When to quit your journalism job

When the sales people are happy to sell what the newsroom is happy to make, there you have a well-run editorial company. So measure your own newsroom's misery by its distance from that (ideal) state.

19 Dec 2014 2:46 pm 78 Comments

These notes were inspired by recent events at the New Republic and First Look Media, articles like this one, and some not-for-publication talks I’ve had lately with young staffers who were troubled by what they saw happening at their place of employment. They also build on this series of tweets about “product” and on conversations I have with my students all the time.

1. If you work in any kind of editorial organization, it is your job to understand the business model. If you feel you can’t do that, you should quit. By “understand the business model,” I mean you can (confidently) answer this question: What is the plan to bring in enough money to sustain the enterprise and permit it to grow? Can’t answer? You have the wrong job.

2. If your instinct is to say, “that’s the business side’s problem,” sorry: your instinct is wrong. That whole way of talking, in which the business “side” takes care of the business model so the journalists can just do their journalism… that’s wrong, too. It’s infantilizing you. The more you believe it, the more likely you are to be placed at the kids table— organizationally speaking. And properly so, because you’re a dependent.

3. The business model is not the business only of the business “side” (a wretched metaphor) because a vital part of any such model is the way in which the editorial staff creates value, earns audience, wins mind share, generates influence, builds brand. These are the sorts of goods a good sales staff sells. It’s your job to understand the business model, because you have to know what kind of good you’re being asked to create, or you won’t be any good at creating it.

4. Take Politico. One part of its business model is a print edition distributed for free on Capitol Hill, but only when Congress is in session. Those who have business before Congress advertise to reach the people who work on Capitol Hill, especially the ones who work for members of Congress. The famous “metabolism” of the Politico newsroom and its “all politics, all the time” coverage make it a must-read among Washington insiders, which Congressional staffers aspire to be. The editorial staff creates value by being relentlessly “inside” DC politics. (Which is also what makes Politico so annoying to outsiders.) The sales staff — get ready for a word you hate — then monetizes the newsroom’s creation by selling ads in the print edition.

5. If either staff misunderstands the other’s work, Politico is in grave trouble. But Politico is not in grave trouble. It is expanding, conquering new worlds— lately, it’s Brussels and the EU. The journalists who work there understand what kind of value they’re being asked to create. The sales people are happy to sell what the newsroom is happy to make. This describes a well-founded and well-run editorial company. So measure your newsroom’s misery by its distance from that (ideal) state.

6. Speaking of words you hate: get over it. Understanding the business model may require you to learn some terms to which you don’t immediately cotton. BFD. Since when are journalists allowed to back away from language they don’t instantly understand? That was never the deal. If you report on corporate finance, you can’t say: don’t give me this debt-to-equity bullshit. No way. It’s your job to understand what is meant by these terms. That requirement doesn’t disappear just because it’s your own business at stake.

7. When I see journalists throw up their hands at new media or Silicon Valley “buzzwords,” I smile. Because my students aren’t permitted to do that, and they’re going to eat your lunch. I teach them to find out what terms like pivot, native advertising, microtargeting, value-added and, yes, “vertical integration” mean. They aren’t allowed to cry “buzzword!” unless they understand what was originally intended by the phrase before it was degraded by overuse or picked up by poseurs. If they blanche at the word “brand” I make fun of them.

8. “Product” is one of those terms. What technology people mean by product is something editorial types have to learn. Product is the built thing that users actually interact with, which includes the front-end technology, the editorial content, any ads or commercial material that users encounter, plus the experience of using the thing. It’s all that. When Steve Jobs said design is not how it looks, design is how it works… he was talking about products.

9. In tech, “what should the product be?” is a hard question, and the answer is constantly shifting as technology advances, platforms rise and fall, and user behavior shifts. What works keeps changing, so you have to keep asking yourself “what should the product be?” For journalists, “what should the product be?” is an easy question to answer. The product should be great journalism! Break news, lead the pack on big stories, find brilliant writers and pay them so they don’t go to someone else. That’s how you make a great product. It’s hard to do, but easy to define.

