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What's This About Editorial Independence? Aren't We A Team?

Written by on July 22, 2015

If you work in the media industry, you have probably heard all about what happened over at Gawker. It's yet another case of the absolute insanity that exist in the media industry around what is known as 'editorial independence'.

Editorial independence is one big reason why traditional media is in trouble. It sounds like a good idea when you talk about it, but what it actually does it that it prevents media companies from solving the real problems.

Let me ask you a very simple question. As a journalist or an editor what is your main role in your media company?

It is to write and publish stories? Not really. Is it to live up to some journalistic ideal? No, that's not it either. Is it to figure out what to cover, to dig up stories, and to define the editorials? No.

Sure, all of those things are part of your job, and hopefully something you do very well, but it's not really the main role.

Your main role is the same as anyone else's main role in the company, from the top managers, the business people, the graphic people, the people working in the cafeteria, and everyone else in the company.

Your primary role is that you have been hired to help the media company you work for to become a success. Every single thing you do must be aligned with this role, and you should never act in any way that causes damage to your company.

And yet, time and time again, we see journalists and editors deliberately acting against the very company they work for.

Let me give you a simple example that isn't about Gawker.

Earlier this week, the Danish newspaper, Politiken (one of the largest in the country), published a whole series of articles about how much tracking that exists online. Part of it was the usual scare-tactics that journalists love to do, but part of it was a real concern, as also detailed in "20 Home Pages, 500 Trackers Loaded: Media Succumbs to Monitoring Frenzy" by Frederic Filloux.

There is a genuine tracking problem online, so covering this story has some merit.

The problem, of course, is that who do you think do the most tracking of all types of sites online? Google? No, not even close. Facebook? Nope. ... I know, Amazon. They track everything don't they? Well, yes, but only on their own site.

The answer obviously is the newspapers.

Newspaper sites include more tracking partners than any other type of site, by far. Google and Facebook might be included in that, but no other type of site is as bad as the newspapers.

In my article about ad-blockers, I found that TMZ, for instance, is setting 285 cookies, across 81 partner domains ...many of which are tracking partners.

Frederic Filloux found the same thing. He looked at 20 major news sites, and found this many trackers on each one:

The last people on the planet who should write articles about tracking cookies are the journalists. You are working for the very companies who allow more tracking than any other type of sites online. It makes you look like an absolute idiot.

Of course, it didn't take long before this Danish journalist realized this as well. The newspaper she works for is also one of the worst offenders. It sets 265 cookies, many of which are from tracking partners.

So, what did she and her editors do? Did they try to contain the damage they had just caused to their own newspaper? Nope.

Instead, they decided to see how much more damage they could make, by posting a new article titled: "Despite data harvest: Neither Nets or Politiken comply with the law. Since March, Politiken registered over 100,000 personal information." (in Danish)

And, in this, she details all the many ways Politiken, her own workplace, is breaking the law, have terrible customer support, and is generally being a bad guy towards its own readers.

What the frack?

Remember what I wrote about the role of a journalist/editor? Your role being that you have been hired to help your publication become a success?

This is the complete opposite of that. They basically just told their readers that they are stealing their reader's personal data and are lying about it. It also illustrated a massive level of disloyalty inside the newspaper, in which it becomes painfully obvious that people aren't working on the same team.

I cannot imagine any other thing that is as damaging as this. Are they out of their minds?

Imagine if this happened in any other company. Imagine if this happened over at Apple, Nike, Coca Cola, Toyota, H&M or any other brand. Imagine if an employee at those companies started telling their customers how terrible they were, in public, on their own websites.

You would get fired so fast you wouldn't even know what hit you. This level of damage, combined with such a blatant display of disloyalty, not just to the company you work for, but also towards your coworkers, would instantly put you on the street.

As I tweeted earlier this week:

No company in the world would tolerate if its workers behaved this way. Unbelievable level of damaged caused here.

I'm not saying you should do nothing. We can all agree that this massive level of bloatware that now exists on newspaper sites, most of which are based on dubious tracking activity, is a real concern that should be addressed.

But you do not solve this problem by attacking your own company, in public, in front of your customers, by telling them that you are lying and cheating on them. You fix the problem, and then you go out and tell the world how good you are.

