editorial independence
church and state
lawsuits

Worry About The State More Than The Church

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Editor’s note: Jay Kirsch is the President of AOL’s Business, Technology & Entertainment Group, which includes properties such as TechCrunch, Engadget, Autoblog, DailyFinance and Moviefone among others. Follow him on Twitter @jaykirsch

The church and state metaphor is referenced almost daily in the business of monetizing journalism. For the most part, when episodes like the CNET debacle happen, the damage to journalistic integrity (the church in the metaphor) is the center of attention. That makes sense since writers make their livings on that reputation and want to take it with them to their next outlets. What is frequently ignored, however, is the damage to the state: properties like TechCrunch, Engadget, Autoblog or CNET.

In the short-term, there will always be reasons to cave in and mold editorial to the needs of the business. Winning a specific ad campaign, getting more distribution or helping to support a lawsuit all have measurable, short-term benefits to media companies. But in the long-term, you’ve started the process of destroying asset value in a less clear, less measurable way.

I’m not talking about the other overused metaphor, the slippery slope, where you lose readers because ad dollars are buying your opinion. The truth is, only a very small percentage of CNET readers will ever hear about this issue, and most of them won’t care.

The real slippery slope works more like this. First, you lose the trust of your editorial team, which counts on management to give them the resources and freedom to create great content. Then they lose the passion for the product they work on, which is likely the biggest reason they do it. Then they leave and you can’t recruit great writers anymore. Then your audience leaves. Then your advertisers leave. Then you are out of business.

While your personnel exodus is in process, your sales reps are getting beat up by clients who want to know why their product is getting a bad review. Maybe they should sue you and then the bad review would come down. Last month sales may have been pissed about the coverage of their client, but now they are begging to start a sales call without apologizing for the product. Your distribution partners start dropping you because their editorial teams don’t want to work with you. Traffic falls. The link legacy that creates such great SEO starts to fall off, because you are no longer the paper of record. Traffic falls more. And during it all, your shareholders still expect you to grow earnings, so you cut costs — probably from editorial.

When I learned about the CNET story, I sent a note to Tim Stevens at Engadget, as well as Eric Eldon and Alexia Tsotsis at TechCrunch. I told them that I actually laughed when thinking about the hypothetical phone call I’d make to any one of them telling them not to review Company X because AOL was involved in a lawsuit with them. The phone conversation would have probably gone something like this:

“Tim. Hi, it’s Jay. So, I need you to take down the review of that smartphone. It seems AOL is in a lawsuit with them and, well, it wouldn’t look so good if we said it was the greatest thing in the world.”

“Ha, that’s a good one Jay [several seconds of laughter]. No, seriously, what’d you call for?”

Tim is far more polite than Eric or Alexia, so I don’t even want to speculate how either of them would have responded. But the end result would be the same; the review would remain on the site. To Michael Arrington’s point, if I really pushed the issue and actually took down the review myself (or had an engineer do it since I don’t know how to use the CMS), the same content would have been on every social network in the world in minutes.

The church/state metaphor works. It also proves the futility of what CBS management was trying to do. Religions almost always survive the downfall of the states with which they coexist. Journalists, more now than ever before, will always be able to have a voice, even if the business they are part of, its state, gets taken down. Don’t worry as much about the church — it will keep rolling along. But once the state gets toppled, it is down permanently.