10. Make fun of Buzzfeed and Vox all you want (though I would advise against it.) One thing those companies have accomplished: everyone is on the same page about product. This is a huge advantage for them. For if the tech people keep using “product” the way they define it, and the journalism people hear it the way they understand it, the news organization that employs those people will eventually come to grief. So if you work in a company like that, I have a link for you.

11. There is a person who is supposed to prevent that. Traditionally, that person is called “the editor.” Nothing has yet been invented to take The Editor’s place, so if your site doesn’t have one — which is said to be the case at boston.com — your site is dysfunctional. Most people think The Editor’s job is to hire, fire and supervise the editorial staff, set standards, direct coverage and be the final word on what is published. And that’s correct, but there is more.

12. The Editor has to come to a clear agreement with the publisher and commercial staff on: a.) what the business model is, meaning: how are we going to sustain ourselves and grow? b.) exactly how — in that model — the editorial team creates value for the business, and c.) the zone of independence the editorial team will need to meet those expectations. Not only does The Editor have to secure that agreement, he or she must agree with it, as well. And be able to explain it to anyone who asks. There can never be a situation where The Editor doesn’t know what the business model is, doesn’t accept it as appropriate and doable, or can’t articulate it. A situation like that cannot last, as Franklin Foer of the New Republic learned this month.

13. Every successful publication that does journalism operates with a kind of contract between The Editor and the people who own the joint. (Unless they’re the same people.) If the contract is unclear, if different people have different ideas about what it says, if the staff doesn’t understand it, then neuroses will set in. The result will be an unhappy place to work.

14. If you work on the commercial “side” (misleading image) of an editorial company and you cannot explain the kind of value the journalists have to add for the business model to click on all cylinders, or if you see them as merely an expense item — and a whiny, entitled one at that — then you too are in the wrong job. Please leave as soon as possible.

15. But what about separation of church and state? I already said: the editorial team requires an agreed-upon zone of independence to do its work. That’s a key separation. But separation of church and state has no value as an intellectual principle. Meaning: it’s a dumb and risky situation for you when you don’t understand how your organization plans to sustain itself. Want more? Separation of church and state — for all the good it did in a previous media era — also meant “no seat at the table when the key decisions were made.” Is that really what you want?

Updated from the original to add number 14.



Great post. You’re describing exactly my experience starting Entertainment Weekly. It was a bit the reverse: The business side wouldn’t let us on the other side of the wall into their world because, well, we were only editors and editors don’t do that. The result: I couldn’t protect my baby from their secrecy and business mistakes. (I made my share of editorial mistakes as well.) When I realized that, for the sake of the baby and the staff, I quit. And I vowed I would never again be seen as lacking the stripes to be in the business discussion. I learned the business of journalism. And that is why I teach journalism students their business. It is, of course, all the more important today for journalists to be responsible stewards of our craft.

And I vowed I would never again be seen as lacking the stripes to be in the business discussion.

That was a good decision. Took me a lot longer to see the import of it.

Bill Owen says:

In defence of Matt Taibbi, it would have been damn hard, impossible in fact, for him to understand The Intercept’s business model. That’s because they don’t have one yet.

Taibbi didn’t work for The Intercept. He worked for First Look Media, which publishes The Intercept, and was going to publish a new site, Racket, which did have the beginnings of a business model, although it was never discussed publicly.

This is a great post, packed with terrific advice. One thing I know from experience: Sometimes when a business is failing, or sputtering, it becomes increasingly more difficult for newsroom workers to extract the kind of information they need to understand where the business is going, what the revenue and costs are etc., especially when a union workforce is involved. Those running the place tend to say the sky is falling even faster than it really is. That said, yes, understand the business model and the business plan.

Oh dear. Yes, I’m a dinosaur – a 40year veteran of an industry I’m watching go slowly down the toilet. Articles and thinking like this are accelerating the decline. Journalist or content provider? That is the question. Sorry, but but you shouldn’t be allowed near journalism students. If this is the future of journalism, I despair.

