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.