This is obvious to anyone who isn't a journalist, but for some completely weird reason, journalists call this 'editorial independence', and believes that attacking itself is a good thing, and that doing so somehow creates trust.

Guess what, it doesn't.

Being open and transparent is a good thing, and very much creates trust. Attacking yourself, and especially having one group attack another group within the same company, just makes you look like a disloyal, dysfunctional group of imbeciles.

This is such a damaging culture that has to stop.

The way to gain people's trust is by being someone people look up to. Someone people know they can turn to because you work well and do the right things. You gain people's trust by being a team, all working towards a goal that your audience thinks is worth their time and attention.

This leads us to the whole concept of 'editorial independence'.

Just think about what that means for a second. What you are saying is that one part of the business shouldn't work on the same team as the rest of the business. And in the media industry this even goes as far as to editors demanding that the owners and CxOs of the company shouldn't be allowed to interfere.

Can you imagine if anyone started saying this in any other company, like at Apple?

Imagine if Apple's Safari team suddenly started demanding 'independence' from the rest of Apple, claiming it should be allowed to do its own thing completely separate from the rest. And that Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, should not be allowed to interfere in any way, regardless of their actions?

No, of course not. Just thinking this way would be insane.

Everyone at Apple has to work for the same team, and towards the same goals. Everyone must do their best in their specific fields, but always with all the other fields in mind. You are encouraged to make things work better between divisions, and cross-field interactions are a must.

On top of that, Apple's executive team, obviously, has the final decision making power in any matter throughout the company ... at all times. You may, if you are doing a really good job, gain enough trust that the CEO allows you to work the way you want to. But, if you, at any point, start to work in a direction contrary to the company as a whole, the CEO (being Tim Cook), not only has the right to step in, it's his responsibility.

There is no such thing as 'independence' in the world of companies, because that very word implies that you don't want to be on the same team.

It should obviously also work this way in media companies. The very idea that the editorial team may be working towards goals that are contrary and independent from the goals of the company as a whole, is crazy talk.

Mind you, I'm not oblivious to the dilemma this often creates. Your advertising team might sell ad space to Shell, right at the same time that your editorial team has planned a series of negative articles about fossil fuel.

That would obviously cause quite a bit of a conflict.

But, you don't solve that by demanding editorial independence. You solve that by working as a team. The very reason you have this conflict to begin with, is exactly because you failed to communicate adequately in the first place.

And no, I'm not saying you should give in to advertisers, I'm saying that you should look at what's best for the future of your newspaper.

Obviously, your readers don't want you to just be PR mouthpieces, so giving in to the whims of your advertisers isn't the solution at all. Just look what happened at The Atlantic when they posted a sponsored story from Scientology. Instead, what is the purpose if your newspaper? What action would take you closer to something everyone benefits from?

But no matter how you look at it, claiming editorial independence from the rest of the company is never the solution.

Your role is to make the newspaper win. You don't do that by separating yourself from other parts of the business, nor neglecting the overall goals of the company.

So, what about Gawker?

Well, as you may know, Gawker just did everything wrong, for pretty much all the wrong reason. Let me summarize.

It all started when one of Gawker's journalists (as far as I can tell) was contacted by a gay escort, who was annoyed he couldn't pressure other people to get what he wanted, who then claimed that he had had dealings with media executive working for another media company.

This was the first level of failure. Here we have a source of very dubious repute, making claims into matters that have no public interest, which didn't concern a public figure, and clearly, even if true (which we don't know), was a private matter.

Any respectable news site would have stopped the story right there and then. Gawker, being Gawker, didn't do that, and instead decided to publish the story.

Three things happened simultaneously, all of which caused a tremendous level of damage to Gawker as a company.

First, most people reacted to what seemed more like a story about Gawker trying to shame a competitor. This is at a time where online shaming is something people increasingly despise.

Secondly, it violated all the trends that we are currently seeing about how people feel about their personal privacy. Publishing a non-story like this, about the private dealings of a private citizen, made people disgusted by Gawker's apparent lack of ethics.

As one editor wrote to me: "If he had been a public figure who had rallied against prostitution or homosexuality it would totally be a story. But none of that."

