Can a Good Journalist Be a Good CapitalistPosted: January 30, 2012
“so far, so good”
For the past month I have been serving as acting ‘ringmaster’ for Dave Cohn’s travelling roadshow – The Carnival of Journalism.
Each ‘ringmaster’ is invited to pose a question to the group. My question was ‘Can a good journalist also be a good capitalist?” If so, how? Or why not?’
Now the answers are in.
“Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one”
The New Yorker’s AJ Liebling had it right – in the 1950s.
Owning a press (or a TV network) was extremely expensive.
Getting access to people’s homes was impossible without the massive investment that a press or a TV station required. So freedom of the press was for the very rich and the very few. The rest of us were left with the option of working for the rich few or opting out of journalism.
Then, only a few years ago, the whole technological applecart got overturned. Suddenly, with the web, it became possible for anyone to ‘publish’ whatever they wanted and put their message into quite literally billions of homes worldwide at no cost.
I was curious as to whether journalists collectively could seize on the opportunities offered by these revolutionary new technologies to free themselves from the Journalism Plantation – (we own it, you work here).
Dave’s followers represent a pretty good spectrum of thinking in the world of journalism. For the most part, Massa Sulzberger has little to fear.
Let’s take The New York Times, just an example.
What is The Times but the cumulative quality of the work of the writers?
Suppose Tom Friedman, Nick Kristoff, Maureen Dowd and the rest of them all got together in the cafeteria one afternoon and said ‘why are we here in this building? Why are we turning over our work to Arthur Jr. and his family when it is ours to sell? What does he bring to the party?” The answer is, not much. If the Times staff decided to start their own website and own it themselves, where would you go for your morning read? The Sulzbergers used to own the press machine. But today that’s a museum piece.
This is the potential power to OWN the machine that the new technology offers. The question is, why won’t the journos simply take it?
The responses to the question give a lot of insight.
Some people mistook ‘making money’ for ‘owning the means of production’. Some wrote, ‘Bill O’Reilly and Barbara Walters make a lot of money”. This is true, but they are still employees.
Others suggested that the future of journalism free of the dirty business of making money lay in no profits, NPR or not for profit journalism.
Overall though, the general reaction was still one of a feeling of a distinct separation between the purity of ‘journalism’ and the less and pure business of ‘business’.
Denise Cheng (@dennetmint) was first in with the comment:
“as a fellow Jcarny, I agree that it does not have to be repugnant. It’s something no person and no organization can do without, especially if they want to scale to better serve the community. Separating business from journalism is not an option, so maybe we need to shift our view: If we embrace capital and spend time figuring out how to do it better, then the time we have to do what we naturally do well—the craft, community engagement—will be optimized.”
She’s headed for Jarvis’ CUNY program this year.
Danielle Frankhauser was so quick off the mark that she emailed me her comments directly:
“Diamonds are created by pressure (a popular analogy). I think great innovation needs the kind of pressure that comes only from something powerful like cash flow. It’s one of those things, like religion and politics, that we’re not supposed to talk about at cocktail parties. It hits us deep in our psyche.”
Dave Cohn, who clearly is an entrepreneurial journalist responded that it’s a pretty mixed bag:
“But one of the professors at the Cronkite J-school gathering asked a very important and a totally fair question. I’m paraphrasing here: ‘
I know it’s a real path, but it can’t be all butterfly’s and kittens. What are the tradeoffs? What are the hard parts of going down this route? I don’t want to send off students without a healthy dose of reality.’
Sometimes those of us who have drank the entrepreneurial Kool-Aid like to point out success stories and perks without mentioning just what you have to give up to go this route.”
Jack Rosenberry cut to the core of the question:
“the essay seems to be conflating the idea of “capitalist” to “person who earns a sufficient level of income” and from there sets up a false divide. In a formal sense, the capitalist is the owner of the means of production; certainly the various press barons mentioned earlier were that. They were also journalists in that as publishers they helped establish — or flat-out dictated — the editorial direction for their newspapers. And in filling the dual role they made LOTS of money.”
Adam Westbrook checked in from London. Adam is also an entrepreneurial journalist and his perspective was similar to Dave’s. ”
It’s not for everyone I know, but personally, I would love to see more journalists & publishers – especially young ones – breaking free while they can, simply because so many of the hurdles have been removed. And as I’ve said beforethis window of opportunity won’t last forever.
Michael is right in lots of ways – but he misses an important point. Yes, journalists shouldn’t shy away from making big bucks. But to do so, you have to be motivated by something more than money.
Martin Belam was uncertain as to whether a good journalist should be a good capitalist. Wrote Marty:
But no journalist worth their salt wouldn’t write about a plane falling out of the sky on their hometown because it happened on a Thursday, and Thursday is the day you’ve set aside to phone local businesses to drum up ad revenue.
I think you have to ask yourself, do you get out of bed in the morning with a burning hunger to find and uncover stories, or do you get out of bed in the morning hungry to make sales?
I’m unconvinced that you can do both.
Fair enough. Although (fortunately) planes don’t fall out of the sky every day, but I take his point.
Mary Hamilton took us back to this initial question of character. Is it in our nature not to be entrepreneurs?
Many journalists don’t want to be – aren’t cut out to be – technical or technological innovators, or freelancers chasing clients for cash. Some of us love digital production and want nothing more than to be playing with new ways to tell stories. Others want nothing but to be allowed to get on with their important investigatons, or their war films, or their pithy columns. I am unequivocably in favour of journalists learning new skills in order to do their jobs more efficiently and more effectively – but when it comes to demanding they move away from their specialism and into areas they may not enjoy or be good at, I get a little uncomfortable. Not everyone can or should be a jack of all trades.
