“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.
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.