Posted by: structureofnews | October 13, 2010

Following the Money

Is it a good thing or a bad thing that journalists have to be more entrepreneurial these days?  That we have to get more involved in the business of our business?

Pulling together a few threads online recently about journalists and business:

Over at the Guardian, Roy Greenslade, a professor of journalism in the UK, mulls his reaction to former Birmingham Post editor Marc Reeves’ statement that the editorial-advertising divide was a big mistake, and that journalists and business-side people should work much more closely together.   Greenslade says that while he understands the changing world, he’s still leery of journalists that might have to be ad salespeople.

Meanwhile, Jeff Jarvis at Buzzmachine fires back with a post that basically says: Get over it.

Institutional, industrial journalists are too used to the idea that codes and walls will protect their morals. No, they must be their own protectors. The same conflicts and interests exist for everyone in a news operation and everyone must guard against corruption or the asset loses its value. Indeed, I believe that by teaching journalists that business itself is corrupting, we became terrible stewards of journalism and that is one of the key reasons journalism is in the fix it’s in.

There’s a lot to recommend Jeff’s view that we need to know our business better, and be equipped to set up and run journalistic enterprises – even if that means selling ads as founder-publisher-journalists.  But there’s also a lot to be said about Greenslade’s worries about the perception of conflicts of interest and too much attention being paid to getting money in, potentially at the expense of journalism and the public interest.

The truth is, there’s always been this tension between the people that foot the bill – whether that’s advertisers, funders or subscribers – and the ideals of journalism.  The difference is that, in a time of plenty and publisher power, journalists could dictate terms.  Now we can’t.

For example, CJR takes a look at the widening influence of the Gates Foundation as it funds more media projects.  I’m sure they’re all very nice people there with the best of intentions – but any news organization seeking funding from them is thinking as hard about how to get their money as an ad rep trying to convince GM that his magazine is the best place for a full-color double-page spread at a premium.  That’s not to say that’s a bad thing; just that that is the way the world works.

It’s a fact of life – perhaps not a pleasant one, but if we want to take control of our profession, we need to understand and manage all the key parts of it.  And getting resources is among the most important components.

Of course, this doesn’t make it any easier for our readers/audience/community.  How will they know whether we’re selling out to advertisers or funders?  Disclosure, of course, helps.  As do clear policies and transparency.  And other media organizations reporting on us, and each other.

Because it isn’t so much whether we’re for-profit or non-profit, or whether we have walls up between journalists and other people; it’s about what it takes to get funding for what we do, and whether that ultimately twists our priorities and values.  We can, and should, have policies and processes, and disclosures.

But probably the best way to see how we’re doing is to do as  Deep Throat suggested quite a while ago: If you want to figure out what’s going on, just follow the money.  In this case, our money and how or if it changes us.



  1. Reg,

    I’m a regular reader of Jarvis, and one of the things which didn’t pop up in his critique of Greenslade, or in Buzz Machine comments, was the idea that the division of labor between ad side and news side tends to be for reasons more than strictly an ethical wall. For those running a one-person news start-up, it’s pretty much a given that, in order to survive, you’re going to need to both write news and sell ads. But ask yourself this question: If that same one-person shop expands to two people, is it better to have two people both writing news and selling ads, or is it more efficient to have one focus on news and the other on ads?

    At this point, and in a very general sense, I would argue that the second option is probably the better choice for a variety of reasons. What you want, it seems to me for example, is one good news person and one good ad person while avoiding having two people who are mediocre at both skill-sets.

    It’s also been apparent for some time that the seeming ethical wall between ad and news factions has also had the unintended consequence of creating something of an internal split to the extent that most journalists no longer have much of an appreciation for what ad people really do, and what separates out the gifted ones. It should also be pointed out that the ad business, in general, is going through a tremendous amount of upheaval these days; the general consensus among ad industry veterans, backed up with some compelling evidence, seems to be that the craft simply isn’t as good as it used to be for multiple reasons.

    Given that turmoil, it strikes me that it would be more than a minor bit of hubris for an award-winning reporter to assume he could easily transition into a star ad guy simply by picking up the phone and cold-calling a few hardware stores. Or something.


    • Perry, it’s true – none of us has discussed competence at all. And you raise some very good points.

      It certainly does require a fair amount of chutzpah to believe that just being good at journalism qualifies someone to do something else well (and vice versa). (We already have the issue of assuming that being a good reporter qualifies someone to manage a newsroom… but that’s another post about the dearth of training for newsroom managers, but in management skills as well as in understanding the business they’re in.)

