December 4, 2012

Most of us still remember a time when revenue was enough of an incidental byproduct of journalism that journalists could ignore it almost completely. We just did our jobs, and then — somehow — money happened.

This was the state of affairs for long enough that a lot of us grew up thinking it was some sort of law of physics. That’s how it’s supposed to be, right? We journalists take care of the audience-building part, and overnight, the magic gnomes deposit money in our stockings?

If that’s the case, the gnomes are failing us. How many recent journalism projects have successfully found an audience and proven their worth only to founder without a working revenue strategy? I won’t pretend it’s a new argument to say journalists should take at least an interest in the revenue foundations for their work. But it doesn’t get said nearly often enough. Those of us who care most about doing journalism have to take some responsibility for how that work is supported.

Journalists are infamously change-resistant, lack savvy in business and numbers, and are bound by ethical strictures that prevent them from involvement in revenue matters. What role can they possibly play in developing support for their work? To figure it out, let’s address each of these elements in turn.

Why journalists are surprisingly innovative

The dirty little secret of the past decade of disruption in the news industry is that journalists — even within slow-moving institutions — have incubated a lot of innovation and invention. Django, the software that powers Instagram, was invented in a newsroom. CoffeeScript, developed by Jeremy Ashkenas while he worked on DocumentCloud, now powers the browser experience for Dropbox. The annals of Knight News Challenge winners contain tons of fresh thinking on how to report, produce and deliver journalism. And under the radar, hundreds of experiments in storytelling and reporting are tried and iterated on week after week.

Meanwhile, on the business side, there’s less to cheer about. I’ve talked to sales managers at commercial media organizations frustrated with hidebound sales staffs. In the nonprofit world, I’ve seen wildly inventive journalists sitting down the hall from change-phobic development officers. Looking across the industry gives the impression of herd movement — Crazy new ad formats! Daily deals! Metered paywalls! — without the experimentation and evolution that we’ve seen in news.

This is overstating the case, of course. Still, I suspect we’d do well to direct some of the innovative thinking about content toward business development.

True collaboration and domain expertise is needed here. I’m saying journalists should become more engaged with the revenue-producing sides of their organizations. I’m not saying they should storm into their sales offices and say, “All right, we’ll take it from here.” While we do need more money-where-your-mouth-is entrepreneurial risk-taking, we also need journalists to recognize what they can contribute to the search for new ways of doing business, and what they can’t.

How journalists create value

As Chris Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky point out in their masterful report on what’s happening to the news industry, the biggest disruption to the business side of the industry has been the steady decline in advertising revenue. But advertising has worked for us because of our success in attracting audiences to our journalism. And the things that drive that success still have tremendous value, even if not in the same way they used to.

When you dig into innovations in revenue around journalism and media today, you find that more and more of it involves making products out of the skills, tools and sensibilities of journalism itself. For years, journalists have left the industry to find that their skills fetch higher prices in the public relations world. Now, with the people formerly known as the advertisers increasingly trying to build audiences of their own, these skills are at an even higher premium. Some news organizations are using that fact to their advantage.

BuzzFeed has drawn a lot of press this year for the success of its social advertising product. The company’s advertising wing is an agency that works with advertisers to create sponsored content in the BuzzFeed mold. These aren’t just your classic advertorials — the pages in the magazine with the slightly off typeface and the bad writing. This is content infused with the voice and sensibility of BuzzFeed itself, tailor-made for its audience.

Versions of the agency model are in place at organizations such as Forbes, Gawker, The Huffington Post and the Atlantic. I’ve also heard echoes of this model in conversations with forward-thinking sales managers, who approach companies not just to solicit advertising, but to pitch marketing expertise in a variety of domains — not just display ads, but search engine marketing, social advertising and more.

If editorial sensibility or marketing savvy might not fly as a product, editorial tools just might. Check out the Atavist online, and what you see first is not the longform journalism produced by the digital publishing start-up. Instead, you’ll see a brochure for the organization’s moneymaker, its innovative multimedia platform. That platform has yielded licensing fees, venture investments and, most recently, a partnership with entertainment moguls looking to get into publishing.

Another spin on this revenue line comes from VoxMedia, parent company of SBNation, The Verge, and Polygon. All of VoxMedia’s sites run on a homegrown CMS named Chorus, which has been engineered not just for a compelling editorial experience, but to allow for distinctive, well-integrated advertising.

The point is that all the innovation and work we put into doing journalism may produce more value than mere space for advertising adjacencies. As we develop our ability to work with data, produce info-rich experiences for mobile devices, or experiment with distributed reporting, we may hit on tools and techniques valuable enough to help subsidize our journalism. But if we’re not attuned to those possibilities, they won’t exist.

