8.6 If I Ran a News Organization, Part 1

Traditional news organizations have long had a low entrepreneurial quotient, for a wide variety of reasons. Near the top of the list is that their journalists have been walled off from business operations.

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: to make sure the advertisers—the main customers of the newspaper, if the people who supply the most revenues are the main customers—don’t dictate or 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.

My experiences on the business side of life—both early in my adulthood, when I ran a musical enterprise, and more recently as co-founder of a failed startup, as an investor, and as co-founder of a successful startup—have persuaded me that the so-called church-state wall has been one of 20th-century pro journalism’s cardinal flaws. By all means, tell advertisers that they don’t run the news operations (and mean it). 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, whether a startup or part of an established company, I’d want to be sure that the journalists understood, appreciated and embraced the new arena we all inhabit. That emphatically includes how business works. I’d want them to understand the variety of financial models that support media—especially the organization that employed them—and to be versed in the lingo of CPM (cost of advertising per thousand impressions), SEO (search engine optimization) 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. Maybe—just maybe—if the journalists really understood their business, one of them would have one of the golden ideas it needs to prosper instead of crumble.

There aren’t all that many ways to make media enterprises sustainable. Among them are subscriptions, advertising, donations, memberships, voluntarism and ancillary services that cross-subsidize the journalism. Two examples: A law professor might run a legal blog that’s subsidized by her employer (and thus carries no advertising) and which advances her career. Or a journalistic enterprise might hold money-making conferences.

I’m intrigued by any number of new ideas I’ve seen from the business side of media lately, and I spend a fair amount of time in the Mediactive blog pointing them out. For the people doing these experiments, the ethical issues are more real than ever. The closer the journalists get to the people paying for the journalism, the more issues they face about holding fast to those basic principles. Transparency becomes more central than ever.

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