There are plenty of country weeklies in America where the editor is also the publisher—and also sells the ads and takes the pictures and answers the phone and probably sits on the school board.
But newspapers have ideals as well as folklore. And one such ideal holds that, at any paper big enough to build one, a wall must be maintained between a paper’s business and editorial operations. Perhaps Michael Ferro feels as strongly as anyone that, at the lowest levels where the peons toil, these two spheres should keep each other at arms’ length. But at the top—he has no problem with one executive running both of them.
Just yesterday I reported on the Bleader that media analyst Ken Doctor was predicting an imminent “housecleaning” at Tribune Publishing. Wednesday, heads rolled. Among the survivors, Bruce Dold, recently named editor of the Tribune, is now its publisher too. Davan Maharaz, editor of the LA Times, is now also that paper’s publisher.
Ferro isn’t oblivious to conflicts of interest: he announced that his majority interest in the Sun-Times is being donated to a charitable trust to avoid antitrust issues and the obvious problem of appearances. Combining the duties of editor and publisher creates a problem that’s less blatant—and maybe less critical—but to me no less real.
Before Ferro moved on he tested some of his ideas at the Sun-Times. Jim Kirk is both the editor and the publisher, and I asked him what he thought. He e-mailed me this response:
In a lot of cases, the traditional structure of separate roles is antiquated. What we have found is that when everyone in the organization has a better understanding of the goals and mission of the newsroom, the passion for the brand in every unit of the company rises. Everyone understands what the goals are. That only helps the business in the long run. Also, it is no longer feasible to have total separation as media companies deal with fewer resources. Communication across departments isn’t just encouraged. It is essential.
To your question about whether the wall goes away? No, the wall is still maintained where it should be maintained. Editors have had exposure to the business side for many years. If anything, having an editor wear both hats helps maintain and enforce that wall.
Kirk is supposing it’s the newsroom that sets the goals and mission, with everyone else in the building getting on board. I think that’s a lovely thought. I suppose so is the idea of a wall.