Journalists’ ethical responsibility for the business side

When we talk about journalists’ stake in the business of journalism, there is, of course, an elephant in the room. Many would say that journalists have no business dealing with the business side. We speak often of a strict separation between “church and state,” a “firewall” dividing the business part of a news organization from its editorial division.

Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel address the idea of the firewall in their book “The Elements of Journalism.” “If the two sides of a news-providing organization are really working at cross purposes,” Kovach and Rosenstiel write, “the journalism tends to be on the side that is corrupted.”

It’s the entire company — not just the journalists — that must understand, respect and represent the values and mission of the newsroom, Kovach and Rosenstiel point out. And it’s the responsibility of the journalists in the organization to make sure this is so. If journalists aren’t paying attention to how business is conducted in their organization, they risk being sold out. The authors use the L.A. Times / Staples Center scandal to make their point:

In 1999, the nation’s fourth-largest paper arranged to share profits with arena owners from an edition of its Sunday magazine focused on the arena’s opening – in exchange for help selling ads. The arena owners sent stern letters to their subcontractors insisting that ads be bought. The stories assigned and written at the paper were all positive. The newsroom was not told of the arrangement. The wall, in other words, was kept intact. When the arrangement was later discovered, both reporters and readers were outraged.

It feels easier to just say journalists should minimize all dealings with their business-side counterparts. But that feels deeply wrong to me. Ethical behavior is not about trying to avoid situations that might challenge us to behave ethically. Ethical behavior is about regularly thinking through our values and how they should be applied, and then acting accordingly.

There’s an increasingly common counterexample to the news organization large enough for “church” and “state” to be ignorant of each other’s activities: the tiny local news start-up. If it were true that the best way to keep our journalism from being sullied by business considerations was for journalists not to interact with the business folks, then it would follow that the most corrupt environments for doing journalism would be those in which the journalists *were* the business folks. So is that the case?

If you run a small local news site, chances are this is exactly your situation: You’re the publisher *and* the editor. But you also have no insulation or distance from your community, so your ethical values and instincts are all-important.

Last year, J-Lab produced an in-depth report on exactly this — the ethical issues faced by small, local journalism shops. It’s worth reading the chapter on business and advertising. You’ll find few clear-and-easy rules about how the folks in these organizations navigate this terrain, but you’ll see evidence of ethical muscles well-developed because they’ve been put to good use.

Journalism events offer an example of an area requiring conscientious collaboration between businessfolks and journalists. Although they can be difficult to pull off effectively, events are increasingly popular as revenue drivers. But they’re ethically fraught.

There are ways of conducting journalism events that support and reinforce the work of doing journalism, and there are ways of conducting journalism events that corrupt or undermine the work of doing journalism. It requires genuine engagement between the business-side event producers and the journalism-side editors and reporters to pull off the former.

I’m not encouraging reporters to start going on sales calls. I am saying there are ethically responsible and financially productive ways for journalists to inform business practices. There are potential ethical pitfalls here, to be sure. Like most matters of ethics, the best way to avoid those pitfalls is to discuss them openly, not to look the other way.

So what now?

Even if I’ve convinced you that journalists have a rightful role in helping to reinvent the business side of their organizations, I probably haven’t convinced you that this is your responsibility. After all, you’re a busy journalist with a heaping pile of stuff to get done, and business development is not in your job description. I can’t argue with any of that. But just humor me with a few small steps.

First, learn what your organization’s revenue and expense centers look like. Where does your company make most of its money? Which revenue lines are showing sectoral declines? Which ones seem to offer the biggest growth opportunities in upcoming years? The head of your company might share this information in occasional staff meetings. Pay attention next time he or she does.

Second, do some research to situate your organization both within its competitive set and in the wider business world. Which organizations draw revenue from similar sources as yours? Where are they most effective, and where does your organization have the edge? (Feel free to start with Mary Meeker’s annual, oracular “Internet trends” slides, a ubiquitous presence in presentations about business strategy. It’s an easy way to help yourself feel momentarily well-informed and suddenly quite ignorant as well.)

Third, go to lunch with someone on the business side of your organization. Learn how the other half lives. Chances are, you’ll learn some surprising lessons about how they do their work that might give you good ideas about how to do yours. (The discipline and intelligence that smart business managers use in deploying measurement and data in their work always impresses me, for example.)

But most of all, next time you embark on a new editorial venture, figure out how it will be supported. If you don’t understand, do the journalist thing and start asking questions. What you discover may not be as exciting as magic gnomes, but I promise it’ll be more empowering.

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I serve as an Editorial Product Manager at NPR, where I work with member stations to develop niche websites. Before coming to NPR, I worked…
Matt Thompson

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