Teach Journalists (and Students) and Business

(Here’s another excerpt from my upcoming book.)

Throughout my print-journalism career, I worked hard to stay at the edges of organization charts—the lower edges. I had opportunities to run several publications, but in the end I decided that my best role at the time was reporting, writing and (as a columnist) being an advocate. I admire many of the editors I’ve known, and have had some great bosses. But I’ve steered clear of the hiring and firing role, and—though I ran the business affairs of a group of musicians in an earlier career—I never had to make a payroll in the print media business.

Most traditional journalists have also been insulated from the business side of journalism, but not because they’ve chosen to steer clear of it—others have steered them away. Management requires them to keep away from the advertising department, as if they’d get a terminal disease if they had much contact.

This separation of church and state, as we journalists called it with such hubris, came from good motives: not to allow the advertisers—the main customers of the newspaper, if the people who supply the most revenues are the main customers—to dictate or, allegedly, even influence news coverage. This separation was always something of a fiction, given publishers’ and broadcasting station managers’ business duties and influence over the people who worked for them, but it did serve a purpose.

Unfortunately, ivory-tower isolation had more than one downside. In particular, it served, especially during the monopoly and oligopoly decades, to insulate journalists from any semblance of reality about the industries in which they worked. So when the financial underpinnings started getting shaky, more than a decade ago, the journalists were too willing cover their eyes and ears and pretend nothing was wrong. And, later, when reality arrived, layoffs and staff buyouts gathered momentum, and news organizations started getting sold to even greedier owners, the journalists suspended belief as the new owners promised they had “no plans” for further cutbacks.

My experiences on the business side of life, both early in my adulthood and more recently as co-founder of a failed startup, investor, and co-founder of a successful startup, persuade me that one of 20th century pro journalism’s cardinal flaws has been the church-state wall. By all means, tell advertisers (and mean it) that they don’t run the news operations. But a journalist who has no idea how his industry really works from a business perspective is missing way too much of the big picture.

If I ran a news organization today (or a journalism school), I’d insist that the journalists understood, appreciated and embraced the new arena we all inhabit—and that emphatically includes how business works. They’d understand the variety of financial models that support media, especially the organization they worked for, and would be versed in the lingo of CPM, SEO, and the like. I would not ask journalists to grub for the most page views, a new trend that tends to bring out the worst in media, but would very much want them to know what was happening in all parts of their enterprise, not just the content area.