Journalists don’t know their own business

“The most surprising thing about journalists is how little they know about the businesses or industry in which they work,” said an NUJ staff member who happened to be sitting opposite me at lunch.

It made me want to scream.

I prompted the comment by admitting I wasn’t au fait with all of Trinity Mirror’s digital acquisitions in the last three years.

I am all too painfully aware of my ignorance in this area and it is something I’m working hard to change.

A lack of business knowledge is, I think, one of the greatest threats to local and regional journalists, especially in this tough economic climate.

After all, if we don’t understand how our market is created, nor how we best make money out of it, then I would argue we know little about serving it properly

Despite having been told in the past that my arts and journalistic background may offer me a “creative” or “unusual” take on the fortunes of the industry, I don’t really buy it. You don’t understand anything unless you understand how the money works.

On the Journalism Leadership Programme at UCLAN last week our course leader Francois Nel got us to examine the relationship between journalists and the businesses they work in.

There is no doubt that the editorial department sits in a strange, rather isolated, space in organisational structure.

In fact to “sully” oneself with the business of making money and selling your content would be unthinkable to many journalists.

But why? We are happy to sell our content to publications as freelancers. So why would journalists want to deny their role in the profitability of a larger business?

Well, one theory that came out of the UCLAN course is that journalists have trapped themselves in the mythologies of objectivity and vocation.

Unlike transparency (which requires you to admit there will always be some slant to anything that is written and to make efforts to show where that may lie) “objective” content seems to require a journalist to disassociate himself entirely from the business of news.

Then there is the vocational aspect of journalism, which means there is no need for rewards to be linked to business performance.

Journalists will mostly, by choice, leave the understanding and running of media businesses to financiers and advertisers with their incentives and bonuses. Instead they are happy to be striving for the praise of peers of a good story written.

This, goes the theory, has allowed news organisations to long enjoy access to a stream of intelligent journalists for very little money.

Whilst I’m not a wholehearted subscriber to this theory, I think it has some strong merits.

Perhaps it’s something the NUJ should be thinking about, especially if it’s true that journalists lack a decent knowledge of their business and industry.

And, when a union makes pay one of its core campaigns, wouldn’t a pro-active policy of educating members and providing them with access to financial information on their companies be worthwhile?

It seems to me when the biggest threat to journalist jobs in the UK is now from cost-cutting, there has never been a greater need for a think tank to assess and understand the changes that are happening in the industry and to present them clearly to journalists.

If the NUJ were to provide this then, instead of being restricted to negotiating better redundancy packages or protecting jobs that may not be relevant in a changing marketplace, they might be better placed to argue for stronger organisational structures that would lead to better quality journalism.

26 thoughts on “Journalists don’t know their own business

  1. The vocational aspect gets just a cursory mention here, but I’d like to concentrate on that. Journalists’ mission is to serve their public. Objectivity is of great help here. But also journalists must be aware of what readers want. Nobody would be happy if they get served coffee instead of tea, no matter how nice the waiter is. But that, too, is not all. If journalists feel a duty to fulfill their mission, they must adopt a sustainable model to do it and ensure the public will be served at all times. So if people say journalism is their vocation, then they should be open to reader feedback and be conscious of how their business works. Or else the claim that they are on a mission for the greater good of humanity is just a nice excuse to fall back to a corner and put a shield of complacency and self-importance between themselves and the public they profess to be serving.

  2. Great post, important topic.

    In the interdependent world we’re living in I think it is foolish to overlook the business side of things: then you’d easily find yourself in a position where you’re out of a job and have no idea what hit you. In today’s world, I actually think journos need to know how politics, business, technology etc all influence their beat, be it stamps, media, policy. So not only do journalists need to pay attention to how these factors are shaping their own industry, but also to how they are influencing the issues they cover.

    Neither is an idea that goes down too well with all union reps, certainly not the one about how journalists should have at least a basic understanding of the business side, but… ah well… I”l try to get back to that story one of these days when I’m not so pressed for deadlines. Glad you brought this up though.