Content provider? That term does not appear in this post. “Journalist” appears multiple times.

Leith, you describe your industry as going down the toilet & then complain about someone advocating for a healthy future for journalism? We need more journalism teachers (and journalists and media executives) like Jay.

Steve, I query “healthy”. Yes, Rosen’s approach may help bolster journalism’s financial future, but I suspect we will continue to see poorly researched dross, disguised advertorial and wanton bias misrepresented as reporting. Investigative journalism is now the province of freelancers and interns.

I so agree. If journalists wanted to be working in the business world, they’d have studied commerce. Articles like this just reassure me that leaving the industry is the right choice for me.

You’re nitpicking Jay. We all know that content provider is not a pejorative term and is in common use throughout the industry. You’re talking about a not very brave new world. However I’m pleased to see you added point 14.

Good read. Straightforward writing. Strong point of view with no pseudo intellectual posturing.

Great post on what the journalists have to do to stay relevant. I think the business people also have to make adjustments, and start grasping and seeing the opportunities that new technology/new platforms provide and how it might also completely change their “business”

All journalists need to do to stay relevant is to write good copy. Period. Sucking up to sales and marketing people is unnecessary and, quite frankly, degrading.

No, Leith, it is about serving the public. Content — “copy,” in our jargon — is but one tool we have to do that. The question we should be asking is what the public needs and then how we can meet those needs.

I like what you say and agree.

Craig Rothenberg says:

Bravo, Jay.

Trevor Butterworth says:

Excellent post. The only people who don’t see journalism as a business are journalists and children. What’s interesting is the rhetorical implication that if journalism is acknowledged as a business, somehow the product must be worthless or pernicious: only true journalism can come from a clerisy continually sanctified by prayer that the wall between business and editorial holds fast!

Dan Mitchell says:

This is the kind of simplistic thinking I refer to in my post below. It’s simplistic to think that commercial journalism isn’t a business (I mean, it’s commercial!). It’s just as simplistic, if not moreso, to think that it’s a business like any other. Some of the stuff — and most of the most important stuff — that journalists do has little or no commercial market value, but still needs to be done. How does your “journalism is a business, and by gum these ivory tower elitist eggheads had better learn it!” theory address that problem?

Thanks, everyone. Much appreciated.

I realized after the post was off and running that I left out something. I think I will add it as an update…

If you work on the commercial “side” (misleading image) of an editorial company and you cannot explain the kind of value the journalists have to add for the business model to work, if you see them as merely an expense item — and a whiny one at that — then you too are in the wrong job. Please leave as soon as possible.

Kate Day says:

Very good post. No single division of traditional media organisations gets to ‘win’ at digital. Either everyone collaborates to tackle the problems and improve the products does or we all lose

Fan-bloody-tastic post. Thank you for writing this.

Imagine your “journalism job” has been at ABC News, working on its evening newscast. For years, the “business model” had been that World News Tonight would deliver a serious, well-rounded summary of the major national and international developments of the day, thus maintaining ABC News’ image as a global news-gathering organization to be reckoned with, delivering a mainstream mass audience.

The clout that such an evening newscast provided has burnished ABC News’ reputation as indispensible in a crisis, with a track record of sound judgment: it would not over-react in panic at a passing crisis, nor would it overlook or downplay a genuine one that deserved the nation’s attention. Its questions would be taken seriously by the powers-that-be; its phone calls would be returned; leakers and sources and pitchers of ideas would believe that ABC News would offer a receptive ear. Such a reputation has value for ABC News as a whole, even as Good Morning America, proudly exhibiting none of the gravitas of World News Tonight, happened to generate more revenue. ABC News was happy to have a different tone of voice in different dayparts. That was its business model.

