In business, a Chinese wall is an information barrier that separates one part of the company from another. In newspapers, there's a Chinese wall between the journalism part (the newsroom) and the business part (advertising), and usually also the opinion part (the editorial page). Outsiders generally don't understand this, but left hand really doesn't know what the right hand is up to, and what's more, often don't want to know.
I was thinking about that the other night when listening to a live stream of a conference at CUNY in which Journal Register chief John Paton said every one of his #jrc newspapers will cover its newsroom costs this year with digital revenues.
How many journalists know their newsroom's budget? How many know their company's digital revenues? This information isn't passed around openly (and no, I'm not going to reveal any Morris numbers; I'll leave that to Derek May).
But ignorance of this information leaves journalists to guess, and often guess wildly wrong, then build towers of assumptions on these bad foundations. Ever wonder where dumb, self-defeating ideas come from? Now you know.
The oldest, deepest, most basic human emotion is fear. The worst fear is fear of the unknown. So in these uncertain and turbulent days of change for newspaper companies, we shouldn't be surprised that many working journalists, lacking any signals to the contrary, despair for the future of their profession.
Run this equation:
N = newsroom budget / digital revenues * 100 N = digital revenues/newsroom budget * 100. Paton planted a flag at 100. Where is your N?
(Don't over-think this. Don't argue that print production costs shouldn't be counted. Just do the calculation. It's a barometer. It can predict fair skies and storms pretty well.)
I've seen papers perform from the 20s to 200. If you're in the middle, you should at least get a glimmer of hope that there is a sustainable future for local journalism in a digital world. In the worst economy in our lifetimes, you're covering your newsroom costs!
If you can do 100 and somebody else is doing 200, do 200. If you can do 200, why not 400? Print is declining. Pick up the slack. What needs to happen to get you there?
There are a lot of derivative indicators like these that can, and should, be discussed in the newsroom.
If you have an unhealthy score, there are two ways to go about improving it: cut costs or increase revenues. Does a newsroom play a role in increasing revenues?
Don't jump to "no." Because, as I said, even the Great Wall has gateways. Newsrooms need to collaborate in appropriate ways with the rest of the company to gather the kind of audiences that advertisers need to address.
Repeatedly I've seen newsrooms create projects and special sections of substantial scale without a thought as to whether there should even be a business plan.
And I've see ad teams create special sections without any real thought as to why a user would want to go there, then complain that the site needs a redesign to "drive more traffic" to the poorly designed new product -- as if users could be driven like cattle. (Note: Users are like cats. You can't make them do a thing.)
I knew an editor once who wouldn't allow the real estate section to be featured on the "content portion" of the homepage -- as if there were no reader/user value in the real estate listings. It is no abandonment of principle to feature the real estate section on the weekend. It's a service. If you're in a newsroom, your loyalty should be to the reader/user -- not the Chinese wall.
You have to work together on these things. I have learned that while ad salespeople may be an avaricious bunch of back-patting expense-account lunchers (and I mean that in the nicest way), they also care about what they sell. Engage them early. Work with them, not against them. Make them fall in love with your product before it's time to sell it. And help make their product something the users will love.