The case against combining publisher and editor roles

Tribune Publishing decided to combine the editor and publisher roles at its major dailies including the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, in a dramatic break with publishing tradition.

Today’s tough climate for publishers has led to unprecedented collaboration and put more emphasis on cross-departmental roles like product and audience development. Tribune is in the midst of a top-level shakeup at the company, which along with the rest of the newspaper industry is battling for its life, and will save money by combining the roles. Tribune’s rationale was that its newsroom leaders are in the “unique position of understanding their local communities, having the trust of their readers and maintaining the highest standards of journalistic integrity while implementing key initiatives that drive the business forward.”

But observers say that very complexity of being a modern publisher may be a reason to preserve, not dismantle, the separation of the editor and publisher roles.

Public-interest journalism organization ProPublica divides its editorial and business responsibilities among its executives. “The business-side jobs are more challenging than they’ve ever been and number of unknowns is greater than they’ve ever been,” said Richard Tofel, who as ProPublica’s president is over the non-journalism functions. “But the editorial jobs are also more complex. The challenges of finding people who will be able to maximize the opportunities and minimize the risk are hard.”

Jacob Weisberg, who’s editor in chief and chairman of Slate (but not the day-to-day editor) also argued against a combined role. “They’re not just different jobs — they’re in conflict in a lot of different ways,” he said. “The person who’s in charge of the business has a very different mindset — you’re trying to bring in business and make friends. In one case you’re working for the readers and in the other case you’re working for the advertiser.”

The hybrid role isn’t unusual overseas. At the U.K.’s, Martin Clarke is publisher and CEO and also has responsibility for the news product. And a number of companies start out that way, having founders who combined editorial and business in one person. The Huffington Post, Politico are two recent such examples.

But once they mature, even the most forward-leaning digital media companies find a lot to like in the traditional editorial model. At Vox Media, the top editors are not involved in business decisions, for example. “Without audience trust, we don’t have a business,” said Lockhart Steele, Vox Media’s editorial director.

There’s a case to be made for having dedicated executives, agreed Vivian Schiller, who’s had a number of news and business roles at companies including NBC News, NPR and Twitter and now consults to media companies.

”There’s no question that the bright line between what’s considered the newsroom and business side has blurred now that you have new functions like audience development and branded content, engagement executives, product,” she said. “But the challenge of merging these jobs is one of focus and having the right kind of skills. Does the editor in chief of Tribune understand what it needs to run a successful business, and will they have time to focus on it?”

Even The Atlantic, an established but unconventional publisher, has stuck with the separate roles. In 2014, it elevated two veteran journalists, James Bennet and Bob Cohn, to co-president, Bennet handling editorial and Cohn, business responsibilities.

Cohn said his journalism background has been useful in representing the Atlantic’s products to the market. And while editors have long thought about the business-side imperatives, and vice versa, it may still make sense to keep those roles separate, he said.

“What’s worked for The Atlantic is having leaders who are fully devoted to editorial success and fully devoted to business success,” he said. “These are complicated issues, and it pays to have someone who goes to bed at night and wakes up thinking about those things.”