Now imagine that such a business model gets overturned. ABC News decides that all its dayparts should have a GMA-style tone of voice. WNT’s new anchor would have none of the clout that is derived from years of experienced newsgathering; instead he sees the video journalist’s role as being the central character in his own reality TV show. Selfie news, as it were. International stories go uncovered, thus giving the lie to the World in the World News Tonight title. Meteorological stories — weatherporn, as it is called — top the news agenda, followed by celebrity tales, tabloid true crime, grainy eyewitness video, news-you-can-use service journalism, and Korean-style imaginary news renderings using computer-graphics.

According to this post, these changes result in a “happy newsroom” so long as the journalists — whose job descriptions have thus been overturned so radically — can “(confidently) answer” (#1) questions about ABC News’ strategy for growth; so long as they can articulate how their new newscast “creates value, earns audience, wins mind share, generates influence, builds brand” (#3). In #13, it is argued that unhappiness in the newsroom derives from a lack of understanding — “if the contract is unclear” — about the terms of the editorial contract agreed between the “editor” (here, presumably, the President of ABC News) and the “publisher” (here Disney).

It is quite possible that the contract is crystal clear and the new business model is robust, yet journalists are unhappy anyway — because the model they are executing happens to result in a product to be ashamed of.

Thanks, Andrew, for this very well composed comment.

I thought it clear — but maybe I am wrong — that in addition to understanding the business model and what it asks from the journalists, the journalists have to also agree, “this is real journalism, what we’re being asked to produce.”

Where I touch on that is point 12. “Not only does The Editor [or in broadcast news the executive producer] have to secure that agreement, he or she must agree with it, as well.”

I was trying to say that this “contract” is then repeated down the line with editorial employees who themselves understand the business model and are cool with it. If they understand it, but they hate what it calls for them to do, obviously that is not a good situation.

Does it really have to be said: if you’re not proud of what you make, you should think about quitting?

I do not go so far as to say that the current ABC World News Tonight is not *real* journalism. For all its faults, the newscast has not stepped outside of category; it has merely changed its mission within category.

On the second point — “if you’re not proud of what you make, you should think about quitting” — there is always the alternative: you should agitate to make your bosses alter that shameful contract that they made with their bosses.

I did work for ABC News for 15 years. The current show doesn’t have much news.
I did quit and went into academia. Much better hours!

Agreed. And the way to win that fight is to have a better argument about value added.

Such an argument can still make for a very unhappy newsroom — even when all your conditions about the clarity of the business model are met.

Jack Mitchell says:

I find this post very shocking. Are your students pursuing journalism in order to have a seat at the Big Table? Is the appeal to ambition an argument-clincher in this field of work?

My students — a majority of whom are women, by the way — definitely want to have a voice in the direction their companies take to innovate and sustain themselves online. Yes. And I try to teach them what’s involved in that.

Lilah Raptopoulos says:

I’m a recent graduate of Jay’s Studio 20 program — and Jack, I’m confused by what you mean here. Should we not be ambitious? Should we not want a seat at the big table? Is that not what journalists are supposed to want? Of course we can want both.

I’m in journalism for the broader mission of providing people with the information they need to best understand their world. But I also want my career to shift and grow professionally – and I DEFINITELY want to be sure that the organizations I work with, that are facilitating that important journalistic work, are making good choices for the future of that company. I want a seat at the big table not because I want to wear a skirt suit and feel important, but because I care about my organization and I think my insights are of value.

I can’t see any way in which those things are at odds.

So is it impossible to be a good journalist if you don’t understand the business model that pays your wage? What if you just happen to write a load of great stories that interest your readers – which is what you actually care about, and don’t really give the mental effort to understanding the nuts and bolts of how that trickles through the economy of the web back into your pay packet? Does that somehow invalidate your skill? It might put you at a professional disadvantage when faced with someone who has all your reporting skills plus web economy nous, especially if you’re seeking a job as editor. But what if you aren’t? What if you just keep writing stories that people want to read? Are you really telling this person to quit?

Invalidate the skill? No I would not say that.

I think what I’m saying is that not understanding the business model that pays your wage is a risky way to go, and I don’t advise it. Do you?

