Can a journalist be a capitalist? Yes.

Can a journalist be a capitalist? It's the question asked by Michael Rosenblum as he describes the current state of the journalist:

We are the perpetual groveling employees, beggaring for a few crumbs and generally seeing our jobs and incomes slashed as the web and new digital technologies roll over the old.

And why is that? Why are we such schmucks?

It’s in our nature.  It’s in the image that we have made for ourselves.

It's true. They don't teach us how to make money in journalism school. That was what they taught business and advertising students. We've always been spoiled in that way -- we provide the content and the other side of the company (you know, those people on the eighth floor that we don't ever talk to), they'll make sure we get a paycheck.

I've always had this theory about business people, though (sorry business people; you can contradict me if I'm wrong). I first observed it in college when business students handled advertising at The Mustang Daily, my college paper. They didn't care about advertising on the web and they didn't care about finding innovative revenue solutions because newspapers weren't at the heart of their industry, their training, or their passion -- it was a small subset. These students were going to leave college and work at tech companies, non-profits or other businesses -- probably not newspapers.  They will always be able to find jobs in other fields, and, if newspapers go away, that's only one small part of their entire industry.

(Interjection -- small, unscientific survey: Of the business staff that I knew from my college newspaper, none of them are working at newspapers or anything related to the news industry today.  Of those that I could find online via Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, these are the places they work: Box.netSayNoMore! PromotionsBon Voyage TravelTriage Consulting Group, Bridge Design, News America Marketing, Merge Healthcare, The Shand Group, Cal Poly University, Target).

From a career perspective, it doesn't matter to business students whether journalism flourishes or fades away. But for journalists, this is what we do. This is our lives. We have more invested in the survival of journalism. This is our future at stake, and, more importantly,  society's -- the future of free-flowing information, watchdog reporting, and democracy. If we want high-quality journalism to stick around, we have to take it into our own hands to figure out innovative ways to support it.

The reason journalists are "perpetual groveling employees, beggaring for a few crumbs," as Rosenblum describes it, is because of our oath to objectivity. Once we start thinking about money, our pure motives for obtaining truth at all costs are suddenly obliterated. The aura of unbaisedness surrounding the work we do becomes murky when we try to sell it, because we're no longer thinking about the better good, but our individual (and the industry's collective) good. Right? Right?!

Wrong. Because once you're unable to sell it, there's something inherently wrong with how you're doing it. That burden falls on the content producers (journalists), not the content sellers (advertising). Once we have our act together, they can monetize it more effectively.  Journalists are the ones who know the content and the readers. We are the ones with access to the information and data and public records. We are the ones who have to think outside the box, first and foremost.

No offense fellow journalists, but we don't exactly have track records for being innovative thinkers when it comes to content. We're creatures of habit, filing our 26 inches of copy and calling it a night. It's naive and irresponsible for anyone in any newsroom to not be thinking about how we can make money from our content.  To create content that is sellable is to create content that is valuable and relevant.

So far, I've addressed journalists working at newspapers. You can't blame me -- I work at one; it's my frame of context. There's a big difference between whether we should be actively thinking like capitalists, and whether our cultures invite it. When you're at a newspaper, your ability to truly think like a capitalist is severely limited by the bureaucracy and tradition surrounding a newspaper -- there is a whole other department hired to think about that, and what do journalists know about money, anyway? Quite honestly, a journalist in the newsroom probably won't have much of an effect on how business works. So what they can do is create unique, useable content that can be "sold" in a different way on the web. Simple examples: sponsored live chats or event/issue dashboards, unique video with preroll, data visualizations that can be sponsored and advertised.  It also has to go beyond content types -- journalists need to think about how they find stories, tell stories and distribute stories, and how that impacts value.

When I say "value," I'm not talking about wraping your content in ads; display advertising isn't nearly radical enough, especially the way that most newspapers do it (see screenshot to the right -- you really can't miss it). That's why working outside of traditional media is probably the best way to truly think as a capitalist, though I must admit (perhaps naively) that I still have hope that I can do it at a newspaper. Places like Spot.us (disclosure: I worked with them) or places like, dare I say it, Patch, are good examples of thinking outside the box outside of a traditional newsroom.

Ideally, I'd like to see a world where business and journalism aren't so far separated. We already have hybrid teams of hacker-journlalists forming at places like The New York Times and The LA Times and The Chicago Tribune. It's a concept that didn't exist a few years ago -- there were journalists and IT people, but not hackery people doing journalism. Why can't it be like that with business? Jarvis is on the right track with teaching entrepreneurial journalism, but I haven't seen traditional newsrooms forming business-journalism teams where businesspeople who get journalism have the final say on creating innovative, effective solutions that are integrated into the entire workflow, process, and mindset of how journalists do their jobs.

So, can a journalist can be a capitalist?

  1. Yes, even though the traditional structure of legacy media doesn't openly welcome or encourage it.
  2. Yes, if we care about the future of open information and democracy.
  3. 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.

Things I would have like to touch more on in this post:

  • Back to the basics: How are we defining "journalist" in this context?
  • How can we create hybrid teams in our newsrooms -- similar to the hacker-journo, but in the realm of business/innovation-journo? What are the benefits and would it work?
  • Does thinking about money really make us non-objective?
  • Who is doing it right/wrong? Who can we learn from?
  • How ingraining technology and the web into the culture of the newsroom will give journalists more ideas and inspiration for pursuing more creative and effective content on the web.

As always, your thoughts and criticism are welcomed.