50 Shades of Grey: The Wall Between Church and State Is Crumbling, but Does It Matter?
Editor's note: This is a guest contribution by Dillon Baker, associate editor of Contently.
On July 21, a shouting match erupted at Gawker headquarters.
"Make this into an advertising company then! Say what it really is! It's not a place for journalism!" Leah Finnegan, then Gawker's features editor, directed her frustration squarely at the company's founder, Nick Denton. Never one to shy away from conflict, Denton fired back.
"There are dirty deals being done all over the place," he said. "Your attitude, your naïveté when it comes to that, and then outrage when you discover that actually that's how the world works, it's sort of natural and it's sort of a function of where we are as a company."
Days before, Gawker had published an article detailing the interactions between a married Condé Nast employee and a male escort. Readers and media experts accused the company of shoddy reporting; the unethical outing of a private citizen; and purposeful targeting of Condé Nast, a rival to Gawker. As a result of the furor, Denton and the company's business executives made the decision to remove the post, citing almost universal condemnation as well as advertiser pressure. Gawker's editorial staff, notorious for its fierce commitment to transparency and independence, revolted.
Soon after, Politico Media reporter Peter Sterne attained a recording of the meeting. The transcript he published was a fascinating inside look into a passionate, frank discussion of an age old problem in journalism: the so-called separation of "church" and "state."
One of journalism's oldest tenets is editorial independence— the idea that editors should be free from the influence of advertisers and other business pressures. In the case of Gawker, Finnegan—and other indignant editors who eventually quit—believed that the business side of the company had broken down the metaphorical wall.
And Denton didn't disagree.
"Were there also business concerns? Absolutely," Denton writes in a blog post addressed to his editorial staff. "The company's ability to finance independent journalism is critical. If the post had remained up, we probably would have triggered advertising losses this week into seven figures."
Despite Gawker's commitment to publishing stories that don't pander to advertisers and powerful institutions, Denton believed this case required dramatic action, even if it was "a breach of everything Gawker stands for." In his view, the piece "was also an unprecedented misuse of the independence given to editorial."
All of this leads to a crucial question: How does editorial independence fit into today's media industry?
After talking with media experts and insiders, as well as reading mountains of research on the question, I believe it's safe to say there is no simple answer. The media industry is massive, full of standards that vary depending on format, editorial mission, and business model. Fox News and MSNBC, for example, are very different from The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. The New York Post is very different from The Atlantic. And Gawker is very different from BuzzFeed.
But there has perhaps never been a time when the question of editorial independence has come into such sharp focus. As advertising and subscription revenues plummet, new challengers like Vox Media and BuzzFeed supplant traditional titans, and the Internet fundamentally changes the way people read news, the media industry has been rocked by an extended state of chaos.
Cracks in the wall
The biggest names in publishing are desperate.
The creation of native advertising studios, which are effectively in-house advertising firms fluent in editorial skills, has been the most significant consequence of the media revenue crunch. It seems most major media publishers—even those defined by editorial independence, such as The New York Times, Gawker, and The Guardian—have created a native ad studio in the past five years.
The basic idea is that publishers offer their skills to brands, creating ads that resemble traditional editorial work. But many, including John Oliver in a famous segment lampooning the concept, aren't impressed: "It's not trickery, it's sharing storytelling tools," Oliver says, quoting a New York Times representative, before offering his own analysis: "And that's not bullshit, that's repurposed bovine waste."
But while native advertising, particularly poorly labeled versions, threatens reader trust, it doesn't necessarily erode the wall between church and state. At most companies, the work is done by former journalists or advertisers with little to no input from editorial staff—the wall, therefore, can theoretically remain in tact.
However, Condé Nast changed that when it launched its branded content studio, "23 Stories," earlier this year. The venture explicitly uses editorial talent to create the ads, which the publisher believes will give it a leg up on the competition.
Condé isn't alone. Hearst, The Daily Mail, and even The Guardian, among others, use editorial staffers to help create advertorial. Then there are new media companies like BuzzFeed, which is entirely funded by native ads and has removed articles in the past due to pressure from advertisers, and Vice, which is highly involved in creating sponsored campaigns for advertisers. One publisher, Nylon, which covers pop culture and fashion, recently went so far as to combine the positions of editor-in-chief and CMO to try and bolster sagging ad revenue.
Likewise, Time Inc. has instituted major changes in the face of finance pressure. In 2013, the venerable institution changed its management structure and now has editorial staffers report to the business side—perhaps the most brazen and explicit demolition of church and state among premium media brands in the United States.
Despite the attention shadowing these controversial examples, some media veterans aren't exactly shocked by the news.
"Newspapers and magazines have always had special advertisement sections and advertorials," said Amy Vernon, a former journalist and co-founder of Predictable.ly, a content analytics firm. "They were usually written by completely separate staff. And they were barely disguised advertisements. The fact of the matter is that these have literally always existed."
And she's right. Camel used to sponsor the news, as Oliver points out. Bloomberg created Bloomberg Media, now a respected news brand, to help support and expand their famous terminal business. And according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word"advertorial" has been around since at least 1916, though advertorials as a genre really came into popularity in the 1940s and 1950s. Corporate influence of some kind has always been a part of the publishing industry.
