In modern digital news operations, editors need to drive the success

The tension between newsrooms and the business departments in media houses is omnipresent, wherever you go the world. It is something to be discussed, criticised, and battled, and is generally part of news media culture.

But in the evolving digital world, it is a threat to both editorial and financial sustainability unless the newsroom and the business side find new ways to work together without compromising editorial independence and missing opportunities to grow. To foster cooperation among the departments without threatening the newsroom, it falls to chief editors to take on a greater role.

In traditional media houses, the different departments — newsroom, sales, IT, product development, marketing, and administration — often work in silos and focus primarily on their narrow area’s goals.

But in a digitally driven, audience-centric company, this separation can make it difficult to say who is responsible for the satisfaction of readers or users, and thus for the overall success of the company. Is it the editorial team that creates the best possible content? The sales department that takes care of the sale and delivery of paper and digital products? The marketing that explains why the product is worth buying? The IT that makes the app and Web site work? The ad sales that find the right advertisers for the content?

The customers (i.e., readers and users) are not interested in this division of labour. They want a high-quality product to be delivered on time to the front door, smartphone, desktop, or mailbox. It must be easy to use and available at all times without disruption. And, of course, it must reliably keep them up-to-date on anything interesting.

None of this is a problem if the departments work hand-in-hand. But in many companies, the opposite is the case. Editors complain their great content is not being sold properly by the sales force, that advertising sales are destroying everything, or that IT and product development have created an app that limits the ability to tell the outstanding story in an attractive way.

The complaints can go both ways. The distributor complains the content cannot be sold. Advertising sales complains the editorial team has no content planning that would help to address advertisers early on. Product development, which is often not equipped with the necessary journalistic knowledge, complains there are no clear requirements.

The result? A backward-looking, ping-pong game of blame and jurisdictional wrangling.

In digital news operations, it is important — and much easier than it was in print — to look after the entire “life cycle” of a customer: acquiring new customers through social media, newsletters, and other channels; converting them to paying customers with individualised premium content and simple ordering processes; and retaining them for the long run and up-selling them to other products.

Today, everything is supported by technical tools and can be done on screen. But who does these jobs?

Most editors do not yet feel responsible for most of these activities. But creating relevant and interesting content is only part of the success. If potential customers don’t know what content is available, even the best stories will be lost in the digital universe. If the product isn’t user-friendly or the ordering process doesn’t work easily, great stories will not overcome customers’ frustration. If customers do not immediately understand the benefit of the offer, they will cancel their subscriptions.

Therefore, the editorial team must learn to embrace new disciplines that have traditionally been in other areas of the company. This includes product development, digital distribution targeting article-level acquisition and conversion, the stabilisation of subscriptions, and editorial marketing, which includes not only journalism but data analysis and audience intelligence. All these processes lead to a new journalistic strategy.

The sole focus on editorial is no longer enough. Changing the culture to reach this understanding must be driven by an editor-in-chief who believes there is nothing wrong with making money and that commercial concerns do not threaten newsroom independence.

In fact, this understanding can enhance independence by strengthening the sustainability of the news operation. Taking on more responsibility for market success does not compromise journalism. On the contrary, it increases the quality.

This article was also published on the INMA Media Leaders blog.