I’m also saying that there is nothing noble, ethical or intelligent about not understanding the business model that pays your wage.

Let’s switch contexts for a moment to the institution that pays my wage. NYU is heavily dependent on undergraduate tuition. If that column in the spreadsheet began to decline significantly, the institution would be in huge trouble. That’s important for me, as an NYU professor, to know.

Of course, it’s possible for me to teach my classes and do my research and be completely ignorant of that fact. But I would not advise it.

I have to ask: have you ever worked as a journalist?

You’re a classic. A gem.

You didn’t answer the question. How brief was your tenure on the Buffalo courier-Express?

Cory Frye says:

The Courier-Express shuttered in ’82, so Jay’s experience was not only brief, it’s laughably ancient. Dude hasn’t had a byline since at least Asia’s “Heat of the Moment.”

John Henningham says:

Very thoughtful post in these difficult times but that ‘agreed-upon zone of independence’ is a worry. That zone may be very narrow with a weak editor. And where is the final barricade?

That zone may be very narrow with a weak editor.

That’s true. And why we need strong editors.

Infantilizing? I guess no-one subbed your copy. Yes, you are correct, a good editor is a buffer for journalists, but technology and cost-cutting are killing off the invaluable craft of sub-editing. I suspect that it no longer fits the new business model.

I need to make this a new thread because I’d like readers of your post to hear from you on this. Have you ever actually worked as a reporter, sub-editor or editor?

C’mon, the answer to your question is literally a Google query away: http://pressthink.org/2010/09/why-i-am-not-a-journalist-a-true-story/

Jay’s time as a professional journalist was brief and several decades ago, through little fault of his own. Despite that, he’s pretty incisive on the issues and practice of modern journalism.

Chip Rooney says:

You sound like an arrogant asshole and you’re probably turning out a bunch of shallow idiots.

Are you talking to me or Rosen?

I’m a journalist, not an academic. Arrogant assholes made journalism great, not pseuds.

Final comment and I’m gone, never to return to this swamp of pseudo intellectualism. This is the emperor’s new clothes respun. Any reporter who uses a word like “infantilize” should be taken out of the newsroom and shot. Hemingway: “I know all the big words, I just don’t use them.” Talk on, talk on. Goodbye.

Dan Mitchell says:

Well, yes. This is all pretty much true, but it veers on arguing that journalists are in a business that isn’t much different than selling radial tires or Axe Body Spray, which is an all-too common approach. I know you address the business “side’s” need to understand the role of journalism, and you do so quite well. And of course, editorial employees should know how their business works, at least in a basic way (the editor needs to know that a lot better than, say, the cops and courts reporter needs to know it, though).

But you don’t really address the fact that underlying all this, a fundamental problem still exists: journalists (the ones not slapping together inane listicles, or ranting about some political issue) produce a product for which there is often insufficient commercial demand to sustain it. The market value of routine statehouse coverage is extremely low. The social value of it is extremely high. Into the void between those two values come the (yes) buzzword-wielders and the charlatans, who refuse to acknowledge the seriousness of serious journalism, or the fact that most serious journalism is a public good that we’re trying to sell in private commercial markets. This didn’t used to be a big problem, because that kind of journalism was subsidized. With the Great Unbundling, and resulting loss of subsidy, it has become one.

One approach of the charlatans has been to sow disdain for things like statehouse coverage (and school board coverage, and etc.) by calling them boring and important only to elitist “gatekeepers” (buzzword!) and whatnot. This is why they almost never talk about local and regional coverage in their declamations in support of “crowdsourcing” and “citizen journalism” and whatever. This, even though that kind of journalism makes up the vast bulk of what American journalism has devoted itself to, and even though it’s the most important in that it affects the most lives the most directly. It happens that this kind of journalism has been harmed the most — by far — by the lack of its commercial value.

