How News Orgs Break Down the Editorial-Business Wall, Ethically

    by Dena Levitz
    November 8, 2012
    Across the country, publications are working to find ways to break down the wall and ethically meld business and editorial.

    The ironclad, “Romeo and Juliet”-style firewall that’s long existed between media companies’ news and business divisions has become outdated. It’s no longer a question of whether to break down the wall but how.

    Coming from the editorial side, as I am, that’s an uncomfortable premise. But I’m learning during my studies at American University’s Media Entrepreneurship program that across the industry, news organizations are finding creative, appropriate — and most importantly — ethical ways to blend the business and editorial sides.

    If the publication isn't sustainable, there's no place for any of the staff's content, even courageous, admirable reporting."

    Startups — Too Small for Walls

    The burgeoning news startup world is a great source of rich examples.


    Often these new ventures are lean at the outset, so bringing on separate sales and news teams is simply out of the question. The founder and perhaps a small team must do it all: setting up the website, marketing the company, gathering the content, bringing in the revenue, and on and on, no matter the discipline.


    Take ARLnow.com, for example, which covers Arlington, Va., like a blanket. During a recent Saturday seminar class at my school, Scott Brodbeck explained the ins and outs of the homegrown online venture he created nearly three years ago. Brodbeck is the startup’s founder, and for most of ARLnow’s existence, he’s also been its primary news gatherer, editor, marketer and ad manager. There’s simply been no choice for a largely bootstrapped endeavor like his to get off the ground but to be a mostly one-man show.


    ARLnow.com’s bread and butter is breaking news, with the site generally featuring a six- to seven-story-a day mix of crime, accidents, restaurant openings, land-use issues and government decisions, among other content areas that affect residents. To do this successfully and scoop the competition, Brodbeck listens to a police scanner and races out to news scenes. His constant presence around Arlington in this reporting capacity has made him known in the area. Being known has only helped sell ads, he explained to our class. Yet he’s able to continue his reporting function unscathed.

    It’s entirely possible to take on both roles without compromising the integrity of the site, Brodbeck illustrates day in and day out.

    Similarly, MedCity Media founder Chris Seper, a newsman by background, has had to practically wear a closetful of hats, both news and business in nature, to get his startup off the ground. At this summer’s Online News Association conference Seper spoke about adopting the same mentality Brodbeck did in launching MedCity, an online source of health care and life sciences news that’s blossomed both editorially and financially.


    Seper quickly realized the need, from the start, to think about the product as a whole, including audience, revenue and content factors. This holistic approach has been a key success determinant — not a hindrance or ethical pitfall — in growing the startup’s influence and value.

    “I asked myself early on, ‘Do I force myself to be a businessperson or do I hire a business partner?” Seper said, explaining that the responsibility fell squarely on him. “If it’s your business you need to sell it and sell it a lot.”

    His rule of thumb is to spend as much time generating revenue as he does in his comfort area of generating content for readers.

    Seper’s sentiment speaks to the fact that individuals in the news business no longer need to be relegated to just thinking about the journalism or just the business of news. Often the best news products come when the departments concerned with audience, revenue and content work together. And often it helps news producers to understand their larger organization’s missions and inner workings, just as it helps the revenue producers to understand the news product they’re working to make profitable.

    Examples from Legacy Organizations

    That’s certainly been a declaration by the leaders of Atlantic Media.

    Explaining the company’s turnaround, Atlantic Media President Justin Smith was quoted in Adweek saying that he wanted to make The Atlantic a place where the traditional wall between editorial and business could be broken down, but “in a way that would encourage innovation, not stifle journalistic independence.”

    For starters, managers began giving employees financial information at quarterly town hall meetings. Then leaders created joint editorial and business groups to incubate new ideas for the company. The result of this effort was the creation of The Atlantic Wire, which aggregates tech news and opinion, and The Atlantic Cities, a niche site focused on urban issues. Both new online creations are thriving with feature solid content offerings, and Atlantic Media has remained profitable at the same time.

    And don’t overlook legacy newspapers in disbanding the wall in important ways.
    One particular standout is the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Jason Taylor, the daily newspaper’s dynamic publisher, has staff members from various departments shadow each other to learn their counterparts’ roles. And to ensure that advertising reps are reading the news product that they must represent and support, he gives them periodic written quizzes about the content of the daily newspaper.

    Taking these steps makes for a greater cohesion among departments and a sense of working toward overall sustainability and quality, whether employees are housed in content-generating or revenue-generating divisions. Chattanooga also has a bustling multimillion-dollar events business. Events, as I have heard Taylor preach, provide a way for a news organization to engage with present and future readers, present and future advertisers, as well as to tie back to the original mission of uniting and informing the community. In this way, blending business and news missions is a natural fit.

    Bridging the News-Business divide

    The very fact that the Media Entrepreneurship program in which I’m enrolled even exists demonstrates that we’re past a point of editorial-business firewalls. My classmates and I come from the worlds of radio, startups, national newspapers, technology, in an array of capacities at our respective organizations. Yet collectively we discuss the future of the news industry and are coming up with media-centered projects that blend news and business concepts to achieve innovation in and out of our companies.

    This is as it should be.

    We’re at a juncture where every aspect of a media organization, from business to content, has to be working toward making the brand as strong as possible to compete.

    You can do the great investigative journalism work; however if no one sees it, what’s the point? If the publication isn’t sustainable, there’s no place for any of the staff’s content, even courageous, admirable reporting.

    It should go without saying that it’s never OK to suppress a legitimate news story out of pressure, whether the pressure is from shareholders or advertisers or funders. Ultimately, though, news is a business that has to make money to endure, and there’s nothing wrong with facing that reality and pulling it out from behind a wall.

    Dena Levitz is the manager of digital strategies for the Newspaper Association of America while also pursuing a master’s in Media Entrepreneurship at American University. This is an introduction to a regular column she’ll be writing about what it’s like inside one of the nation’s new entrepreneurial journalism programs. Dena has freelanced for publications like the Washington Post and The Atlantic’s Cities website, been a news writer for the Washington Examiner and the Augusta Chronicle, and worked as a weekend White House stringer for Bloomberg News. In her spare time she enjoys drinking a hoppy beer, chomping on a cheeseburger or quoting from one of the Rocky movies.

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