The clearcut days of a news editor on one side of the desk and a chief sub on the other, each with ranks of reporters and subs doing their bidding, have long passed. We now have heads of this, editors of that plus armies of associate, assistant and executive editors (often with something in parentheses). Who is in charge of the money pages, the head of business, business editor or City editor? Who is the higher ranking, the health editor who writes the stuff or the assistant news editor who commissions him?
Matters have been further complicated by digitally minded folk such as David Montgomery in the regions and Jason Seiken at the Telegraph, who have introduced a hierarchy of heads, directors and publishers of content.
Apart from irritating those of us at a loss to understand what was wrong with calling a story a story there didn't seem much harm in it. It wasn't too hard to grasp the idea of "content" as an umbrella for stories, photographs, videos, graphics and whatever.
This past week, however, has offered new reasons to be fearful.
Peter Oborne's suggestion that commercial concerns were behind the Telegraph's minimal coverage of the HSBC scandal have been rejected by the paper, first in a company statement and today in a less-than-convincing leader. (The Telegraph is not even sufficiently confident of its argument to allow online readers to comment, whereas it was happy to accommodate their thoughts on Brian the horse yesterday - 32 comments - and on Putin the day before - 2,462.)
But giving the men in charge double titles - Seiken is chief content officer and editor-in-chief, Chris Evans is editor of the weekday Telegraph and director of content - does little to cement confidence in the separation of editorial and commercial duties.Other senior staff labour under the labels "director of transformation and talent" and "director of audience development". There are also a couple of deputy directors of content.
There is nothing in these titles to secure the perception that these people's concerns are purely editorial. Evans has "responsibility for output across all platforms digital and print"; that word "output" is worrying not only because of its redolence of factories and conveyor belts, but also because it is not qualified by any journalistic adjective.
Well last week the Telegraph introduced its new Spark "branded content and design division". This data and analysis-driven "creative commercial department" is "where Mad Men meet Math Men," says Spark managing director Matt Cory.
This department will use new tools to analyse data collected from two and a half million readers who have ventured over its metered paywall in the past couple of years "to ensure that TMG are serving the right customer the right content, so that more than one million users a month are driven to engaging branded content across telegraph.co.uk".
We're talking advertising here, of course, and the principles are much the same as those employed by stores offering loyalty cards. The presentation is full of jargon, but Cory is relatively clear in the use of the phrase "branded content".
But then along comes Dave King, executive director of TMG, to proclaim: “The content and product development teams at TMG have fully endorsed everything we are doing at Spark. This will enable us to ensure that Spark delivers content, insight and audience.”
But aren't our editorial wallahs "content teams"? Are there different "content teams" for editorial and advertising? Now the new naming conventions feel more uncomfortable and the boundaries of advertising, native advertising and editorial seem even more blurred.
Darke used to run the Sunday Times Style magazine and is now News UK's creative content director and in charge of a design studio called the Newsroom. Before it was set up, she says, the team was swamped because it had to create and sell without much help from the rest of the business "especially editorial".
“One of the things we wanted to offer was the ability to be nimble around the news agenda. That’s why we called it the Newsroom. As a news publisher, we’ve got the ability to move quick," she says - and that includes having her team sitting in on editorial conferences.
There’s definitely a realisation among all the editorial staff here that if we want to produce really good commercial content both for our readers and for our advertising clients, we’ve all got to get our hands dirty with it to make sure it’s the best it can possibly be.
There’s no point in selling commercial content to a client and saying, ‘We can do the content better than anyone else because we understand our audience’ if it’s not the actual journalists themselves doing the content. It has to be the people who write for the readers every day who produce this stuff, guide it and inspire it.
Hmmmm. Is that enough separation? For a start, is it wise to call an advertising enclave the Newsroom when there are three real newsrooms operating in the same building? Doesn't that invite confusion?
More importantly, it's one thing to have Caitlin Moran and Peter Brookes describing their work in a promotional video for the Times, it's quite another to have them produce material to sell an outside product. It's doubtful, of course, that such superstars would be enticed to turn their hands at copywriting, it's easy to see how that task will fall to the lowest-paid most overworked staff.
Commercial interests may not influence editorial decisions and the way stories are written (Former Times editor James Harding once ribbed me for producing a business front page showing Tesco in a bad light, saying: "That's right, Liz. Stick it to our biggest advertiser!" but the page was published unchanged), but surely having journalists producing "branded content" diminishes their standing as impartial observers?
The Telegraph may or may not allow its commercial interests to influence its editorial judgments. If it does, as several people have told Press Gazette and the BBC, it is unlikely to be alone.
Even if it were, there are other elements in Peter Oborne's tale of woe that will resonate across newsrooms - staffing cuts, slipping standards - and to expect the surviving journalists who are already serving print, web, mobiles and social media, to pitch in with advertising copy as well is to ask too much.
Oborne quits: the killer quotes and reaction
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