The New Church and State in the Digital Age

separationchurch_590_396The lines may have blurred, but the consumer still doesn’t want to be misled. This direction is where a brand’s integrity matters.

As journalism brands develop multi-channel revenue streams and non-journalism brands become publishers, the wall between editorial and finance is nearly obliterated. What remains in place to assure any integrity in a digital marketing landscape?

According to D. Edward Tree writing in Publishing Executive, “We need to redefine what the separation of Church and State means for the digital age, not abandon the concept entirely.”

Before he lets us get all sentimental for the good old days, Tree reminds us that even back then the lines were permeable:

“Even in the heyday of newspapers and magazines, the wall between Church and State has always been a bit porous,” Tree writes. “For years, for example, the American consumer-magazine industry largely ignored the growing body of evidence about the harmful effects of cigarette smoking, not wanting to offend a major source of ad revenue. After all, the High Priest — AKA the editor in chief — typically reported to a president or someone else with P&L responsibility.”

“But at least the journalists, sales reps, and other minions of Church and State could be kept apart by physical and institutional separation. No more. Digital publishing necessitates a constant state of new-business development that topples departmental silos and requires that content making and profit making be part of the same discussion,” he continues.

That new state requires a new way to think about brand integrity, and Tree is optimistic that publishers will figure this out.

“Most people I speak with on the State side have no desire to tarnish our brands or subvert our journalism,” he writes. “Those who sell digital ads for magazine publishers know they have two aces up their sleeves — brand reputation and highly engaged audiences, both of which are built on a track record of creating addictive content. Lose that and they’re relegated to fighting an unwinnable war for massive numbers of eyeballs at minuscule CPMs.”

In other words, they’ll find the right balance between church and state, content and ads, because to do otherwise poses too great a risk.

“The challenge is that we can no longer rely on org charts, job descriptions, or separate seating arrangements to maintain journalistic integrity. Now it’s about mindset and corporate culture. It’s about Church and State being in the same pool but swimming in their own lanes. It’s about people who are part Church and part State struggling at times to keep their roles separate. It’s about how we communicate our values within the organization, especially to new hires who don’t have a legacy-publishing background,” Tree continues.

If your company finds itself in this new landscape, take a close look at mindset and culture and how they pervade editorial and marketing decisions. Your brand’s integrity is hanging in the balance, and the world is watching.