      Then, as you note, there’s a question of efficiency, and specialization. When we have scale, that makes sense – but if we have less and less “industrial media” and more and more small shops, the flexibility to specialize goes away. A small family-run restaurant doesn’t get to devote someone to desserts the way a huge hotel-managed establishment does. Not that this is a good or bad thing; just that the world is probably changing to one where – at least for the moment – we’ll be seeing more smaller operations.

      And finally, advertising itself is changing rapidly, undergoing the same kinds of upheavals that journalism is grappling with. Arguably, many of journalism’s travails stem from the tectonic shifts going on in that business. Beyond competence, it seems to me the field has changed so much that some of the old skills/processes/expectations are no longer valid. Not unlike journalism, in fact.

  2. Regarding transparency: I’d really like to see the morning editorial meetings webcast live.

    Want to know if money is corrupting your favorite newsroom? Get your morning coffee, flip open your laptop, and behold the news agenda being assembled in front of your very eyes.

    I think this might do wonders for declining trust in media. It will also open many, many cans of worms.

    • Jonathan, without wanting to sound like a curmudgeon, there are some sound reasons for not streaming the editorial meetings – although I agree that there are some good ones as well. And this assumes, of course, that it’s the “real” news meeting, not a special one ginned up for an audience, which would defeat the point (and isn’t what you’re suggesting in any case.)

      The reasons against are twofold: One is competitive – “Is that six-month investigation of the mayor’s finances ready yet? No, but all we need to do is get the public records on his houses, and we’ll be there” is not something you want said in public before you’ve nailed down the story. It’s true we could make it a point not to mention stories in the works, but the best editorial meetings are where ideas and issues are talked about, and stories brainstormed – and few newsrooms would want their ideas broadcast before they can execute them. (Any more so than a software company would want to discuss ideas for a new product in public.) The second is legal: A lot gets said in meetings that can’t be proven, but is worth saying. Not unlike a barroom conversation (and certainly it used to be hard to tell the difference between the two). “I’m sure the mayor is getting a kickback on that contract” is a good conversation starter, and perhaps will lead to a great story down the road, but isn’t much good when you’re hauled into court for slander.

      That said, there are good reasons for showing more of the news process – and while it’s not ideal, maybe some stripped-down version of the meeting, which simply discusses that day’s “edition” whether print, online or whatever, would work. I don’t know if the audience would find any smoking guns re money corrupting the process, but it would probably help to show the thinking and discussion behind story decisions and their play, etc.

      Yet another place where we need to think of new rules and new processes. At least it’s not boring.

      • Thanks for the response, Reg. I had hoped someone would articulate the places where this idea might run into difficulties. The idea is certainly provoking.

        I still believe that some form of a daily “news process” webcast could be very effective. The average reader has no idea how their news is made, and therefore no basis on which to make claims like “bias.” Meanwhile, I get the feeling that journalists and editors are often out of touch with what their audience actually thinks about the news and the news agenda.

        A real dialogue might lift the discussion on both ends.

      • Jonathan, I think you’re right. The news meeting as currently constituted isn’t ideal for this, but if we’re going to restructure the whole process, why not restructure that too – and create a ‘product,’ if you like, out of it. It’s worth thinking about – as you say, there’s some value on both sides to something like this. I think a lot of the discussion has been stymied on the notion that it’s just about broadcasting what we currently do; and the whole point of this blog is to say we need to rethink what we currently do anyway. Reg

  3. Journalists have always been a little too detached from reality and it would do them no harm to gain an understanding of all parts of the business. I don’t think we need them to go out and sell ads or pimp the news organisation, but simply to be made aware that they are a cog in a much larger wheel.

    It would do the insular world of many newsrooms to find out what the ad people actually do all day, how online works, what the print room guys too.

    If you understand better what drives your paper then you will embrace change a little more easily too. If you can stop thinking of online, or the ad guys or promotions as the enemy, then thats a much healthier attitude to foster.

    We should all just be more aware of their surroundings… something that journalists have traditionally been very good at.

    As you said, transparency and disclosure will ensure we can remain true to the idealistic elements of this great profession.

    • Adam, agree 100%. It’s amazing that not only do many journalists not understand the dynamics of the business they’re in, but that senior managers in most newsrooms aren’t made to at least familiarize themselves with the organization’s operations. Still, it is a good sign that some journalism schools are starting to embrace the notion that teaching the business of journalism to students is a good idea – and are actually creating such courses as requirements in some cases. Just a couple of years ago such notions were heresy.

      I taught an early version of a business of journalism class, back in 2005 at Hong Kong U, and a short version of it to students at NYU for a couple of years after that; what was fascinating was how the basics of the industry would get easier and easier to teach each year – not because it was any simpler, but because the students were just savvier and savvier about business issues. And that meant more time could be spent looking at the future, and possible solutions, than just understanding the problem. So maybe there’s hope yet.

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