Journalism as capitalism

Posted on 02. Oct, 2009 by in News Ecosystem

The only way that journalism is going to be sustainable is if it is profitable – and out of that market relationship comes many other benefits: accountability to the public it serves; independence from funders’ agendas; growth; innovation. This is the future for journalism we envisioned in the New Business Models for News Project.

Not-for-profit, publicly and charitably supported journalism has its place in the new ecosystem of news; that’s why we included it in our models at CUNY. I think it should fill in blanks the market doesn’t fill.

But I agree with Jack Shafer at least in part that there are dangers to relying too much on not-for-profit news. He does an admirable job listing those dangers, chief among them influence by funders and their motives. Texas Tribune funder and founder John Thornton responds here. I’ll stand halfway between them: We can use and perhaps need funded journalism but we also need to be aware of the risks and must expect transparency about them.

I see another danger, though: that not-for-profit ventures will delay or even choke off for-profit, sustainable entrepreneurship in news. I would prefer to see various of the many funders who gave funds to not-for-profit endeavors – note $5 million give to a new not-for-profit entity in the Bay area – instead had invested in for-profit companies that can build companies that support and sustain themselves rather than rely on hand-outs. That is God’s work.

Mind you, I’m not coming at this from the perspective – as some might – that journalism has to be produced only by paid professionals. I have argued that we would be wise to account for the value of volunteerism and that we must find ways to reduce the marginal cost of news and new journalism to near-zero.

But in terms of saving the functions reporters perform, I think we should find ways to support them and their work in profitable enterprises. So, in a rare moment, I disagree with Clay Shirky that we must rescue reporters as charities. This call continues the notion that journalism is in a crisis. No, its legacy owners are in a crisis because they could not and would not change; Clay’s right that their models and buildings are burning. But journalism is facing no end of opportunities (as the Knight Commission’s Ted Olson said at today’s Knight Foundation presentation of the group’s recommendations: never before in journalism has there been so much opportunity for innovation in journalism).

So let’s not save those reporters and let’s certainly not save doomed companies that refused to change. Let’s invest in the future, in creating new means of gathering and sharing a community’s news that are better than old methods and that are more efficient and thus more easily sustainable. That’s what we present in the New Business Models for News. When we presented at the Aspen Institute this summer, I pointed to a blog post I wrote (but can’t find now) a year and a half ago arguing that when the Washington Post bought out reporters, it should invest in them, setting them up with blogs and businesses and promoting and selling ads for them. That resonated. And that is one step toward a new model built on networks, profitable networks. There are many more that need building.

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12 Responses to “Journalism as capitalism”

  1. Rosenblum

    02. Oct, 2009

    I could not agree more.
    The first step is to dismantle the wall that has traditionally existed between the ‘business’ side and the ‘journalism’ side. This is what got us into all this trouble in the beginning: this belief that somehow the business side is odious and the journalism side must remain ‘pure’.

    Journalism is first and foremost a business, because if you don’t have a business, you are talking to yourself.

    Journalism schools should teach as much MBA as they do reporting and writing. The grads should go out into the world enthused to make a lot of money. The entire web revolution has been about journalism first and foremost and yet it is the journalistic institutions that got crushed, along with the journalists. That was crazy.

    You and CUNY are to be admired for your entrepreneurial journalism program, but it is only the tip of the iceberg

    Benjamin Franklin was first and foremost a businessman. This is no crime.

    Reply to this comment
  2. Burzmali

    02. Oct, 2009

    You say that not-for-profits are bullied by their donors, but aren’t for-profits equally beholden to their advertisers? What’s the difference?

    Not all not-for-profits subsist on hand outs, they can still have revenue streams even if they don’t attempt to earn a profit.

    Consider the tax angle as well, which has a better chance of survival, a NFP with $5M or a FP with $3.33M and a bunch of investors hounding them for a return in 1-3 years?

    Reply to this comment
  3. Emilie

    02. Oct, 2009

    RE: Old post about WaPo buying its reporters out instead of setting them up with monetized blogs…was it this post? http://www.buzzmachine.com/2008/07/08/newsroom-economics/

    JJ – your above-referenced arguments take place both in that post/comments section of that post.

    Reply to this comment
  4. Jim Barnett

    05. Oct, 2009

    This line of reasoning is sound, but reflects the world view of the discipline of journalism, not of nonprofit management.

    In the nonprofit world, the line between nonprofit and for-profit are not so bright. Nonprofits have a a long history of serving as laboratories for for-profit enterprises.

    So we should not assume that nonprofits can never and will never cross the line; look at the history of Minnesota Public Radio as an example. The nonprofits that fill gaps today may well beget the for-profit business models of tomorrow.

    Reply to this comment
  5. Michael Andersen

    02. Nov, 2009

    I agree with Jim. This is thoughtful and important, but it overemphasizes the difference between FP and NP.

    In fact, to think of NPs as an anomaly in the market system — and to conclude that they’re therefore less “sustainable” — is actually to buy into a sort of anticapitalist notion that it’s possible for anyone to escape market forces.

    The truth is that NPs produce goods, just like anybody else. Sometimes it’s public services for governments. Sometimes it’s warm fuzzies for rich donors.

    It’s harder for NPs to grow rapidly. But as Jim points out, small-scale innovation can be God’s work, too.

    Reply to this comment
  6. Roger Wilson

    25. Nov, 2009

    Non-profit is a tax status not a business model. The tax status of an enterprise doesn’t mean all that much. What matters are the motivations of the enterprise, where it’s bread is buttered and by who, how it is governed and what the individuals invovled are trying to do. Government funding, especially of political news, is therefore highly suspect. My motto is this business has been, “first figure out what you want to say, and then figure out how to make it pay.”

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