Providing news and running a business are not incompatible roles

Posted on September 30, 2011 by Janet Coats

Whenever I’m feeling cranky about journalism’s future, all I have to do is spend some time around the Block by Block community publishers. These folks have passion for local news and a commitment to doing the hard work to help it thrive.

We’re deep into the Block by Block Community News Summit, which The Patterson Foundation has helped enable for a second year.  You can see the live stream here. This gathering of more than 100 community publishers and supporters of community sites is focused on the issues of extremely local news publishers, with discussions ranging from engagement techniques to the challenges of running a local business.

This morning, we’ve been talking about money, and I’ve been interested in the shift from last year’s conversations at the first Block by Block to this year’s focus. Last year, when we talked about business models, the implicit question was “why?” As in, why do I have to focus so much on the financials when what I want to do is provide local news?

This year, the implicit question is “how?” How do I help my site to thrive financially? How do I best match my content mission to my financial goals? How do I juggle all the tasks I face in being both publisher and small businessperson?

Part of what I love about this group is the willingness to confront these questions head-on, the willingness to move past very real discomfort with the financial side to embrace the necessity of creating a business that can sustain the journalism.  It’s a conversation that journalists in traditional newsrooms were shielded from having until it was too late, and that was to everyone’s detriment.

I was talking to Jay Rosen about this very thing after this morning’s session. Jay is a professor at New York University whose Press Think blog is major influence on the conversation about the evolution of news. We’ve known each other since the mid-90s, when we were both involved in the civic journalism movement.

We agreed that Block by Block publishers are rightly placing the focus on the revenue question, and that developing an understanding of the value of the news and information they provide is a good and healthy thing. The concept in traditional media of the wall that separates the editorial and the business side served in the end to keep journalists stupid about the state of their industry. As Jay said, we were basically infantilizing journalists.

That ignorance helped slow the transition to a more engaged, digitally focused model for journalism – why change, after all, if the media company you work for is invested in the old ways and has told you not to worry your pretty head about the money stuff.  In the end, that mindset helped diminish the relevance of newspapers in their communities.

The Block by Block publishers are building an example of how to be responsible for both your journalism and your financial future. The idea that you can’t be a legitimate news provider and a businessperson is like the idea of objectivity – it’s an invention of the mid-20th century focused on sustaining a media model that is broken. It sure ain’t about keeping journalism “pure’’ or, more importantly, relevant.

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