Tuesday, July 16, 2013

5 dirty words journalists have to learn to say without blushing

Versión en español aquí.

Journalism is the best job in the world, and working with journalists is fun. They’re funny, irreverent, intelligent and excellent storytellers.

Still, as a group we tend to be arrogant, self-righteous and holier-than-thou (I include myself in this criticism). We tend to view ourselves as high priests of an exclusive profession and bearers of a special ethical standard that few others can live up to. We see ourselves as purer, more objective, less affected by the prejudices of the mere mortals we cover.

That is at least part of the reason we have trouble in the new world of entrepreneurial journalism, where journalists start and run their own news operations. If we want to go out on our own, we have to recognize for the first time that journalism is a business, that someone has to pay the bills and that there is money involved. Money? This is a dirty word for journalists. It makes us blush. We associate it with influence peddling, lobbyists, bribery, corruption and other topics of our investigative journalism.

Here are some other dirty words that entrepreneurial journalists who launch their own media will have to learn how to say without blushing:

1. Business. Journalism is a business. Yes, it’s a public service, and it’s also a business. If it weren’t a business, journalists would not be able to collect a paycheck. Now that it’s not as great a business as it used to be, journalists are waking up to the fact that there is money involved.

Start your own news business, do it online at low cost and create something that serves your community.

2. Profit. Even in a non-profit news enterprise, you have to spend less than you take in. Whether you call it excess revenue or you call it profit, you have to have it. If you are not covering your costs, you can’t pay the journalists or their health insurance, and you can’t pay the printer or the web host or the designer or the programmer or the marketing director or the computer store. Without profit, you have no resources to invest in improving your product or hiring more staff. Without profit, you are out of business.

Entrepreneurial journalists have to learn how to make a profit and how to track revenue and expenses in a disciplined way, using something other than a checkbook balance. They have to understand where their costs are and where their revenues are coming from.

Profit is not a dirty word, despite the fact that many of our investigative journalism projects center on people making undeserved profits through chicanery or corruption. Profit is a good thing, when it is justly earned. Profit is about taking care of your employees so they can feed their families and improving your product to serve your community better. Nothing dirty about that.

Learn some basic accrual accounting.  Even English majors can do it.

3. Marketing. This is the discipline of identifying needs and aspirations of a target audience, creating a product to serve that audience and communicating compelling messages about the product to that audience. Marketing helps us reach and serve more people and serve them better. At its most basic, this dirty word means knowing who your customers or readers are and putting their interests ahead of your own.

For the last half-century or so, we journalists have lived in a bubble, isolated from readers. Some of us assumed that the public had a civic responsibility to read our stories, and we gave too little attention to making our work readable and relevant. Too often we wrote to impress each other or the small world of our sources. 

The business side operated almost independently and produced fantastic profit margins of 30 to 40 percent even when we wrote boring, irrelevant, badly researched stories. There was little competition in one-newspaper towns. For advertisers, the daily newspaper was a great vehicle for reaching the majority of households. The newspaper was above all a vehicle for distribution of advertising messages (70 percent of the content typically) and, by the way, it also had some news stories. 

We journalists didn’t have to care much what the public thought. We wrote columns of 750 words and news stories of 1,500 to fill spaces and had almost no way to measure whether anyone read us or not. We could brush off readers who disagreed with us by telling them to write a letter to the editor.

Now the playing field has shifted, and everyone has a voice on WordPress, Facebook and Twitter, and we are discovering that "the people formerly known as the audience" (Jay Rosen) have interesting things to say, and often have better, more accurate information than professional journalists. The public has exposed the faults of our work in ways that we are not used to.

This dirty word -- marketing -- means to listen to the readers, to understand their needs and aspirations, to treat them with respect and to find ways to serve them.

There is a science to it. Study the traffic of your website. Use Google Analytics or some other tool. Learn how to measure reader loyalty. Find out which communities your readers live in, how much time various audiences spend per visit on your website, which content they are attracted to, which web browsers they are using and more. You don’t have to pander to your audience, but you do have to know them to serve them well. Analyzing their web behavior will surprise and help you.

4. Customer (reader, user, subscriber) -- This is the person who presumably benefits from the journalism you produce. The customer uses your information to make informed decisions about business, health, politicians, the environment, education, entertainment, travel, housing, computer games -- the possibilities are endless in the online world of niche publications.

Journalists have tended to talk about readers in the abstract, but now, with the rise of social networks, we have tools to interact with our reader-customers and find out what really matters to them.

Get to know your readers and users, and get down off the pulpit to have a conversation with them in social networks.

5. Client (sponsor, advertiser, contributor, member, fan) -- These are the people who generate revenue for the news enterprise. The best clients are the ones who understand the rules of the game, namely that buying a sponsorship, an advertisement or a membership does not give them a voice in the editorial product. 

My advice is to put those words into the contract and to discuss them with the potential client -- "because our product’s value to readers and sponsors depends on its credibility, we will not allow any client to compromise that credibility by having an undeserved or undue influence on the editorial product." At the same time, a news organization will have to be more transparent than in the past and be more open with the public about editorial processes and how editorial decisions are made. 

Editorial types like myself may have trouble dealing with the client-advertiser because we typically never had to have a conversation with one. The business side of a newspaper handled all that. However, I think editors can be the best salespeople for a news outlet -- they can describe the value of the product better than anyone. 

Meet with some potential sponsors and advertisers and explain to them how they are served by your product’s editorial integrity, how their own brand is enhanced by a credible editorial environment. If you are an editorial type who still blushes when talking about money, make sure you have a sales and marketing person on your team from the very beginning. Have that person come with you on a call to close the sale.

Good journalism is good business

However, if you start your own news enterprise, you eventually will have to tell an advertiser-sponsor, No.

When I was editor of Business First of Columbus, our paper did an investigative story about a bank’s behind-the-scenes manipulations to get the state to take over a failed office project.  The stories scuttled the deal and caused the bank, our biggest advertiser, to cancel its contract. 

The reaction of Publisher Carole Williams to the canceled contract set an example for me and gave me words to live by.  The lost revenue would hurt us, she said, but would not result in cutbacks at the paper.  We had other advertisers.  Investigative stories strengthened our credibility and made advertisers want to be associated with us, she said.  In other words, good journalism was good business.  In turn, profitability safeguarded our editorial independence. 

Right now, good journalism is not always good business because the profession and the industry (they seem to be less related these days) are struggling to redefine themselves. However, I am confident that journalists can add some new words to their vocabulary and not feel squeamish about using them. These entrepreneurial journalists who learn how to make a business out of producing news and information will be the ones who redefine the profession and the industry. And it won’t make them blush to make a profit.


Making money on the web Part I: Mark Briggs
How I ran my newspaper monopoly


  1. There is another word that has lately become a dirty word in journalism:


    Frank Abate

  2. Right you are, Frank. The cutbacks in newsrooms have led to lots of embarrassing stuff getting into print. The Columbus Dispatch the other day wrote a headline saying that "Elway", the GM of the Broncos, had thrown for 7 touchdowns against the Ravens rather than "Manning" the quarterback. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/06/columbus-dispatch-john-elway-7-tds-peyton-manning_n_3880988.html

  3. Another word "muckraking" that can be added in the list.Not just that there are many other and all these important words can be experienced by visiting www.vocabmonk.com.

  4. It's true: Good journalism can be good business, but not when you give it away.
    Bad journalism can be good business too, which means someone who wants to do good journalism has to know the difference between good and bad journalism without reference to revenues, profits or readership.