Monday, November 25, 2013

Church, State, and the Pope’s Miter in Pieces

As a Catholic and a magazine editor, I’ve long between interested in and amused by the doctrine of Church and State, associated most notably with Time Inc.  By this doctrine, the chief editor and her reports were responsible for making sure editorial content was not contaminated by the devilish intentions of advertisers.  God forbid, no particular religion was invoked in the literal, dogmatic sense to support this doctrine, but one could almost feel the long arm of the Vatican at work here.  A chief editor was venerated and, if not infallible, was considered at least to be seated on the right side of history.

I just returned from a trip to Northern Italy, including Verona and Venice, and even though Rome is safely to the south, the Catholic Church is present in every nook and cranny, and fiercely marketed along the sinuous routes in Venice that force tourists along an ordained and righteous path from the train station at San Lucia to the famous St. Marks Square where the pilgrims gather.  Even if one is pulled in by the strains of the Latin mass or a lilting Vivaldi, it’s hard not to notice the stalls where the bric-a-brac, including the purported bones of saints, are offered by sale with the utmost reverence. I immediately assumed the apocryphal.  When Pope Francis recently presented nine bones of St. Peter to his audience in Rome, I thought that whatever the theology or science at work here, this would be definitely good for business in Venice.

At these stalls one can find almost anything, framed pieces of cloth that belonged to someone holy or framed pieces of a miter or a Pope’s hat worn by some famous bishop.  You can imagine my sense of wonder, serendipity, and, yes, synchronicity to return home and discover that the outgoing Time Inc. editor-in-chief Martha Nelson had cut-up and framed pieces of a miter kept in her office to symbolize editorial independence and distributed this going-away gift to her direct reports, both digital and print.  She acknowledged that although these fragments of the miter were distributed in jest, they served as a reminder that every editor is responsible for maintaining editorial integrity.

Like Ms. Nelson’s gesture, my remarks are in jest and I suspect that Pope Francis, who has given up many of the trappings of office, including living in a luxurious Vatican apartment, might be amused by the symbolic miter cut, framed and returned to the community.  His Holiness would likely have little to say about Time Inc.’s push into native advertising.

With the return of Norman Pearlstine, once editor-in-chief, to Time Inc. in the new position of Chief Content Officer, we can perhaps expect to see a new generation of editors who won’t violate their oath by learning to be good marketers.  As someone who has played in that sandbox, I think editors at Time Inc. in particular have too often been considered a breed apart, a keeper of the faith, and protectors of the miter when they should have been paying more attention to the marketplace. 

Goodness knows the industry needs a strong and sustainable Time Inc., especially with the content business changing rapidly, and publishers are faced with new types of advertising variously called native advertising, content marketing, and sponsored content.  Forbes, The Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Atlantic and others are already experimenting with these new advertising formats, demonstrating that on this matter the horse has already left the barn. And it is not just media companies looking at the revenue and branding opportunities.  Consumer brands such Dell, Xerox, GE, Unilever, Coca Cola and dozens of others are now squarely in the content business shaping and telling their own brand stories.  For publishers it is not only the realization that print revenues will continue to decline and digital will not make-up the short-fall.  It is a realization that the basic advertising model has forever changed and media companies will have to adjust accordingly.  Competitors are coming from every quarter, including current advertisers.

I am currently involved in building a platform that links content, cause marketing, and corporate brands fully integrated with social media.  I have been genuinely surprised at the extent brands use content to enrich their story-telling and increase consumer engagement.

I enjoy the parlor game about whether Twitter and Facebook are media companies (they are and become more so every day) but that is so yesterday, coming from the Church/State days.  Advertising agencies, corporate brands, and every online aggregator from Buzzfeed to Mashable all are or will become media companies.

Since the AOL disaster, Time Inc. has been savaged for its digital policy, management incompetence and a host of other sins. But too little has been said about what Time Inc. has contributed to the industry; from its generous support of MPA, to underwriting at its own expense technical specifications that have been widely adopted, to sharing its consumer research, I know of no better corporate citizen in the media ranks. In my seven years at MPA, the magazine media association, Time Inc. staff always gave generously of their time for workshops, committees, and my education.

The industry should welcome the new Time Inc., due to be spun off in 2014, into the content discussion where the geography seems to shift by the day.  It’s a jungle out there.

We can use the help. 

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