Yet the evidence suggests that, more than ever before, editors at many major media companies are being explicitly asked to understand and work with their business brethren. Financial hardships have weakened publications that traditionally upheld editorial independence as a core value.
"These organizations don't have the strength they once had, and so I suspect there are questions being asked about stories that weren't asked fifteen years ago," said Tim Gleason, a professor at The University of Oregon and director of the Ancil Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism. "Or, if they were asked fifteen years ago, they were answered with, 'Well we're gonna do it anyway.' I suspect you'd find more conversation, more challenges to stories that in some ways threatened the economic well-being of the publication."
Not all media companies have gone as far as Time Inc. or Condé Nast—or have broken down the wall in the first place—but as journalistic purity keeps eroding, the debate has started to shift. Some are questioning the very value of church and state itself.
A new church?
One of the core assumptions of church and state is that the very act of communicating with advertisers undermines editorial integrity. When a salesperson who is afraid of losing the Microsoft account has a discussion with a journalist producing an expose on the company, it's assumed that bias will seep into the way that journalist reports the story. Or, in the most extreme cases, that influence could even prevent it from being published in the first place.
Yet, as the media industry continues to exist in a state of turmoil, some have begun to poke at this basic premise. A few have even started to promote the collaboration of business and editorial.
"I have no problem with that at all," said Mark Glaser, founder and executive editor at MediaShift. "More people on both sides of the 'firewall' need to understand the work and needs of others on the other side. Editorial people must understand how the business works. Business people have to understand the editorial process. That doesn't mean that editorial people need to start covering stories dictated by the business side. There just needs to be more honest sharing of information and cooperation."
Vernon and Chris Mohney, chief content officer at Serious Eats and former editor-in-chief at Tumblr, share similar views, though their reasonings differ. While Vernon tends to believe that journalists will produce strong, independent work regardless of their knowledge of the business side of the company, Mohney leans more towards Glaser's idea that both sides could benefit from open and frank discussion, as he argued in a recent Medium post.
"You can be independent and free from interference and free from meddling, but independence should not mean ignorance," Mohney explained. "It shouldn't mean that you just willfully engage from what's happening. You all are, theoretically, attempting to achieve the same thing."
Bryan Goldberg, founder of Bustle and Bleacher Report, argued here on Pando that the traditional rules separating church and state should be relaxed. And he doesn't parse words when it comes to his opinion on the issue, calling the separation dogmatic, as well as "idiotic" and "brainless." His conclusion?
“The walls between "church and state" are as damaging as the walls that keep Advertising on one floor, Editorial on another, and Engineering in a remote location. It does not work. It will not work in the 21st century.”
He points to his companies, Bleacher Report in particular, as examples of this newfound model. And as companies such as Hearst, Time Inc., and Condé Nast have shown, many in the media industry have begun to hold similar beliefs (Time Inc.'s CEO Joseph Ripp notoriously once said that "We believe effective collaboration across business and editorial lines is imperative if we are to succeed as an independent company").
Of course, not everyone agrees with these radical new understandings of editorial independence. Some, such as The New York Times, The Economist, The Guardian, and The Financial Times, have gone the opposite route, playing up their tradition of strict independence.
In these cases, however, editorial independence has less to do with the literal separation of business and editorial, and more to do with company ownership. The Guardian's trust-fund structure allows them to avoid the influence of shareholders, and The New York Times retains independence through a similar set up: the Ochs-Sulzberger family owns 88 percent of the company's "Class B" shares (Class A do not allow voting rights). Meanwhile The Economist, which, until recently, was partially owned by The Financial Times, launched an ad campaign celebrating its tradition of editorial independence. The Financial Times, which was bought by Japanese publisher Nikkei, also made a display of its commitment to editorial integrity, asking for a written guarantee of independence from their new owners.
Perhaps the most interesting example is The Guardian, which has broken down the church and state wall by enlisting journalists to produce native ads while simultaneously placing a huge bet on editorial quality. According to Eamonn Store, the CEO of The Guardian U.S., the company has begun to transition to a membership model that asks readers to be actively involved in The Guardian community and the direction of its coverage.
Store called the debate surrounding native ads, "a bit tired," and he believes that strong labeling and transparency can resolve most issues involving ad formats. Instead, he claims that investors and shareholders are much more of a threat to editorial independence than interaction between church and state.
"Whenever there is a financial return answer to [investment], there is a compromise," he said." There is a potential compromise in the integrity of views, in my opinion."
Look no further than publishers like Vox, Vice, and BuzzFeed, which have all received major investments from media conglomerates such as Comcast or Verizon with ownership stakes in controversial companies that their publications would traditionally cover.
Store's point is difficult to prove, but on the surface, it makes sense. As he argued, the idea of ownership in a capitalist system inherently implies a certain amount of control.
Perhaps the most important takeaway is that, despite all the doom and gloom, the journalistic apocalypse has not yet occurred. Time Inc., Conde Nast, The New York Times, and other premium brands still publish pieces that challenge advertisers, their owners, and other powerful institutions. And journalists still fight to pursue their calling, even if the financial instability of the industry means they are more nervous when it comes to antagonistic investigative reports.
As Gleason put it: "Journalism changes. What we consider the norms in 2015 were not the norms in 1950 and were not the norms in 1920. It does evolve and it does change."