Editorial and Commercial: Never the Twain Shall Meet?

The traditional walls between business and editorial sides of news production must go down to allow communication. A panel of experienced journalists at the 2015 International Journalism Festival in Perugia concluded that the inevitable contact between these once strictly separated departments must stick to rules to maintain the credibility and editorial message unbiased.

Bill Emmott, former editor in chief of The Economist; Margaret Sullivan, public editor of The New York Times; Felix Salmon, senior editor at Fusion; and George Brock, professor at City University London, joined the discussion chaired by Jane Martinson, head of media at The Guardian.

Ms Sullivan explained that editorial and business sides are getting closer in search for a profitable model of journalism. “Media organisations are scrambling for revenue in a way they never have before,” she said. “At The New York Times, there’s more interaction now between the business side and the editorial side (…) than there’s ever been. I don’t think any ethical problems have arisen.”

Nevertheless, Ms Sullivan admitted that identifying native advertising tends to be problematic. Mr Salmon argued that clarifying who paid the reporting expenses is not solving the problem. Even though the disclosure is clear, people are not aware how the impartiality of a journalist can be affected. “People don’t see disclosures, they don’t understand disclosures, they don’t care about disclosures,” he said.

To Mr Emmott, what matters is the audience’s expectation. If they require independence or transparency, the editorial content should live up to their expectation. “The right question for any editor is what promise have I made to the reader,” he said.

In the case of Italian media, he wondered whether the readers will become interested in independent media. In his view, they are very politicized, commercialized or both. “There’s no such thing as an independent journalism in Italy,” he declared.

Mr Brock added that the pressure of advertisers can be harsher on small media start-ups: “Don’t forget that in this respect size matters. If you’re a large, well-established publisher with plenty of revenue and resources, telling an advertiser, who wants to try it on, to go and get stuffed is a bit easier.”

He also pointed out that online has made it more difficult for media organisations to keep their integrity. “Journalism is more and more consumed in fragments,” he said. Mr Salmon agreed and remarked that there are fewer ways to distinguish between editorial content and advertising online.

Nevertheless, Mr Emmott said that American and British media have progressed over the past years. “Actually, the situation has got a lot better compared with 20, 30, 40 years ago, I think, in terms of the ethics, in terms of the clarity, in terms of that separation,” he said.

What is more, Mr Emmott reckons that the diminishing advertising has brought the audience in the centre of interest: “The good news is that the reader now matters much more.”

Helena Kardova