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  4. A quick thought. How many journalists know their work will appear online? How many of them know even the basics of SEO and writing so that search engines can find and understand their posts and promote it for them? How many sub-editors? With so much work appearing online, and potentially online to earn revenue and boost eyes reading the article, understanding the ecosystem should be a given. The same must hold true for most areas where the mainstream media are looking to exploit online advantages.

  5. Thanks for the post, is a good read. Agree with all your points about objectivity as an excuse for the lack of engagement with pragmatism.

    I get the feeling that when people talk about journalists they are talking about a) news journalists and b) everyone below senior editorial.

    My experiences as an editorial manager has been one of project and people management, and money. But that’s all come on the magazine and online side of things, not newspapers.

    My experience has also been, on the magazine and online side of things, that people who end up in senior roles do have the business responsibility for their projects and publications, and therefore generally develop the acumen to deal with those elements of a business.

    At the entry level, the NCTJ has just introduced, after consultation with and pressure from the magazine industry, a ‘business of magazines’ module for all of its accredited magazine courses. There is no equivalent for (and no equivalent pressure from) newspapers.

    Jeff Jarvis on Monday wrote convincingly how it is the journalists who let non-journalists get away with commercialising (and killing) the news industry.

    While I do agree that news–the reporting of events–is essential for a functioning democracy, does the medium have to be delivered in news _papers_?

    The biggest threat to journalists may be cost-cutting, but the biggest threat to journalism may not be the businessmen doing the cost-cutting.

  6. One one hand management cannot afford to allow their journalists to fall behind in a fast paced world and any journalist with any professional pride or notion of conscientiousness, should do everything they can to appraise themselves of new opportunities.

    While it is the responsibility of large companies to drag their horses to water and provide effective training, the horse must willingly drink.

    Unions? Their position has been legislated into irrelevance and the more they refuse to evolve, the more irrelevant they become.

  7. Brian, you know how they say wounded animals are particularly dangerous? Same with unions – they’ll do anything to regain some of their clout, even if it is the most stupid thing to do.

  8. Hi All,

    Thanks for your comments and apologies for the delayed reply.

    I agree with a lot of what has been said here.

    Kristine: I now thank my lucky stars that I happened to get my first journalist position as a business reporter. My experience on the business desk – and the advice of the older, more experienced journalists who worked on it – opened my eyes to the influence of business on everything that we do. If I had been employed as a “straight news” reporter I’m not sure I would have developed that knowledge.

    Ewan: I would say that an increasing number of journalists are getting to grips with the technical aspects of the web that you talk about. However, I admit many of us are running to catch up with the likes of you!

    However, these operational changes to the job are better understood if you understand the changes to the news market.

    I think if journalists better understood their business, we would have recognised the need to master such skills a long time ago.

    Alex: Thanks for your comment – I’m interested in what you have to say about the way magazine journalism has changed in a way that newspapers had not. Apologies for the generalisation when I talk about journalists. My experience is limited to regional newspaper journalism, so that will be the experience on which I draw for my blog posts.

    Brian: I couldn’t agree more. It is the tough reality in which we work. I find your comment on unions interesting – do you think unions can evolve? If so, what do you think they should be evolving into? Would it incorporate the thinktank idea I outlined?

    Dilyan: Love your critique of objecitivity, I hope you don’t mind if I borrow the coffee and tea analogy from time to time? Re. unions: I suspect you’re speaking with reference to your own experience in Bulgaria, but is there an action you think the NUJ is currently undertaking that you would equate with being “dangerous”?

  9. I’m indeed drawing on local experience. Bulgarian unions are a pathetic powerless bunch; as a result, they are almost mad with desire to prove there is a reason for them to exist. In my memory they have objected to any single deal they have been offered, even if that made them look ridiculous. Objecting is the most they can do. Well, yes, there have been a couple of drawn-out strikes, notably by teachers; but they have all failed miserably. One of the important reasons: the unions just do not negotiate. There’s always a resounding ‘no’ on their lips. That makes them, and their members, look just fucking stubborn and public support for their cause evaporates.