Thirdly, in a time where the USA is celebrating equal rights and same-sex equality, the very idea that Gawker writes a story that is basically an act of gay-shaming, displayed a tremendous lack of situational awareness and cluelessness, and the social world punched on it.

The result was an incredibly damaging social backlash against Gawker. Not only should this story never have been posted. The way it was posted was wrong for pretty much all the reasons it could be wrong.

So, what did the editorial team of Gawker do?

Well... nothing.

Instead of owning up to their mistake, they did nothing, which further antagonized the social world, causing the damage to multiply.

It got so bad that the CEO of Gawker felt he had no other choice than to step in and pull that article himself. The editorial team had utterly failed their role, so he had no other choice.

Note: The way Nick pulled the post was a bit weird, because he basically repeated the whole story. As Gina Trapani tweeted: "Thinking more Gawker's post "deletion" was actually a post reframing, as it retells the story as a type of thing they no longer publish."

This could have been the end of it. A mistake was made, an apology of sorts was issued, and the post had been removed. But no. The editorial team had just started causing damage.

After Nick Denton pulled the article, the editorial team went berserk, claiming that they should have complete editorial independence, and that the very idea that Nick Denton had the tenacity to pull the story was an affront to their status.

Remember, this was the same editorial team who had just made one of the biggest blunders this year, and who refused to own up to their mistake. Now they actually had the nerve to question taking the post down on the basis of having an 'editorial firewall'.

This caused an immediate and perhaps even more damaging social backlash, from thousands of people online looking with disbelief of what can only be described as sheer stupidity.

At this point, the editorial team should have backed down and made a formal apology, but no, they had just begun. And it ended when two of the editors announced they had quit their job. Not because they were ashamed about what they had done, or the damage they had caused to their own company, but because they were being interfered with.

And to cause even more damage, they decided to do so by posting, in public, on Gawker's own website, just how disloyal they were to the company.

I will remind you again, the role of an editor is to help the company succeed. What Gawker's editors did was the total opposite of that. They had severely damaged the company three times. The first time by displaying a complete lack of ethical standards and sensible decision making, and twice in the most disloyal way possible, while at no point owning up to any of their own actions.

As Jeff Jarvis tweeted:

The scandal at Gawker is that the two people who just quit weren't fired for running such irresponsible crap in the first place. That these editors think they have no boss & their publication no proprietor & they no consequences is just childish.

If this had been any other company, these editors would have been fired on the spot. You do not damage your own workplace in such a way without serious consequences.

It was so bad that when Tommy Craggs, the executive editor of Gawker Media, was called to a meeting with the CEO, he wrote to the staff:

Nick Denton: We will all need to be at the office tomorrow morning to talk with Edit. I propose a meeting before at 9am among the Managing Partners. And you can all expect to be asked why you voted as you did at the all-hands.

Tommy Craggs: I won't be attending

What?

Can you imagine if this happened over at Apple. If one of Apple's divisions had made a mistake like this which was causing direct damage to Apple as a company. And then when Tim Cook, the CEO called a meeting to resolve it, the division head said he wouldn't show up.

What do you think would happen if they acted that way at Apple? Yep, they would be fired...every single one of them.

Everyone must work for the same team and towards the same goals. If there is a problem, you fix it by working together. If you make a mistake, you own up to it. And if you don't... you get fired.

This is completely unacceptable behavior by any employee in any company, including media companies.

You do not have the right, or the editorial independence, to cause damage or to work against the very company you are working for. Every person, in any company, has a primary role of doing everything they possibly can, at all times, to help make that company succeed.

This is the problem I have everytime I hear a journalist or an editor claim editorial independence. They are always doing it for the wrong reasons, and it is adding to the problem rather than solving it.

If you are faced with a conflict, as we often are in the media industry, where business objectives conflict with your reader interest, the wrong thing to do is to claim editorial independence, and thus break apart the little team-work you had. All that does is to separate your media company into dysfunctional divisions, where each group is working towards different goals and objectives.

That doesn't solve anything. All that does is to cause more damage.

The only way to solve these conflicts is to figure out why they keep happening, and to identify why one part of your business is trying to do something that damages another part of your business. And once you know that, you align everyone's mindset towards the same goals, business models, purpose and identity.

Because, as I asked, what's this about editorial independence? Aren't you a team?

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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