Appreciating the value of journalism

Posted on June 28, 2010 by Janet Coats

I’m not the best person to be talking about business models for journalism.

Until six months ago, I’d spent my whole career inside the walls of traditional media organizations, my health insurance and my 401K providing a shield against the need to truly innovate.

I learned about the business side of journalism around a conference table, as a managing editor and an executive editor, working with my colleagues on the advertising and circulation side – the business side, we called it, to distinguish it from the unbusiness-like activity of the newsroom. I had good teachers, and I learned a lot – but it was an academic kind of learning. I never sold an ad, or a subscription.

And I never wanted to. Nor did most of the journalists I worked with through the years. In fact, I remember a lot of conversations about the similarities between what reporters do and what ad reps do – we both ask strangers for things for a living. But the general agreement among the reporters I knew was that while we had few qualms about asking the toughest questions for a story, none of us would feel too comfortable asking for money for an ad.

Some of that distinction is personality based – some of us are born salesmen, and some of us are born asking about how things work. And some of the distinction was based in our own arrogance. Asking questions for a living served a higher purpose, ultimately providing the kind of information that enables democracy. Asking someone to buy an ad was just paying the bills.

We’ve all learned in the last couple of years that paying the bills is a pretty high purpose in its own right.

I’ve been thinking about this since my last post, on the need for innovation in business models. In a comment on that post, Howard Owens – a former (and successful) denizen of that traditional media world who is now having new success as a Fifth Estate entrepreneur -- said the business model exists. What folks need to do is apply some elbow grease to it.

“You start by building an online news site that people become passionate about,’’ he wrote. “You then go to the businesses that would be interested in what you have to offer and sell the crap out of it. There’s your business model.’’

Howard certainly knows of what he speaks from his own experience running a hyperlocal site. I’m not sure that I agree that the problem is a work ethic one, which is the question Howard posed in his post.

I think it is a cultural and educational one.

One of my great complaints about the traditional newsroom culture is that we kept journalists purposely stupid about the business. We made it a good thing to lack an understanding of the economic value of our work. We made it high-minded not to care about the relationship between what we wrote and the ads and subscriptions that were sold around it.

And so when that model began to crumble, journalists were left in a state of shock, exaggerated by our own ignorance about the business we were in for all these years.

One of the healthy things about the emerging media world is that it is destroying the barrier to understanding the value of our work. Journalism entrepreneurs can’t just have a good content idea; they have to think about ways to pay for that idea. Whatever business or funding model they construct, I believe it has to be a good thing to have a very concrete, very specific understanding of the value of the journalism – a dollars-and-cents understanding, as opposed to a First-Amendment-enabling-democracy kind of understanding.

That said, I think the education piece is every bit as important. It is great to understand that journalists need to become entrepreneurial. It’s even better if we focus on sharing tools, thinking and promising practices that help make them so. That is the kind of connection we’re interested in at Patterson – finding ways to enable that sharing and learning, so those with good ideas can connect with good business models and practices to support them.

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