    But that is not due to local idiosyncrasies: that is the natural reaction of any vested interest when under threat. I am in no position to judge if the NUJ is doing anything “dangerous”, but anything that resembles denial of the problems their members are facing as a profession would qualify. (And I’m guessing they do do something like that. Because if everybody was happy with change and innovation, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.)

  10. I think there are two distinct issues being discussed. One is how the internet changes the way journalists do their jobs, which is basically to gather and pass on information and ideas. Jeff Jarvis’ blog, which Alex Lockwood linked to, gives one very simple and clear example – it could now mean providing links, in some cases.

    The second issue, which is separate, is how we create a business model which pays our wages.

    Good journalism which makes the best use of all the media available to us (I mean that one brand, such as the newspaper I work for, uses various media, with print being one of them) does not necessarily pay the bills in today’s world.

    Teaching journalists about search engine optimisation and ‘social media’, or improving their work in other ways, won’t change that – will it?

    Creating a business model that works is the key – a lot easier said than done, obviously – but it’s not something journalists could do even if they had the ability and inclination, as they have no control over the way their employers operate their business.

    Jeff Jarvis’ complaint that journalists “left the business to the business people” is fine rhetoric but I don’t think journalists have much choice in the matter. Apologies if this is obvious to everyone reading this, but you have to remember that the people whose bylines you see are a long way from the top of the food chain in the organisation they work for.

    People are experimenting with ways of making journalism pay. For example, is using its journalism as a vehicle to sell specialist products to a niche market. It commissions surveys which generate stories on their website, with the full details offered for sale to political parties and other media.

    Perhaps I and other hacks could put away our notebooks for a bit and put more thought into what our own organisations could be doing and fire off some memos to the MD, but I have my doubts about the effectiveness of that. The odd idea might be picked up, but major change has to be led from the top in any organisation. Tell me I’m wrong!

  11. Jonathan: You are wrong! 🙂

    I agree with you that there are two issues being discussed: the business model which was the issue I raised in my blog post and the operational changes sparked by an embracing of the digital marketplace.

    However, I disagree with you on a number of points:

    1. Firstly, I think any journalist who believes news organisations are not thinking in business terms when they suggest their employees get to grips with SEO or social media is, I’m afraid, proving my point about their ignorance of the market.
    I know I’ve got a more detailed blog post due for you to prove I don’t believe Twitter is the answer to the decline in newspaper readership, but in the interim:
    I believe SEO and social media (we’ll use them as examples- there are many more changes taking place) are being embraced in an attempt to drive traffic to our websites and to build strong, targeted, loyal communities around a brand.
    Newspapers may not be getting this completely right yet – and they are not the solution to declining audiences and revenues on their own – but they are a part of the solution and are certainly worth getting to grips with.

    2. Secondly, what do you mean by “good journalism”? How are you defining that? Are you defining it by what your market wants and will consume or by some other means? Does the market want the type of stories journalists write? Would it prefer its information in a different format? Do you even know? I’m not sure I do.
    I think there is a legacy in journalism for journalists to define what a good story is without listening to what their market wants.

    3. Journalists are, by-and-large, clever people. They certainly have the ability to create a business model, but you may be right that many don’t have the inclination.
    Because of this the majority of people managing large newspaper businesses have moved up the ranks through advertising. Journalists generally don’t rise because there is a culture where being in management and focusing on business is moving onto the “dark side”.
    This could be one reason why journlists believe they don’t have control over their own industry. Perhaps Jeff is right – a lack of ambition to shape the industry in business terms has left journalists at the bottom of the organisational food chain.

