Is journalism an industry?

Posted on 18. Sep, 2009 by in News Ecosystem, News Organization, Newsroom

Journalism is a business – that is how it is going to sustain itself; that is a key precept of the New Business Models for News Project, funded by the Knight Foundation. But is it still an industry dominated by companies and employment?

In the first part of his analysis of the news business, BusinessWeek chief economist Michael Mandel equates bad news about news with the number of journalists employed. He charts newspaper jobs falling from more than 450,000 in 1990 to fewer than 300,000 today and calls that depressing – which it is, if one of those lost jobs is yours. But it could also signal new efficiency and productivity, no? Looking at these numbers with the cold eye of an economist whose magazine and job aren’t on the block, perhaps it is nothing more than the path of an industry in restructuring. Perhaps it’s actually a signal of opportunity. Indeed, Mandel then laid that chart atop one for the loss of jobs in manufacturing and found them sinking in parallel, with newspapers just a bit ahead on the downward slope today. “Not good news, by any means,” he decreed.

But there is the nub of a much bigger trend: the fall news as an industry paralleling the end of the industrial economy. That’s not just about shedding the means of production and distribution now that they are cost burdens rather than barriers to entry. It’s about the decentralization of journalism as an industrial complex, about news no longer being based solely on employment.

A few months ago, I quibbled with Mandel’s BW cover story arguing that America has experienced an “innovation shortfall.” There, as here, I think he’s measuring the wrong economy: the old, centralized, big economy. In both cases, he misses new value elsewhere in the small economy of entrepreneurs and the noneconomy of volunteers.

I return again to the NewBizNews Project, where we modeled a sustainable economy of news at between 10-15% of a metro paper’s revenue – about as much as any of them bring online – with an equivalent amount of editorial staffing but those people are no longer all sitting under one roof; they work in – and oftentimes own – more than 100 separate enterprises. I return, too, to the Wikimedia Foundation calculating the value of time spent on edits alone with it adding up to hundreds of millions of dollars.

In both cases, tremendous value is created at tremendous efficiency outside of the company and in great measure outside of employment.

So is employment the measure of news? No. Is it the proper measure for every industry? Not necessarily. Is it the measure of the economy? Not as much as it used to be. Media is becoming the first major post-industry. Others will follow. You just have to know where to look.

* * *

It’s one matter when new value is created outside old companies in industries such as retail – in WWGD?, I cited $59.4 billion in sales from 547,000 merchants on eBay in 2007 vs. $26.3 billion in 853 Macy’s stores – but another matter when the employment is replaced in industries built around priesthoods: journalism, education, even government and medicine. Then not just economics but behaviors change.

Thus we see fretting about a “post-journalistic age” when new people perform some of the tasks journalism employees used to perform, whether that is advocates digging dirt or universities reporting their own scientific advances or sports teams funding their own reporting or volunteers organizing to report collaboratively. These are just a few of the latest examples from my pre-surgery tabs about voids being filled in new ways by new parties with new efficiencies. This is another reason it’s dangerous to calculate journalism’s size according to journalism’s jobs.

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5 Responses to “Is journalism an industry?”

  1. Solitude

    18. Sep, 2009

    Is journalism an industry?

    No. It is an activity that anyone can do or hire out.
    Like painting your bedroom walls, or mowing your yard.

    There are people who can do it quite well on the side, and people who do it poorly when they try.

    There are people who are paid to do it, and do it quite well, and there are people who are paid to do it who should really be doing something else.

    Reply to this comment
  2. Uncommon

    19. Sep, 2009

    Great post on a number of points. But is journalism an industry? No. And I think this is key to recognize if journalism is to find it’s place in the new economy. Journalism has been a specialty service offered by a publishing industry that sells advertising. It is not sold in and of itself; there is no journalism market. A few brands in the traditional publishing industry have built an advertising market around the service of quality journalism. Other brands have built an advertising market around the “service” of lousy content. Both have made money.

    Journalism is costly to produce on a large scale. It requires a benefactor – like education – since the general population can’t afford it, won’t pay for it, and they don’t miss it till it’s gone (long gone). Unfortunately, they CAN afford lousy content and WILL pay for it. Right now, the industry that used to support the service of quality journalism has lost its former control of information delivery and can’t afford to be its benefactor.

    Publishing doesn’t necessarily care what the people are coming for – lousy content or quality journalism or annoying quizzes about “what kind of beer would you be”? – it is in the business of pairing an audience with its advertisers. Journalism as a craft needs to find a new or modified home. If it’s still within the publishing industry then it needs to understand the business of publishing, and find a brand or market whose advertisers want to be paired with an audience who craves quality journalism. (The cynic in me could go on here, but I’ll spare the reader!)

    I believe top editorial leaders should be pushing the question hard to their publishers and CEOs to ask where quality journalism factors into the new business model. And not to demand that it remains a factor but to objectively consider the new business model for that particular brand and business and make a determination about what products and services it can offer to remain successful.

    What happens if the answer is that quality journalism isn’t – or can’t be – the priority? You lose your true journalists and your editorial department become content producers of not-necessarily-journalism. Maybe that’s too much of a risk to say out loud but we wouldn’t be talking about it if it wasn’t staring us in the face. And we’re wasting time.

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  3. Elliot

    20. Sep, 2009

    Thought provoking as always, but surely the glaringly obvious problem with universities reporting their own scientific advances and sports teams funding their own reporters is the lack of objectivity of those reports or reporters.

    Those are PR jobs, not journalists’ jobs.

    A staggering amount of the news agenda is driven by PRs already; what there is in the system at the moment is at least the notional idea that taking a feed from them in the way you would from say the AP or Reuters would be hugely compromising.

    Perhaps Uncommon is right – maybe journalists need to cut the ties to businesses and ensconce themselves in nonprofit foundations and the like.

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