If all these ideas about journalists working with the business “side” could actually do anything to prop up that kind of routine coverage (and investigations, and etc.) that would be fine. But they aren’t. The statehouse bureaus are still 3/4 empty, and all kinds of stuff is going undercovered, or not covered at all. Business-editorial cooperation has done nothing to solve this problem, and certainly neither has “crowdsourcing” or “citizen journalism.” Too many examinations of this problem start from the assumption that one Web page is no different from another, and that the value of each page is determined by how many people click on it, whether it contains an investigation that took a team of reporters and editors months to produce, or contains a dumb listicle that took one recent college grad an hour to slap together.

I mean, our newsrooms have been absolutely decimated, and we’re arguing about trivial nonsense like whether newspapers should have comments sections.

My own conclusion is that the kind of coverage that was once so well-performed by papers like the Chicago Tribune and the San Jose Mercury News can be financed only by well-funded non-profits, rendering all these discussions moot. I think the sooner we admit that, the sooner we can start setting up infrastructures to support it. We need a ProPublica in every city. The social value of an important (even if routine and “boring”) news story doesn’t lie in how many readers it attracts: it lies in its presence on the public record.

In the meantime, it doesn’t really matter whether the cops reporter at the Times-Picayune understands the economics of native advertising, or whether newspapers have comments sections. When it comes to the fundamental economic problems facing the business of producing serious journalism, those things don’t matter at all.

Finally, some common sense. Well said.

Dan Mitchell says:

References to “common sense” tend to scare me, but thank you.

I will add: this is a highly valuable post, for people working at publications like MIT Technology Review or The Atlantic, or even the New York Times (at least certain part of it.) They all produce serious journalism that enjoys at least some commercial market value. But again, it won’t be of much help to the largest, and in many ways most important, segment of the news business: local and regional coverage.

I thought you said you were gone forever.

I lied. Going now. Cheers.

Greg Marx says:

Dan (and/or Jay),

Do any of Jay’s points apply to ProPublica or other nonprofits? Those publications do have a “business side.” I couldn’t say for sure but I suspect (at least some of) the folks at, eg, VOSD would be sympathetic to some of Jay’s points here.

I meant them to apply equally to non-profits.

ProPublica’s funders want to see “impact.” It’s important for ProPublica reporters to understand what is meant by that term, and not to censor or distort their work in any way but certainly to think of more creative and nuanced forms by which impact can be measured or demonstrated— beyond prizes and “new law was passed.”

I will see if I can Scott Lewis of VOSD to comment. He probably has some thoughts.

This articulated so well what I believe is necessary for a journalism-driven business to succeed today: a clear-eyed understanding of the whole operation. It was also reassuring to read, as I think the small local news site I co-founded in Berkeley, Calif. is operating on all the principles you outline here. Thanks for spelling it out, as much for the next generation of journalists as for those of us who have been in the business for decades.

Great advice here, Jay. Just hosted a job fair for college journalists and the advice I gave the students: know – in detail – how you get your paycheck. Note this does not mean the lines between editorial and advertising should be crossed in the work. But all content producers need to know how their living is derived.

I believe this applies as much or more for local producers as it does to national ones. More, probably, because if a journalist moves to a town to work, her options will be limited if that local org falls apart.

Jay, the only thing I would add to this (awesome) post is that the editorial product has to be more than brilliant journalism in the sense of great, well-composed stories. Editorial needs to do a much stronger job of design, too. Right now, most local news sites (both newspapers and TV affiliates) are still using the same design they were fifteen years ago; it’s like a newspaper squashed into the web, which is weird because the web is spacious — you shouldn’t have to squash anything in there. But stories are slotted into the same old sections, and I feel like there’s very little persistent coverage, all organized so that it can be consumed with a sense of context. The web is ideal for that, but news sites aren’t doing it. (I’m told by a colleague at a paper that is doing a better-than-average job online that this might be partly because only three companies really produce newspaper-specific CMSs, all European.) Most news orgs don’t even use Twitter well — for them it’s just a place to post links sporadically, rather than engaging in the ongoing conversation at all.