    4. Journalism is one of a diminishing number of trades that is still unionised, yet you say journalists have no power or sway?
    Are you saying our union is now so impotent is has no influence over the future direction of our industry? If you are, I’d probably be agreeing with you.
    But that raises the question that, as it still has many members, couldn’t the union be more focused on influencing the business direction of news groups? Sponsoring research into understanding the industry, investigating potential business models, educating members and developing strategies that could become the focus of campaigns. Wouldn’t it be better listened to if it had a sound business case to back up its arguments?

    5. “Perhaps I and other hacks could put away our notebooks for a bit and put more thought into what our own organisations could be doing and fire off some memos to the MD”
    Yes you should. It may not bring instantaneous results, but it is the people with enough passion and courage to speak up that have the chance of getting their ideas noticed – not the hacks whinging in the corner.

  12. There is a lot to say on this issue and I will get back to a number of points later.
    But for now just a quick reply to Jonathan:
    I think you are making it a bit too easy on yourself.
    The argument that journalists have no power within an organisation is (I believe) a false one. As individuals I agree we have limited influence and firing off some memos to the MD wont have a huge impact (though it sometimes does, and done systematically often does).
    However as a collective we have influence. That is what the whole concept of a union is about. It is here I believe we have failed, both as individual journalists and as a collective entity.

    The NUJ is an organisation that should represent the needs and aspirations of its members. On a very simple level, we can not make demands for change (which we want our unions to do) if we do not have a reality-based understanding of the situation we find ourselves in.
    This encompasses the economic models and structures our industry operates in. But we have (and I generalise here, I know) abdicated the individual responsibility we have in this area.
    The ideology of journalism that allows us to, in Joanna’s words, “leave the understanding and running of media businesses to financiers and advertisers with their incentives and bonuses. Instead (we) are happy to be striving for the praise of peers of a good story written” re-enforces that trend.

    This would perhaps be less frightening if it were not for the fact that our refusal to learn even the basics of the economics of the industry exactly mirrors the way we have refused to understand the basics of the IT issues we face. Here we have abdicated our responsibilities to technicians. This has led to us allowing the technology to create systems that we then have to suit our content to, instead of our journalistic needs dictating the shape of technology.
    There is a pattern here.

    I am not saying that journalists should all become economists, nor am I saying that journalists should become IT systems specialists. What I am saying is that we need to have a good understanding of the basic forces that shape the future of our industry and our livelihoods.
    Our Unions should be providing us with the tools and information to help us. I fear that won’t happen however (though I may be, and hope to be proved to be, wrong) because they themselves do not seem to understand the issues.
    Where is the equivalent to the employer-based think tanks that pump out facts and figures from around the world that would help us make sense of the changes from *our* point of view? This is not a cost issue. In Sweden, where I am based, there is a think tank [ -worth a look, use Google translate] that is manned by three people and financed by a number of regional newspapers, which has had a huge informational impact on decision making. We need a
    similar one from the NUJ.

    But no matter what central campaigns are driven, no matter what information is gathered, the responsibility is ours as individuals.
    Structural change is occurring all around us. The industry is shifting and the economic models are changing.
    They may change to our disadvantage. The new order could be one that makes journalism (as we see it today) even less relevant, less exciting, less challenging and even more
    If we refuse to learn and gather the knowledge that
    would allow us to mount a challenge to the changes, based on a solid economic understanding of the market place and a vision of a relevant and useful journalism, then we deserve what we (don’t) get.

  13. Wow, thanks for your replies.

    Jo: 1) and 2) I don’t doubt organisations are thinking in business terms when they ask staff to get to grips with SEO or social media, and by good journalism I mean basically getting information to people that they want to know, in the way they want to get it.

    My specific point was that good journalism today would include (among other things) journalism which made the best use of the technology available to us and the ways that has changed our readers’ expectations, such as offering links where appropriate (one small example).

    But as I said, I don’t believe this will solve the problems facing the industry. If the issue is really about driving traffic to our websites and building brand loyalty then I’ll shut up, because I already have no doubt we can do that (and what’s more, that regional media are better placed to promote brand loyalty to the nationals).

