The Quiet Death of Church and State

In journalism, the traditional separation between church and state[note]The term used to describe the long-standing rule that the newsroom and the business side in news organizations shouldn’t interact.[/note] died last year, and I’m not sure anyone noticed. I didn’t, and I was writing a long feature on the subject at the time.

I titled my article “Is Editorial Independence Officially Dead?” but looking back on it, I think I should’ve taken out the question mark and retitled it as fact.

On September 28, 2015, Margaret Sullivan, public editor of The New York Times, published the latest installment in her series on how the newspaper was adopting to the digital age: “As Print Fades, Part 3: Sponsorships and Start-ups.” In short, she was announcing the unmistakable end of church and state at The New York Times.

A senior editor, Trish Hall, is being assigned to… Work with the newsroom and opinion department to “analyze articles and projects that are in the works and might lend themselves to sponsorship.” In doing so, she will work in close contact and cooperation with the head of advertising at The Times.

There’s a palpable sense of discomfort in Sullivan’s writing. She begins by explaining that what she’s writing about would’ve shocked the newsroom just a few years ago[note]Though it sounds like the newsroom was still plenty shocked.[/note] and ends by referencing John Oliver’s famous dismantling of how media companies rationalize their native advertising practices.

It makes sense that she was so uncomfortable—disappointed, even—since, for many, the Times is the paragon of journalism.

Some might argue that the church–state wall had already come down with the creation of T Brand Studio, the company’s native ad studio, though the Times has always been careful to point out that editorial has no role in its operations.

However, this initiative explicitly tasks someone to pick potential advertising projects and recruit sponsors for traditional editorial content. As Sullivan points out, it’s something that’s been done before at other major publications. The Guardian, another newspaper with a reputation for hard-hitting journalism, had Ben & Jerry’s as a sponsor for its climate change coverage, though in this case the coverage was based on comedy rather than news.

Sullivan’s post received little coverage. Sixty-nine readers commented; the sentiment was mostly negative. Poytner, which covers journalism, ran a short summary of the post. Adweek did the same. That’s pretty much it. For something that seemed to send shivers down the spine of arguably the most famous newsroom in the world, the press was surprisingly nonplussed.

But if you’ve been following the issue closely, it makes sense. The notion of church and state has been slowly dying for years now, and most publishers have already abandoned the practice. Some even promote the idea of breaking down the wall, claiming that better cooperation and more transparency will improve the publishing landscape as a whole.

What exactly The New York Times wants to do remains unclear, even today. Nothing has come out of the project yet, as Sullivan discussed in her most recent post.

But the anxiety surrounding its eventual implementation, and the implications for journalism’s future as a whole, is still apparent.

“Purists may shudder at such arrangements,” Sullivan writes. “And they do so understandably, since there is an inherent danger that the journalism will be steered by the company’s commercial interests… It all requires steady vigilance.”

When that first sponsored news column appears in the Times, one thing is for certain: It will receive much more attention than its announcement did.

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