsrooms up and down the country – beyond, of course, the obvious fact that they are now much smaller and, sadly in some cases, no longer exist.
The first newsroom I worked in, a free weekly in Lancashire, shared an office with the advertising production department. Advertising were, indeed, the noisy lot next door and, beyond trips to the pub, their main impact on our lives each week were:
a) Announcing ad features on a Thursday which rarely stayed as they were by the time the paper went to press
b) Pulling the paper up or down in size, often at the last minute, causing all number of pages to be redrawn
c) Sending us stories which they would like to see in print to ensure a client advertised more
I still have the random cutting of me appearing in an ad feature for Yum Yums kebab shop in Preston, posing for a picture at lunchtime on a Monday. The chicken kebabs taste much better at 1am after a night in Tokyo Jo’s.
We thought times were tough in those days, but in hindsight the money was rolling in. But at least we knew who the ad reps were (even if was to bemoan the fact they’d nabbed the free parking spaces for the day).
When I moved onto my first daily newspaper, reporters couldn’t have been more far removed from the ad reps if they’d outsourced the commercial side of the business to a call centre in Mumbai. The next time I worried about advertising was when a much brighter colleague than me said: “Have you noticed how few adverts there are in these days on Mondays and Tuesdays?” At the same time, any cuts to budgets were blamed on ‘difficult conditions’ which translated in the newsroom as ‘the ad teams not selling enough.’
So while understanding where Marc was coming from with his comments about the division between editorial and advertising, I couldn’t help but also think that it’s already begun to become a thing of the past. Several newsrooms I’ve been into recently have commercial and editorial sharing the same office.
Until recently, you only became aware of how important the ad and commercial team were to the newsroom when you began working on the newsdesk or attending editorial conferences. In many ways, the arrival of websites in newsrooms provided both sides with the chance to challenge the old marked lines.
I know of at least one website based in a print newsroom which had its success credited to the fact that the ad rep working on the site sat next to the digital editor responsible for it.
And, in the last year or so, it’s been noticeable just how many reporters now have half a commercial head. I’m thinking of reporters who spot potential sponsors for blogs or columns, staff who pass on commercial leads picked up when out on a job.
Interestingly, a number of times in recent months I’ve heard news editors insisting reporters pass on a press release to the commercial team rather than turn it into two pars for the paper. “Make the pay for an ad” is a mantra which I think is much more common in the newsroom. As one senior executive put it to me the other week: “We’ll carry details of the pub quiz in what’s on, but the reference to their Thai night can be jolly well paid for.”
If anything, the frustration now is that not all of those leads turn into adverts. The frustration is often that the newsroom was banking on a deal for something else to happen – a video series, a supplement, or a trip to cover an event. But, as Marc said:
And to those who say: “I can’t sell advertising” I ask how many death knocks have you done?: Exactly, so don’t tell me you can’t sell a little ad space.
I’m not suggesting reporters go and sell ad space – but I agree that selling ads is often like a death knock. It’s by no means a sure win thing.
The recession changed our newsrooms forever, and they will keep changing and evolving. But what is sometimes overlooked is the way that it has made journalists commercially aware – and that change could help keep our industry going.