    But surely the problems are i) readers increasingly expect that information to be available to them electronically – which usually means for free, ii) the obvious mechanism for making that pay, pay-per-click ads, doesn’t pay very much, and iii) we work for an industry with historically high expectations of profits. Trinity Mirror’s regionals had a profit margin of 21 per cent last financial year (the margin is the figure that really matters) which was down on the year before, but would actually be considered pretty good in most businesses.

    You’re talking about providing an excellent product. I’m saying I’m worried that’s enough.

    3) and 4) and to MarkMedia: You present a very attractive vision of a possible future. I’d certainly like to think that journalists do, potentially at least, have more influence over the way their industry operates than they think – perhaps with help from or through the NUJ.

    I could go on here for a long time, but perhaps we as a profession would be better off shifting the debate onto changes we DO want to see instead of complaining that journalists aren’t having that debate – as Mark does, to an extent.

    I’ve published on my own blog ideas for improving the CMS we used at Trinity Mirror and how we could do more to build communities around local newspaper websites. But that’s certainly not going to change the world.

    Instead of waiting for the NUJ to do set up a think tank or something, perhaps there’s more we could just do? I don’t mean the NUJ or “journalists”, I mean Mark Comerford, Joanna Geary and Jon Walker.

  14. The pressure for journalists to be the creative force behind business models comes from their being clever. Workers in many prosperous industries are not expected to even have an opinion on their companies’ business models. But clever people cannot just shut up and take orders. So there are two options: be pro-active and influence the way your company does business or just whine about how stupid management is. Me, I prefer the first one.

  15. Jon, brilliant comment. Thanks. Just one quick question (I can only produce one long comment a day): What would you have you, me and Mark do?

    I like to think I’ve been trying to do my best to highlight new platforms and opportunities in digital. But I admit I could do more – would appreciate your suggestions.

  16. OK I’ve got a second wind:

    Jon: I’m not talking about providing an excellent product – although I would love to think that would happen.

    I am talking about building a visible and loyal audience that have clearly defined interests around platforms that offer us more than “pay-per-click” advertising opportunities.

    Pay-per-click advertising using banner ads and buttons is a blunt tool akin, I would imagine, to billboard hoardings. It is also a broken product. Why is the click important? (Perhaps because advertisers wanted proof they were reaching an interested audience). The importance of brand visibility is not even factored in.

    Anyway, that’s another post. Suffice to say it is not the be-all-and-end-all of online revenue generation

    This is also another post in itself really, but I see value in building loyal online audience groups that are very specific in nature.

    That way what you offer to advertisers is a very targeted proposition – something more valuable that the scattergun approach of websites of the past.

    But now with social media the web has become a place where more people come to communicate as well as consume – it means the web allows us to build up communities around niches.

    Once you have those communities in place, then you have a whole host of opportunities to look at – events, branded products, third party tie-ups, endorsements. To be honest this is where a really clued in sales person would be better placed to offer insight. I’ll try and dig out a useful url…

  17. Mark, in saying that we need to have a good understanding of the basic forces that shape our livelihoods are you not pinning too much hope on understanding as a force that can induce change? The only people who probably understand how complex derivatives work are the ones responsible for the current financial crisis: being well-versed in their profession did not help them avoid catastrophe.
    Sometimes the smartest people do the most stupid things. It’s just human nature to be unpredictable and illogical. If we get back to the 21% profit margin at TM regionals, it would seem only natural that shareholders will be happy. But they are not, as Trinity Mirror’s share price suggests. Are investors being unreasonable? Yes, they are. They are being greedy in wanting an even fatter margin. They are being scared that they may lose their money.
    Does anyone have evidence that would suggest that people are more often reasonable than greedy or scared? What is the rationale behind believing that journalists are any different?