To succeed, editorial people need to think about how to create and lay out content in a way that makes organic sense with the web; they need to think about readers as an audience but also as users. This is not fundamentally any different from what I do as a copy editor when I clean up language or what I used to do as a page designer — it’s simply about making your articles as accessible to your audience as possible. Online, there are just more and different elements to work with. I think there’s a desperate thirst for good information, and at this point organizing it thoughtfully could be a huge competitive advantage.

I don’t agree at all with anyone who laments the state or future of journalism, particularly local journalism. There’s a thirst, greater than ever, for meaningful information; and the web has demonstrated what a powerful tool it can be for transparency, dialogue and debate, and community building. We’re still in the early stages of learning how to use the internet (and that’s something no one talks about enough, that it’s crazy to imagine we could develop a technology like the internet and understand it perfectly from the outset), but this is really an exciting (and scary and frustrating) time to be in journalism.

Mario Vellandi says:

Josh, there’s lot of room for innovation. Check out the Circa news app to see how following a story is an efficient way to manage content and keep people tuned into developments while maintaining a publisher/reader relationship.

Mario Vellandi says:

Well divided up Jay. News has always been one product among many others. Understanding the business model, SWOT, product mix, value proposition, operations, competition (direct and indirect), brand value and equity, and user experience (internal, partner, and customer) is a LOT. But It’s vital to running a good business and deciding whether to partner, invest, join, or leave one.

Journalism is a two-sided market. 1. Readers like good stories. 2. Advertisers like readers. To serve this business model well, a journalist only has to grasp her side of the market. She must understand the mechanics of a good story. It is not necessary for her to understand the mechanics of advertising.

A soccer analogy occurs to me. Beckham understood the business model of modern football. His erstwhile teammate, Paul Scholes, disdained it. They were both great footballers. No one urged Scholes to quit his soccer job.

As an aside: if Jonathan Chait is right, then it wasn’t the journalists who misunderstood the term “vertical integration”, it was the CEO.

His memo “promises to make TNR “a vertically integrated digital media company,” possibly unaware that “vertically integrated” is an actual business concept, not a term for a media company that integrates verticals.”–Chait. http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2014/12/eulogy-for-the-new-republic.html

Your statement is true as long as the advertiser doesn’t care who the readers are, whether they trust the publication they are reading, and how engaged they are with it. For advertisers like that, you’re right.

What do you mean by that? What would it mean to have a “vertically integrated digital media company”? Do you think that actually means something, or was Vidra just mangling terms?

That’s not it at all. Suppose the advertisers care about the readers’ engagement and trust. Then they’ll want the publication’s journalists to care about readers and not about advertisers. It works best when advertisers understand the model and journalists don’t. In fact, any journalists who understand their publication’s business model should quit ;).
It seems to me, the sales people are not selling what the newsroom is making. The newsroom is making stories. The sales people are selling not the stories but the people who read them.
For Politico’s newsroom, DC politics is the raw material, and DC insiders are the customer. For Politico’s sales team, DC insiders are the raw material, advertisers are the customer.
Journalists should not forget this distinction, because customers do not like to be treated like raw material.

No one said journalists should “care about the advertisers” over the readers. Know what the business model is. That is what the post says.

In fact, any journalists who understand their publication’s business model should quit ;).

I can’t even comment on that, it’s so… beyond.

It was intended with tongue in cheek. I’m sorry if that wasn’t made sufficiently clear.

In many fields, authenticity is marketable, precisely because it doesn’t care whether it’s saleable or not.

It’s a common paradox in marketing. Think of the appeal of an unspoilt wilderness or a characterful village to tourists.

Well, Gawker didn’t like it. Not one bit.

Do Not Listen to the Crazy Man Telling You to Quit Your Job


Joe Louis says:

You’ve truly arrived when Hamilton Nolan pens an obtuse reaction to one of your posts.

