ETHICS UPDATE / Should it stay or should it go? Church and State in the modern media environment

Process-improvement expert Kilian Schalk led a Feb. 28 webcast for ASBPE in which he suggested ways to achieve better communication between the editors’ and the publishers’ sides of our businesses. Asked by Ethics Update to elaborate for this newsletter, he uses this platform to argue that perhaps the entire separation is obsolete and should be replaced. Ethics topics will be a mainstay of ASBPE’s National Conference May 10-11 at Washington DC’s National Press Club.—Roy Harris, Interim Ethics Committee Chair

Church and State, the system of ethics established in the 1920s to regulate the relationship between editors and publishers, was a workaround designed to address the problem of advertising influence on the editorial process. By physically separating editorial from publishing functions, and agreeing that publishing concerns were not to impact content, editors were free to represent the readers’ interest, while publishers spoke for advertisers. This allowed media groups to accept ad revenue and still maintain their readers’ trust.

It was a wasteful system, but it worked as a business model in the ‘20s because publications had a single-channel monopoly on readers’ attention. They also passed on to advertisers all costs related to maintaining what were, in effect, two separate staffs.  The agreed-upon 15% ad-agency discount sealed the deal, resulting in a formula where advertising revenue determined how much space was available for editors to fill with content. Variations of this model were adopted by radio, television, magazines, and even websites, and it is alive and well today.

The tech giants appear

Now, however, the situation has changed. Legacy media no longer has a monopoly; each day seems to bring a new way to reach readers. Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook have inserted themselves into the spaces between magazine content and its readers, and between publishers and their advertisers. The tech giants also reward their shareholders by diverting revenue from the publishing world.

Those tech giants don’t create content, so responsibility for preserving editorial independence remains with the media—those who create as well as transmit—and this relative simplicity of process gives the tech giants a strategic advantage. When paired with technology that advances faster than law or ethics concerns can keep pace, this in turn enables new monopolies and the profits that come with them.

So where does this leave magazines? For many, it leaves them winded, dazed, and confused. We have enough trouble with external threats; keeping publishers and editors walled off in parallel lanes complicates the task at hand, which is to make magazines that not only survive, but thrive.

In the same boat

ASBPE asked me to research the relationship between publishers and editors for my Feb. 28 webinar. That research consisted of 13 off-the-record conversations with publishers conducted during the past two months. Coupled with a career of working with editors, it taught me three significant things: Advertising as a threat to editorial integrity is still a problem; Church and State may no longer be the best way to handle this problem; and there are a few alternate ideas out there, as well as a willingness to try new things.

Before we tackle the problem, however, we must define it in today’s terms. As revenue models change and morph into new, often very case-specific hybrids, the need for editorial integrity to win and keep readers’ trust places publishers and editors in the same boat. The common goal for publishers and editors must be to preserve editorial identity and independence for the sake of the business; a rising tide of (subscribed) readers lifts that boat.

Another argument in favor of rapprochement is that increasingly distracted readers are becoming ever more fickle, and their trust is hard won, making that trust more valuable to everyone involved. Consumer attitudes towards the tech giants are also beginning to shift; media companies may be able to regain market share if we work together to play them off each other.

Publishers and editors both have ideas that could help us move forward, so we may want to bring them together and brainstorm. A new ethical system could describe, among other things: how branded content should be handled; how financials could be shared; and how to manage sales calls—not to mention how to deal with the moving target of readers’ expectations for each new channel, and how that impacts content creation.

Steps on each side

Of course, years of Church-and-State-induced animosity cannot be easily forgotten, and it may take some serious trust building to make systemic cooperation possible. Potential first steps? Publishers could offer to open their books and share information. They could put a focus on job security rather than growing salaries. They could test new revenue sources that maintain editorial integrity. And they could publicly pledge not to allow articles to be affected by revenue considerations. On the editorial side, editors could become more willing to work across silos and purposefully personify the brand. They could work with the business people to develop new products as well as adapt content to appropriately populate those products. They could display willingness to try new things. And they could work as a team with publishers to support their efforts to reach revenue goals.

Perhaps a joint pilot group could develop, test, and implement a new system. In time, the conversation might extend to considering ways to handle data for the mutual benefit of both publishing and editorial—a different means to the same end of safeguarding editorial integrity to cultivate loyal readers.

At the very least, let’s fix what we can right now. Church and State was put in place to maintain the reader’s trust. If editors and publishers can develop a modern, adaptable, consistent process and ethical system that keeps each brand’s editorial promise to the reader and allows media companies and the people who work for them to thrive… we will have replaced Church and State with something better.

Kilian Schalk founded PurpleGray Consulting, a process improvement firm, in 2014. For three years before that he was managing editor for editorial development at Condé Nast, and from 1999 to 2011 he was technical director of digital projects for the New Yorker. From 1995 to 1999 he was the youngest production manager in Rolling Stone’s history.


Please share this page with your friends and colleagues.