Alfred Hermida makes the point that
There has always been an entrepreneurial streak in journalism, typified in the freelance journalist who makes a living by pitching and selling their work to a range of clients.
Journalists, by necessity, have to be entrepreneurial in finding and chasing stories.
The shift today is in the product and process of entrepreneurial journalism.
Andrew Zaleski seems to get to the point that I was striving for:
No, what I think we’re really talking about is how journalists can sufficiently leverage their collective power to create economies of scale that are similarly powerful to the big guys. You know: Hearst, Gannett, Tribune, Conde Nast.
Carrie Brown, who teaches at the University of Memphis (and seems surprised that Columbia J-School could be so backward – that’s the NYC
myth’ blown away) writes (and in bold):
Being SKEPTICAL about money and its power to corrupt good journalism is a different thing. I think that is perfectly healthy.
Gary Kebbel, from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln says that they are already teaching entrepreneurial journalism at his school:
We want the center to be a model for how to teach entrepreneurial skills like audience analysis, market analysis, business planning, multidisciplinary cooperation, teamwork and evaluation.
Nick Leamon, take note!!
Geoff Samak makes the point that journalists require a ‘different perspective’ on their world to do their job, and that perspective might serve them well as journalists, but not necessarily as Capitalists.
AO Scruggs in his first contribution to the Carnival notes:
Many of us got into journalism because we loved telling stories, especially about stuff folks weren’t supposed to know. We liked seeing our byline or hearing our voices. We liked being in the mix. But the environment that feeds a modern-day Pulitzer starves a content creator.
Meanwhile, Steve Fox, at U Mass was unimpressed by the whole topic.
Haven’t we spent enough time asking what journalists can and can’t do?
Haven’t we spent enough time asking what the definition of journalism is?
Seriously, enough already.
Dulai Shaminder seems read to join the revolution:
And my friends, we’ve all drank the Kool-Aid. I’m just as guilty as you. My first job I lost money (no gas reimbursement), my second job I used my own equipment and paid for my own repairs, at another job I spent months eating $0.08 Ramen noodles on my entry level salery with unpaid overtime– and I did it all with pride.
I’m not in it for the money, I’m in it to inform and help people have a voice. And I was proud of the work I was doing, I still am, but I romanticized the ideal of the broke journalist falsely.
Kathy Gill on the other hand, goes to the other end of the spectrum:
Making money should be our primary goal? Really? (I call “embracing” something making it a primary goal.)
Making money your priority in life is a route destined to dead-end in the cul de sac of unhappiness. It’s not great as a reason for starting a business, either.
This ignores my favorite quote from Sophie Tucker “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Believe me, honey, rich is better.” But that’s another story…
Jonathan Groves responded:
The problem with the question as stated is we’ve seen what the profit motive can do to journalism. It led to the yellow journalism of the late 19th century, when stories were fabricated and sensationalized for the sake of sales. Indeed, the Christian Science Monitor and the Missouri School of Journalism were created and the New York Times evolved under Adolph Ochs as responses to the market-driven journalism of the day.
They were pursuing a greater goal, a greater journalism beyond profits.
As a former president of New York Times Company who had to report profits and losses to the Board every month, I can tell you that this vision is a bit romanticized, to say the least.
Clarissa Morales Roberts heads back to the relative safety of non-profit, the very antithesis of good capitalism:
What I found in my review was that the basis of Capitalism is economic gain that benefits the individual above all others. The public good or nutritional value are irrelevant. And this is contrary to the fundamentals of what I believe good journalism to be: information that engages the public to participate for the betterment of society. If we are only about personal gain, then statutes like do no harm have no place in our profession, and that’s something I personally wouldn’t be able to stomach.
Sue Robinson at MediaTrope: does find a way where good journalists can be good capitalists. It’s all about discipline:
“As I tell my students now, the key to being a good journalist working at a for-profit company is time management, creative interpretations of corporate mandates such as “bulk! bulk! bulk!,” alternative kinds of story formats, agnostic understandings of platform, disciplined efforts around storytelling, and finally, laser focus on the end goal of significant and important democracy-improving work in one’s day-to-day labor.”
And finally, Erika Owens also hearkens to this notion that pure capitalism is at loggerheads with good community journalism:
What is the purpose in media making? If you want community contributors to be invested in your work, what are you asking them to invest in?
So where did this leave me in my question as to whether we (the Journalists) can re-arrange ourselves to work in a different way that is more profitable for us by owning the business instead of being the employees.
I tend to think that 150 years of being employees has formed a great deal of our thinking. Most people seemed to feel that being a good journalist and running and owning a successful journalism business are either difficult or perhaps inherently impossible. This, of course, is not my opinion (and the opinions stated here in no way reflect those of the Carnival of Journalism, Dave Cohn or anyone else).
150 years of daily experience is hard to shake.
When the Israelites left Egypt they didn’t wander in the desert for forty years because they were lost.
They wandered in the desert for forty years so that anyone with the memory of slavery would die off before they went into the promised land.
Perhaps in forty years we can re-raise this issue.
In the meantime, the Sulzbergers can rest comfortably.
On the other hand, anyone who wants to storm the NBC building, meet me at midnight.
**** and this late entry, just in, from Jonathan Frost
And – THE JUST IN – this super late entry by Lauren Rabaino.
She says (and since she agrees with me..):
So, can a journalist can be a capitalist?
- Yes, even though the traditional structure of legacy media doesn’t openly welcome or encourage it.
- Yes, if we care about the future of open information and democracy.
- Yes, because we’re positioned to do it best, as we’re the ones who know the content and the readers — something hard to initiate, as we haven’t been trained to innovate or make money.