Who are these Journalists of whom you speak, who are tasked with thinking about the Business Model and making sure that the content integrates with it? Are reporters not hired to report and analyze the news and deliver it effectively to audience? Are editors not hired to direct the coverage and assign stories? If people doing well the jobs they were hired to do is harmful to the business or “infantilizing”, then someone has screwed up the job descriptions. If the reporter/content provider does not understand the business model well enough to provide content that the audience is interested in, either the business model hasn’t been adequately explained, or someone is making poor hiring and retention decisions. In an organization with a hierarchy, failure starts at the top.

Who are these Journalists of whom you speak, who are tasked with thinking about the Business Model and making sure that the content integrates with it?

That’s not exactly what I’m saying. I’m saying: journalists have to understand the business model and what it expects of them. They can then match that against their own notion of what they ought to be doing. If there’s a conflict, they can argue with management and try to bring the situation into better alignment. In a word, they can fight. They don’t have to simply “accept” the business model as it is explained to them. That’s the infantilization I am trying to argue against. I used the phrase “seat at the table” as the obverse of infantilization.

Are editors not hired to direct the coverage and assign stories?

My post says: yes, they’re hired to do exactly that, and to come to a clear agreement with owner, publisher and commercial staff on what the business model is. I think most editors would agree with this.

If people doing well the jobs they were hired to do is harmful to the business or “infantilizing”, then someone has screwed up the job descriptions.

“Someone” may very well have screwed up the job descriptions. That’s part of my argument.

…either the business model hasn’t been adequately explained, or someone is making poor hiring and retention decisions.

That definitely could be. I’ve talked to young journalists hired on to the staff of digital news organizations who after a few months or a year begin to realize that the business model expects of them work they don’t want to be doing. What are they supposed to do? Shout “separation of church and state!” at that issue?

This is really amazing. I’ve often thought of the idea of Church and State actually questions whether editors can trust their own integrity. Good communication with the business side makes the team better. And I love the truth that the editorial team wants and deserves to be at the table. We’ve begun a profit share with all employees and our editors know what readership, pagecounts and tight content ratios mean to their paychecks.

Sharing this with my staff.

Richard Aubrey says:

“What the public needs”?

What the public needs is spinach. What pays the rent is pix of The Beeb in his latest sportscar or a Kardashian in some state of undress.

In addition to which, there are market segments. A good, in-depth story on Fast & Furious would not attract eyeballs likely to linger on ads for Captain Morgan. Dewars, maybe, and Gentleman Jack. Strikes me that there could be a permanent bone of contention between the journo side and the biz side if the biz had a particular market and the journos wanted to spread the work around a little.

“If the contract is unclear, if different people have different ideas about what it says, if the staff doesn’t understand it, then neuroses will set in. The result will be an unhappy place to work.”

— From the 70s to the 90s, I knew several people who worked at the major newspaper in the city in which I live. They all reported that it was a notoriously unhappy workplace. So there’s that.

I find your post rather idealistic. It seems to envision some happy concordance in which everyone gets along. But in any business, in any field, there are almost always conflicts between sales and creative. Creative views sales as wanting to cheapen the product; sales sees creative as overly-fastidious fusspots. This conflict seems inherent in the nature of capitalism.

In the real world, people don’t get along. There are genuine conflicts of interest. I would find your post more persuasive if it was a bit more hard-headed about this aspect of the situation.

Also, Politico is a specialty shop. It’s not a very useful example for newspapers, which have to attempt to interest wide swaths of the population.

I’ll try to be more realistic in the future, but you know it can be hard. Every time I try to ask, “where is reality?” the darn thing has moved!

…Does that ever happen to you?

Well, “you never step in the same river twice.”

But as you age, you keep seeing similar situations recurring, as, in this case, sales and creative clashing. Although human beliefs and fashions can change rapidly, human nature is pretty stable.

Linda Harmon says:

Two brief questions:
1) When was the last time you reread “Knightfall”? I’d love to hear its author’s response to this post.
2) As a writing challenge, defend your argument that making fun of students is a best practice in teaching. Compare and contrast this style to those of academics you admired, such as Carey or Gitlin. For bonus points, elaborate on times you learned particularly well when you were made fun of.