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Getting real about media

by Mark Tungate , Epica Awards

The relationship between journalists and advertising sales people is a vexed and ambiguous one. Journalists think of themselves as having a certain amount of power – so you’ll never hear one acknowledge that the real power in a media company lies with the ad sales staff.

In the world of magazines and newspapers, the truth is there for all to see. Who gets top billing on the masthead? The publisher, that’s who. The publisher is responsible for the commercial side of the business.

And the media is a business, although many journalists prefer not to think of it that way. We like to see ourselves as seekers after truth. The purpose of a media outlet is to keep the public informed about the evils of the world.

Yeah, right.

As I’ve said before, if publishers could find a way of getting an algorithm to fill the gaps between the ads, they would. For the moment, however, journalists are an inconvenient necessity. Not to mention a cost centre. If only we would stop asking for pay rises, demanding vacations and leaving before midnight.

That word “pay” raises another tricky question. Many of my fellow journalists have a sort of collective blindness regarding the source of their income. Perhaps they think the money comes from charity. It is, of course, provided by advertisers. For advertising space. Sold by advertising sales people. The very people journalists profess to dislike - or even despise.

Not that the ad sales staff don’t overstep the mark. I’ve always tried to give them the benefit of the doubt, but this has landed me in trouble on some occasions. I might let slip to one of them, for example, that I’m going to mention a certain brand in a feature I’m writing. More often than not, they’ll go right ahead and suggest a dozen other brands they’d like me to write about.

“They’re good clients of ours,” they’ll say. In other words: “They pay your wages.”

In the online world the primacy of commerce over content is even more obvious. The art of “referencing” has sprung up to ensure that articles surface close to the top of search engine results. This is important for generating clicks. Which is important to advertisers.

Even newbie bloggers know that you can’t write clever or ambiguous headlines. They have to be click magnets. One of my most successful blog posts – in terms of clicks – featured a headline containing the word “naked”. At least 99% of the readers must have been disappointed.

Naked was the name of an advertising agency.

We’re all content providers now – and some of it is branded content. It is an inconvenient truth that, as time goes on, the already fragile border between journalists and advertising sales people will continue to crumble. So perhaps it’s time for us to stop being antagonists, and to show one another a little mutual respect.