Some time ago during an editorial meeting, a little pedantic speaker stopped me asserting that all print media are influenced by advertising. The thesis I was sustaining was, on the contrary, that advertisement does not condition contents as advertisers are interested in the success of the paper, thus the companies paying for ad spaces trust the work of the editorial staff. The independence of editors from the interferences of advertising is a tricky matter. It goes side by side with the quality of the paper, with the reputation awarded by the audience and the authority and prestige of the journalists who sign the articles. In order to start speaking about this topic roughly and quickly, without too many details, we can start saying that every paper has an owner, and this owner has certain opinions that he transmits to the editorial staff. For this reason, each paper has a character that generally reflects the publisher’s ideas, or ideas that he accepts. If the opinions of the editorial staff (and of the editor-in-chief) do not please the publisher, he will decide whether to accept them or not, and in that case he will obviously replace editor-in-chief and editorial team.
Advertisement can, in theory, exercise a strong pressure on the editorial team. This happens with print products that promote goods, such as fashion magazines or tabloids. It doesn’t happen that a major, high quality newspaper, or a small opinion paper are influenced by the incomes coming from advertisement. Of course, no one likes to be refused a gain, but it is also very unpleasant to accept it from someone who intends to influence the editorial line.
When I refer to “paper” I mean all cases of texts and images that aim at reporting and telling facts.
It is not important if that happens live or not. This definition is valid for traditional press, TV, radio and media on the Internet. There aren’t many doubts: everyone follows a brand policy, just think about the Big Brother or the most popular local shows on Swiss TV TSI or Teleticino. These are very recognizable products, they have specific characteristics and a reputation.
Every paper has a quite unique “brand”. For a commercial brand the objective is to build a good
product, place it into the proper distribution network and then make people buy it. The brand of a paper is made of concrete elements: the number of copies (mostly), the target readers (young, elders, women, …) and other more specific factors that we won’t describe here not to get too long.
There is then a “secondary” element for the advertiser, which is the ability to attract the readers’ attention, to express a defined opinion, to anticipate the times, to take a position.
These are all essential elements that form the brand of the paper, as much as the excellent career path of a journalist who collaborates with high quality media that form opinions more than with big containers with huge audiences.
Forming opinions means being distributed and being attractive for the readers, which ultimately
means being interesting for advertisers that don’t invest where the numbers are low. Advertising spaces are sold before that consumers buy the product, they are based on perspectives, researches and the continuity of relationship that the paper establishes with its readers. Briefly, advertisers buy the potential visibility of the product: advertising is interested in quality products.
Are there distortions in this type of relationship? Of course there are. No one ever told that the business world is good and pure: where there are economical interests and the intention to influence the public opinion, there are attempts to place one’s own opinion and/or product. This is not peculiar.
In order to manage/twist/better tell/inform, companies have established internal press departments that are in charge of the media relation. On the market there are news producers who submit to the various newspapers and magazines already made articles, captivating images, whole journalistic features tailor-made to emphasise one fact, or to give another a bad name.
There are papers that print everything lands on the editors’ desks, without thinking a lot about it: to fill a blank page, because free articles are welcome, because thinking about contents is demanding.
However, as far as I know, there are no quality papers that accept to print everything given by
agencies, lobbies and press offices. If anything, and I’m addressing the person mentioned above, the big problem of print media is the low quality of their editorial teams, due to the incapability to invest in contents – which cost a fortune – by publishers. The problem is not the money deriving from advertisement…
You will tell me: quality doesn’t pay you back, people want simple and easily accessible news. But who said that? Which researches proof that people only want some small talk? Have you ever
thought that such small talk in the information market depends on the lack of high quality
Of course, quality needs to be defined. The elements that define the quality of a paper are not (only) texts produced by renowned authors. People are also interested in simple, honest news about snowfalls and cows in the Alps. The quality of a paper is not defined by the nature of the debated themes. That means that a high quality newspaper or magazine is not built only through choosing subjects that are considered “noble”, without lowering to more basic themes.
Quality is measured on the basis of the way a theme is treated. It is possible to speak adequately about snow and cows, as much as about politics and culture. The topics are there for everyone. But the way they are investigated characterizes the good or bad quality of a paper compared to another.
Let’s go back to the episode mentioned at the beginning of this article and to the people who
actually “build up” the paper. I do care a lot about this topic, as a paper is a case of articles behind which there are authors, and authors are extremely important, especially in such a complex period when people need to be helped understanding the very many complex events taking place.
A paper is conditioned by its shareholders and the editor-in-chief. Editor-in-chiefs are chosen by shareholders and accepted by the editorial board. Between shareholders, editor-in-chief and editors there should be a common way of thinking and debating themes, otherwise how could they possibly work together?
The quality of a paper lays here, in fact: a shareholder who knows what he wants and declares it, an editor-in-chief who has understood what the shareholder wants and transmits it to the editors, and an editorial team who tells facts and expresses opinions according to above mentioned.
To agree on an opinion doesn’t mean to become passively dull on it. In fact, a paper is a case of opinions that can be very different one from another.
Being brave enough to affirm the character of the paper, that it thinks in a certain way, it means to stratify the audience and to establish a honest relationship with the market. In short, it means building up a reliable reputation even though not shared by people who think differently.
by Mirko Nesurini, CEO GWH Swiss SA