How do we mend the unspoken, harmful division of newsrooms and business units?

By Xavier van Leeuwe

NRC Media

Amsterdam, The Netherlands


There is an elephant in the newsroom. And it’s a big elephant.

It is the obvious lack of cooperation between newsrooms and business units, and we all prefer not to talk about. Its everywhere in legacy media: in print, in radio, in television.

The dream: that newsrooms and business units can peacefully work together.
The dream: that newsrooms and business units can peacefully work together.

At conferences, I see business people of all sorts speak these two words in hushed voices, rolling their eyes: “The newsroom.” They wont innovate. They distrust us. They are blocking our projects. They are obsessed with their own power. They do not wonder what customers want. They do not ask what needs we might have as business people.

And the business people undergo the inequality, as they are made to understand time and again that they are second-class citizens in the place they spend most of their life. And time and again, they are amazed that those who claim to stand up for the weak can be so oppressive to their next of kin.

One publisher described the gap between her and her editor-in-chief, who proclaimed: “I know you are right about that point, and that it would be better. But we will simply never do it your way.”

I had a sobering experience recently. I told a young online journalist about my career and how I switched from editorial to business some years ago. “Then you went to the dark side,” she said. So this is who I am supposed to be? Darth Vader with malicious intentions.

I am not saying the business people should reign. Not at all. Some publishers faced with aggression choose the road of revenge. Taking advantage of diminishing revenues from advertising, they cut the financial backbone, thus breaking the newsroom’s power.

But this destroys the fundamentals of our democracies. I do not want less money for journalism. I want more money for journalism that is anti-authoritarian and proves its existence by reaching a paying audience.

In my own company, there is a room with painted portraits of former owners and publishers from the 19th and 20th centuries. Somewhere in the second half of the last century, they stopped painting portraits of business people. The newsroom then took over with pictures of editors-in-chief hanging on their newsroom wall.

Both are a sign of an unbalanced relationship.

We all know it would be better for the Fourth Estate — this societal force balancing the powers that be — to work together internally. Still, many seem unconvinced. And therefore this Fourth societal force remains unbalanced in itself.

For some reason, we the business people sigh and complain to each other in back rooms, but I never read anything about it on Digiday or Nieman Lab. It’s a taboo.

So I started digging deeper and asked for academic help. It turns out the writings on media seem to be plenty, but they are neatly placed on either side of the Chinese wall, either expanding on innovating the newsroom, or changing publishing strategies.

A pleasant exception is an article by the Swedish researchers Achtenhagen and Raviola (2009). They clearly address the point of organisational tensions in media companies and rightfully claim the impact of this dual orientation — artistic and commercial — is poorly understood.

Here and now, I call upon all academics in the field of media, please help us understand our inability to cooperate.

So, how do we march forward? Let’s march without using violence. It is the approach the Swedish researchers recommend to enhance perception of the tension, and provide training to increase awareness of employees.

In my own way, I try to enhance my perception of the tension. I believe so deeply in the power of customer experience thinking — and that it only works beyond silos — that I keep reaching out to the newsroom. And I find that, when I overcome my insecurity by not mulling over what they think of me, the hostility ebbs away.

I used to worry whether they would accept my view of things, in all my arrogance. Why should it be my view? Now I try to have no expectations. I’ve stopped worrying whether they will share my view, and I am able to enjoy whatever the interaction brings me.

Finally, I can open my eyes for the positive energy that is already there and I am sure is present in every newsroom. We have to start connecting and appreciating those willing to work together. And then, yes, I realise we have also done some great projects together, and we have built better experiences for our customers.

I guess my point is that cooperation works best if you truly find each other and embrace each other’s light and dark sides. What seemed to be an inflexible editor clinging onto the security of past patterns could just be someone mirroring my own insecurity and my own forthcoming inflexible attitude trying to enforce my take on the matter.

Because we have to admit this, too, as business people. All this rolling of eyes and talking in back rooms is not making things better. Change starts by changing ourselves.

I have this dream that one day, behind the sandstone facades of Fleet Street, not the directors but all employees — both business and editing — will be portrayed together in one picture of brotherhood.

Let’s transform our news organisations into an oasis of cooperation and justice. I have this dream that my 14 team members will one day work in a company where they will not be judged by the business title they have, but by the content of their character.

About Xavier van Leeuwe

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