The Netherlands – (F5) Company rules against internal influence on newsroom / editorial staff

Score in short:

Editorial by-laws endorse the chief editor’s final responsibility and protect the strict separation between editorial staff, on the one hand, and management and shareholders, on the other. However, present-day practice shows that the editor-inchief’s role is shifting away from editorial responsibilities to general management. The litmus test for whether editorial by-laws really function well is not taken until things begin to go badly for the news medium concerned.

Score in detail:

The editorial by-laws or internal rules discussed in the section on indicator 5 are a formal guarantee of the influence that journalists can exercise over the content of the news medium they work for and of their say in important appointments. Also, they endorse the chief editor’s final responsibility and they protect the strict separation between editorial staff, on the one hand, and management and shareholders, on the other. However, in the view of media historian Huub Wijfjes, present-day practice shows that the editor-in-chief’s role is shifting away from editorial responsibilities to general management. At the request of the manager-publisher, the editor-in-chief now takes a seat on the management board and is held responsible, together with a commercial manager, for the overall policy of the company or the broadcaster of which the news medium in question is a part. His or her traditional role as guardian of the newsroom’s independence may thus come into conflict with the requirements of the new role he or she has to play, a role in which the editor-in-chief, together with his or her new management colleagues, is supposed to evaluate and reflect on policies of innovation, such as solutions to the problem of changing media uses on the part of news consumers.

Strikingly, under these changing circumstances, some journalists too have begun to treat the strict separation between editorial staff and management in a more relaxed fashion. For example: by way of the editorial board and the by-laws of De Volkskrant, the independence of the staff is given a formal guarantee, but at the same time a more constructive stance toward the owner-publisher is sought. The owner’s interference with content and organization is acknowledged on the logical basis that De Persgroep has invested in the newspaper and wishes to have a return on its investment. Should the editorial staff always refuse to budge for reasons of principle, the owner might invoke budgetary rights and thus create a deadlock that benefits neither party. The position of De Persgroep is that everything proceeds from a journalistic mission or ambition, but needs to go hand in hand with an efficiently managed organization; interesting and financially sound newspapers are a prerequisite for a media company to survive in the future.

The former editor-in-chief of NRC Handelsblad/nrc.next took a different view. After the ownership of the NRC newspapers and websites changed in 2009, she became co-responsible for the commercial policy of the group. In 2010 she came into conflict with the new publisher (and indirectly with the chairman of the new owner’s board of directors) because he wished to have a say in the journalistic content of any future commercial publications related to NRC Media. The editor-in-chief insisted on her editorial independence and eventually stood down. In the opinion of the NRC journalist interviewed within this context, her resignation shows the need for future strengthening or safeguarding of the editor-in-chief’s position in the management set-up.

It is to be noted that nearly half of the journalists interviewed rely less on the internal rules or by-laws than on their own assessment of the situation. Piet Bakker too has his doubts about the value of the editorial by-laws: the litmus test of whether they really function well is not taken until things begin to go badly for the news medium concerned. In any case, according to Piet Bakker, guarantees of effective editorial independence can hardly be put to the test.