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.