February 19, 2012 at 11:01 AM EST
Profitable news
One of the most controversial things I have said (you’re welcome for that straight line) is that I insist my entrepreneurial journalism students at CUNY build only for-profit businesses. When I said that at a recent symposium for teachers of entrepreneurial journalism, I thought some of the gasping participants would tar-and-feather me. I’m not against [...]

One of the most controversial things I have said (you’re welcome for that straight line) is that I insist my entrepreneurial journalism students at CUNY build only for-profit businesses. When I said that at a recent symposium for teachers of entrepreneurial journalism, I thought some of the gasping participants would tar-and-feather me.

I’m not against not-for-profit, charitably supported journalism any more than I’m against pay walls. I, too, crunch granola (and sell books). But I do not believe that begging for money from foundations, the public, or especially government is the solution to journalism’s problems. And I am certain that there is not enough charity in the nation to support the journalism it needs. Lately we are seeing too much evidence that the siren call of not-for-profit journalism seduces news organizations away from sustainability, survival, and success (more on the Chicago News Cooperative and Bay Citizen in a moment).

I insist on teaching our students the higher discipline and the greater rigor of seeking to create profitable enterprises. I also believe they are more likely to build better journalistic products, services, and platforms if they are accountable to the marketplace. When class starts, many students invariably talk about what they want to do. In my best imitation of a gruff old-timer, I tell them nobody gives a shit what they want to do, save perhaps their mothers. They should care about what the public — their customers — want and need them to do. They need to care about the market if they have any hope of the market sustaining them. That is why they start every term talking with the public they hope to serve. They always come back with surprises.

Of course, the market, too, can be corrupting. I’m tempted to use Rupert Murdoch as the best exhibit of the argument, though in that case, it’s hard to tell which came first, the rabid chicken or the rotten egg. In the long run, cynically giving the public only what it thinks it wants will not deliver value and will fade like the fad it must be. I have that much faith in the market.

And, of course, we can point to many valuable and well-sustained not-for-profit news enterprises: NPR is the best we have, but as its former CEO Vivian Schiller has said, it is very much run like a business, complete with advertisers (pardon me, [cough] underwriters). Texas Tribune is doing a brilliant job of bringing in the support needed to continue its brilliant work (though I argued with its founder and funder, John Thornton, a venture capitalist, that he’d serve the news industry better by demonstrating profitable models). Pro Publica is already a national treasure (though let’s note that it had to get a grant from the Knight Foundation just to figure out how to diversify its funding beyond its original patron, mortgage man Herb Sandler).

But there are other less shining examples. Now we turn to the Chicago News Cooperative, which just announced its closing. It found itself too dependent on a foundation (MacArthur), a customer/benefactor (The New York Times), not to mention the IRS (which needs to clarify the rules for not-for-profit news). Dan Sinker argues that it never met is promise of building news with the community.

Then there’s the Bay Citizen, which ran through $11.4 million in 2010 before collapsing last year; it will merge in still-uncertain terms with the better-run, more penurious Center for Investigative Reporting. When the Bay Citizen started with a pot of cash from investor Warren Hellman, I remember the San Francisco Chronicle complaining that this non-market player could unfairly compete with the paper and hasten its demise, an unintended consequence that didn’t come to pass mainly because the Bay Citizen was to terribly run. Non-market entities often are.

I recently judged a contest for an international journalism organization that received a large grant from a very large corporation to fund journalism startups and — here’s why I’m naming neither — I was appalled at the complete lack of thought that went into sustainability and responsible fiscal management in every one of the proposals. I urged the organization to not give away one penny and to start over. It didn’t quite do that.

The problem is that journalists don’t know shit about business. Culturally, they don’t want to. I often hear from journalists who are downright hostile to corporations and even capitalism not because they’re commies but because they believe they’re above it all (there is the root, I believe, of much of their cynicism about Google and other large technology companies). As I’ve said here before, when I came up through journalism’s academy, I was taught that mere contact with business was corrupting. I’ve had bosses scold me for considering the business of journalism. When I started Entertainment Weekly, I could not protect my baby from the expensive idiocy of my business-side colleagues because I didn’t have the biz cred. I vowed that would not happen again. That’s why I insisted on learning the business of journalism.

That is why I insisted on teaching the business of journalism. For we journalists have proven to be terrible, irresponsible stewards of the craft and its value to the nation. Feeding at the teat of monopolies, we grew fat and complacent and snotty about the markets we were to serve. We wasted so much money on duplicative, commodity coverage for the sake of our egos. We were willfully ignorant of how our industry operated and thus how it is dying, making us complicit in its death. We have only ourselves to hold responsible.

And that is why I so respect my friend John Paton, a newsman’s newsman who learned the business of journalism and is taking responsibility for its fate, as head of Digital First Media (where I am an advisor), which now runs the second-largest newspaper group in the U.S. John does not have the answers but he does have the questions and he’s not afraid to challenge executives in our industry with them. He’s willing to disrupt and experiment and learn. And he’s willing to teach what he learns. “Crappy newspaper executives,” he just said, “are a bigger threat to journalism’s future than any changes wrought by the Internet.”

Yes, it’s not just not-for-profit thinking that’s dangerous to journalism. It’s the unprofitable thinking of for-profit news companies. That is why, again, I insist on holding students and the industry they’ll lead to the more diligent standard of true sustainability. That means profitability. There’s nothing wrong with that.

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