Posted by: structureofnews | October 10, 2010

The Dark Side

Are we spending too much, or too little, time worrying about the business we’re in?

Journalists have been raised for generations – or at least one generation – to actively disdain all thoughts of the business of the business they’re in.   And there were good reasons.  When money was flush, and the business model was settled, journalists didn’t have to – and didn’t want to – worry about where the next paycheck was coming from.  Doing so might open up all kinds of potential pitfalls in dealing with business-side affairs. They could just concentrate on journalism.  At least that was the theory.

And it’s true there was some great journalism committed.  But there were costs: When the business model started to implode, we didn’t have enough senior journalists who understood enough about the business to try and steer us through it.   We can blame lots of other people – greedy publishers or corporate heads or feckless readers or whatever.  But we also share the blame.

But this isn’t a let’s-revisit-the-past post; it’s more of a why-should-we-care-about-money post.

And there are a lot of good reasons why journalists need to be actively engaged in the business of our business.

The first, and most obvious, one is that we’d like to be paid.  If we want to do this professionally, then we need to make sure that whoever we’re working for, or whatever project we’re on, has some kind of sustainable model.  We don’t need to become billionaires, and we don’t even need to sully our hands with capitalism if we don’t like it – there’s a fair chunk of non-profit money out there.  But we need to get paid, and we need resources to keep reporting.

More important is that large parts of journalism are about resource allocation.  If you’re working on this story, you’re not working on that one.  If you’re interviewing this guy, you don’t have time to check out that website.  If you assign three reporters to the education beat, they’re not available to cover crime.  And so on.  So thinking hard about what work needs to be done – whether for personal satisfaction or to fulfill some larger societal need or to keep an organization focused – and then making hard decisions about allocating time and resources to priorities, is a key part of our work.  And figuring out how to fund those decisions is all about understanding our business.

Especially if no one else is doing it for us.  Or if we’re not sure the people who are supposed to be making those decisions are making good ones.

And most importantly, we need to be actively thinking about the people we’re serving – call them readers, audience, customers, society, whatever.  The industry is in tremendous flux; we have many potential new ways to uncover and analyze information, visualize and communicate it, engage and involve the community, and so on.  To really fulfill our mission, we need to be actively creating new forms of journalism, new practices and processes, and new products and platforms.   We can’t do that if we shun anything that has to do with resources, money or business plans; that’s core to any new enterprise.

That’s not an argument for spending lots of time thinking about how to get Britney Spears’ name to show up on our websites so we can gain a lot more traffic; nor does it mean we should be abandoning our goals and mission just so we can get paid.

But we are at a fascinating and critical time in journalism.  Regardless of what we think or want, our world is changing.  We can be deeply engaged in that process, helping shape the ideas, standards, directions and products; or we can retreat from all that and blame people for mistakes later on.  We tried that once.  We shouldn’t again.

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