Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Letters to a newspaper publisher: it's not just the bottom line

How should a media executive manage the business during a time of disruptive technological change? Alfonso Nieto attempted to answer that question in his book "Letters to a newspaper publisher," written in 1987 when newsrooms in Spain were moving from typewriters to computers. Nieto was one of the pioneers in the discipline of media economics, and his writings have acute relevance today, when the media world has been disrupted again by digital technology. He was rector of the University of Navarra 1979-1991, where I now teach. 

Alfonso Nieto, University of Navarra Photo
Alfonso Nieto worked as a consultant to media executives in addition to teaching, and in this book he wanted to go public with his advice without violating any confidential information. So he created a fictitious news executive to whom he wrote a series of letters with some down-home advice. He wanted publishers to think not just of their business results and their investors but also of their publication's impact on employees, the audience, and democratic society as a whole. 

(It is interesting to note that the Business Roundtable, an organization of business leaders in the U.S., recently advocated a major change in management philosophy in line with Nieto: take into account all stakeholders--employees, customers, suppliers, and community--not just the shareholders.)

Versión en español

In his first letter, Nieto criticizes the fictitious publisher for declaring the publication's purpose is "to defend the freedom of expression" among other idealistic objectives. Actually, Nieto said, the legal responsibility of the publisher of a newspaper is not to defend these ideals of liberty and independence but simply "to make money"
However, unlike other businesses, a newspaper does have a social purpose that consists of several important aspects:
  •  "To contribute to the formation of public opinion . . . serving as a loudspeaker for those who have no other voice . . . "
  • "Maintain absolute independence in order to defend the truth, justice, and freedom . . . "
  • "Given that peace and public order constitute the irreplaceable pillars of community solidarity  . . . it is essential to repudiate any form of violence . . ."
  • "Respect all religions. . . "
  • "Recognize the universal right to education at all levels . . . " (p. 19).
Several of Nieto's recommendations have particular relevance today. One of them, which would certainly improve the credibility and trustworthiness of media today, was his recommendation of transparency

For him, transparency meant revealing the legal and economic structure of the business, the names and biographies of the major owners or shareholders, the financial results, and the biographies of the executives, editors, and board members. Media transparency models to emulate today include Texas Tribune's About Us; the annual report of Mediapart in France, a subscription-only investigative journalism site; and in Spain's annual report (in Spanish), which includes and extensive narrative about ownership and financial results.

For anyone familiar with the history of Spain, much of Nieto's advice is aimed at healing the wounds of the Spanish Civil War and 40 years of dictatorship, which had ended just 12 years earlier. But the advice also hits home today, when we are facing a crisis of public trust in many institutions of democratic society, including the press.

Letters to a publisher II: Treat your readers with respect
Letters a publisher III: A shameful scandal

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