  18. @dilyan I do not agree that TM/JP etc shareholders are being unreasonable. From their perspective the highest return in investment is the most logical expectation. It would be different if they cared about journalism. In that case they might agree that short term high margin profitability might damage the long term survival of the journalistic project. I believe most shareholders (I may be wrong) probably don’t care, they want a product that gives high returns and will go to where these returns are available.
    It is one of the reasons I believe that journalism is not well served by the PLC model.

    Unless we have a basic understanding of the financial structures we exist in, we can never even start to influence policies and models that will determine the future of the industry we work in.
    Just as we, as drivers, need to know where to put petrol in the car, air in the tyres and check spark plugs, we as journalists need to have that same level of technical and structural knowledge. It doesn’t make us mechanics nor financiers but allows us to avoid basic mistakes.

    As to the derivatives issue: I wonder how many of the traders and their bosses were made destitute by the crash? Not many I think.

  19. Jo, to be honest when I talked about us doing something I may have got a bit carried away. I was thinking of perhaps creating some kind of space to discuss these issues – or simply seeing if other people had better ideas – but as you rightly point out, you are already doing so right here on your blog, and other people are doing the same.

    Rather than “working together”, which is what I had in mind, a better way, on reflection, is what is sometimes called a “united/independent” approach, where people do their own thing but collaborate as and when appropriate – which you already do.

    I think we talk at cross purposes on one point. For me, “good journalism” and “an excellent product” is pretty much the same thing as a product which builds “a visible and loyal audience that have clearly defined interests”. At least, I hope it is. I include *the way we communicate with people*, as well as what we communicate, as part of what journalism is.

    Eg an interesting news story may be good journalism, but if you also provide a way for people to add their own contributions then that is better journalism, for example. I think we should provide a very easy way for people to comment on stories, not just blog posts.

    Another thing I think an “excellent product” would include, in the context of a local newspaper, is ways for people to create some kind of online identity on our websites. If I click on someone’s name after they have posted a comment on a newspaper website, how about having it bring up a page showing their blog URL, a feed of their latest posts, links to their flickr account if they have one or YouTube or LinkedIn, personal or professional info etc?

    This wouldn’t be appropriate for national media as people would rather just use Facebook instead, but something like this would be appropriate for local media, as I think there is a space for “The Birmingham Community Website” and Birmingham’s local newspapers are the obvious people to do it. And, of course, if we get them to tell us what kind of news they are interested in as part of their profile, we feed them that news. If they are interested in health, have health stories apppear at the top of the front page for them automatically (assuming they have cookies enabled I guess:)

    Or maybe that’s a lousy idea, but an excellent product certainly means more than good news stories, although those are essential (just not sufficient).

    Anyway, you present some good practical ideas at the end (events, branded products etc). I mentioned what I hope is another in my original comment, when I talked about Politics Home. This is the kind of thing I mean by a business model. I think you misundestand my point about PPC advertising slightly – my whole point was that it is not and cannot be the be all and end all of revenue generation. I think finding other methods that work is the real problem we face, although I can see that you have some interesting ideas;)

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  21. In the current economic climate and Emily Bell’s predictions of ‘carnage’ in the industry you have have to know your business. I have been writing about this a little over at ultra local voice – i come to this as a newspaper outsider…

    ‘There is a paradox for local news – it can’t support its industrial era costs in a world where interest in news is moving online. But at the same time conventional local news isn’t interesting enough to people because it isn’t local enough. So it faces a lose-lose situation – to cut costs (and still broadcast or print) it has to concentrate production at a regional level and so is less interesting to its audience. Communities lose out as they lose an albeit imperfect voice.

    With only a few exceptions, it is hard to see how solo ultralocal or hyperlocal sites can support a paid member of staff (at the very lowest £25k inc overheads). So unless new sources of funding arise, a conventional paid for journalist model looks unlikely at an ultralocal level. The only way to gather hyperlocal news for an industrial era news model is by tapping into a volunteer base to write news for you…..’

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