Journalists and the business of news: “There’s no hiding place”
Reader-funded models for journalism often come packaged with an expectation of a new, more tight-knit relationship between reporters and readers. As media organizations continue to turn to these models, a question that simmers in closed conversations and occasionally bubbles to the surface returns: to what extent should journalists be part of the discussion around the business of news?
Historically, the lack of communication between journalists and the commercial teams was a point of pride, a sign of pure journalism that doesn’t bend a knee to commercial pressure.
This church-state divide stands strong in many large news organizations. But, in trade publication or media startups, for example, these lines are often blurred. The journalists often also have to be marketers, event organizers, fundraisers or even business managers.
The draw of revenue diversification
As more media outlets diversify their revenue streams, the need for editorial input to define commercial strategy grows.
In a membership model, for example, where readers pay to support an organization but also sign up to contribute their expertise to the reporting, journalists are directly responsible for the interaction – and so the satisfaction – of the members.
At Dutch media outlet De Correspondent, and soon perhaps at its new, English-language sister The Correspondent, journalists are expected to spend as much as half of their time interacting with members. This time, while clearly helpful for in-depth documentation and newsgathering, directly benefits the outlet’s commercial goals.
The case for more collaboration
Back in 2012, Matt Thompson, then editorial product manager at NPR and now editor-in-chief of Reveal, wrote that the business side of news could benefit from some of the ingenuity journalists were bringing to new content formats at the time.
At the International Journalism Festival in Italy this year, there seemed to be almost no panel about the business of news that did not bring up the need for journalists to take more of interest into how their media outlet makes money.
Janine Gibson, incoming assistant editor and editor, special projects at The Financial Times, and formerly editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed UK, said that each revenue stream requires an editorial partner.
Each media organization needs a number of people in editorial “with the will to listen” to commercial people, she added.
For Gibson, editorial and commercial teams can be partners in understanding the audience. There doesn’t have to be an adversarial relationship.
Better communication between the two sides of the organization can also lead to better results when it comes to “new sales”, for example podcasts which are wildly popular can prove difficult for a commercial team that is less familiar with the format.
Build that bridge and start the conversation early to increase an editorial project’s revenue potential.
A shared understanding of success
Renée Kaplan, head of audience and new content strategies at The Financial Times, explained the newsroom’s awareness of business at the FT could be broken down into three key aspects:
- sharing information
- knowing how to measure success
- and not putting pressure on editorial.
The FT aims to build a shared conversation around success. The organization recently celebrated reaching 1 million subscribers – ahead of target.
Kaplan talked of the importance of building trust around metrics. FT journalists do not question the need for data. Instead, they question whether the metrics they are using are accurate and whether they can be trusted.
For Jeff Jarvis, journalism professor at City University of New York, the realization that it was important to know the business side of journalism came when he couldn’t fight for his vision for Entertainment Weekly.
Without a knowledge of the business side of media, journalists are poor stewards of the editorial product.
— Jeff Jarvis, journalism professor, CUNY
Supporting the journalism
Jarvis told a panel at the International Journalism Festival that without a knowledge of the business side of media, journalists are poor stewards of the editorial product.
He emphasised the importance of understanding the language the commercial teams use and being able to negotiate and hold your own. “I only wish I knew this decades ago,” he said.
Amanda Michel, global director of contributions at The Guardian, worked to build the news organization’s successful membership scheme. Michel understands the potential tensions between editorial, digital and commercial staff as they all have different ways of prioritizing work.
Michel points out to journalists that digital teams focus on tasks and projects that scale and repeat. Editorial teams should also understand what commercial teams value, and how they those decisions are made.
Wherever you work in a news organization, you work in support of the journalism.
Gibson agreed that journalists can no longer be insulated from the business side of the media organization in which they work: “There’s no hiding place”.
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