Why Is PBS Telling Us That Profit Is Journalism's Friend?

PBS has a website called MediaShift, billed as "Your Guide to the Digital Media Revolution." Based on an alarming post this week headlined "Tear Down the Wall Between Business and Editorial!" (12/7/11), the revolution looks rather revolting.

The piece is written by Dorian Benkoil, who "handles marketing and sales strategies for MediaShift, and is the business columnist for the site"--a job description that suggests that PBS has already torn down the wall between business and editorial, since those responsibilities would seem to put you in a constant position of conflict of interest. (He earlier worked as "a liaison between the sales and editorial sides" at ABCNews.com.)

The piece is a primer on "how to blur the lines in an intelligent and ethical way," in the words of MediaShift managing editor Courtney Lowery Cowgill. It offers such tips as "If Sales Influences Editorial, It's OK," and insights like:

It's easy to demean "link bait" such as "Top 10" or "How To" lists, but if your users like and share them, and they generate profitable page views, is there really harm? If there's sponsor interest, all the better.

To be sure, the piece includes caveats, like: "You do need core principles that can't be bent--even if that means the business doesn't meet payroll." But it seems completely oblivious to the dangers of basing your business model on giving the sponsors what they want. It's hard to maintain a line in the sand when you've started out with the intention of blurring that line--ethically, intelligently or otherwise.

The most striking thing about the column is its celebration of profit-making as a liberating force:

Profit is what lets you not only continue another day, but also gives you the freedom to determine your own mission.... The more profit your company makes, the more leeway it has to do its work, to remain independent of government or other interference, and the more freedom to do good work.

Well, no. The point of a for-profit business is to make money, not "to do good work"; the more profit your company makes, the more it will strive to make in the future, so it can show stockholders an ever-expanding return on their investment. The pressure this puts on journalists to warp their copy is why the wall between business and editorial was made one of journalism's "core principles that can't be bent."

And the difficulty of maintaining such principles in the face of the profit imperative is why PBS was set up in the first place, to provide a home for journalism free from the obligation to please sponsors. But when PBS has sales and marketing directors who also double as business columnists, I guess that kind of journalism needs to find a new home.

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