Capitalism can support good journalism, but it’s time for some back-up plans

This month’s Carnival of Journalism, which is an informal group of bloggers who write about a common journalism topic every month, asks the question: Can good journalists be good capitalists? The question derives from the omnipresent tension of a commercial press operating with a mandate to be socially responsible. As a business-reporter-turned-journalist-academic teaching students who need paying jobs in the profession, I answer a cautious YES (and here, I’m also thinking: “I sure hope so!!”; otherwise I’ve spent a lot of years fervently and naively dedicated to a profession because of its democratic importance).

In this post I suggest that we also need to build significant infrastructure alongside the commercial press to provide contingencies for the dissemination of significant, relevant, balanced, accurate information circulating in our democracy — you know… in the event corporate media owners might somehow lose sight of their commitment to hosting good journalism. The good news is I think we have already begun to formalize some alternative business models.

Good Journalists, Good Capitalists

With fewer resources and fewer journalists, the commitment to socially responsible journalism can fade as the pressure to produce content increases. During one of my newsroom stints, the executive editor called a meeting to discuss pending layoffs, the shrinking news hole, and our media owner’s fiscal difficulties (“yeah, right,” we all mouthed to each other, rolling our eyes, knowing our corporation’s top executives had all just received giant bonuses). “Bulk! Bulk! Bulk!” he barked at us, referring to the “need” for the appearance of more content in the newspaper and on the site, more quickly. People could read briefs and rewritten press releases and have the feeling that they were getting a lot for their money.  What could we do?

We quickly learned the art of the fast 200 words while working on our special projects. We learned to conduct interviews so that we could derive a “quick hit” out of the conversation (usually just a one-sourced piece), and then turning the discussion to what we really wanted to know — the good journalism part. Our fabulous editors managed to juggle schedules so that we rotated on “bulk” while keeping some of us on dedicated projects that were so important for our community. Oh and of course we had our own definition of “bulk” as well. After all, a 50-inch story feels pretty bulky, doesn’t it? Plus 200 words advancing an important public hearing can be just as democratically important as a brief about some new product.

Capitalism does not necessitate poor quality in the pursuit of product quantity. The notion significantly underestimates people’s (consumers’?) ability to appreciate important news (product?). Even those briefs have to be something the “market” (society!) needs and wants — well written, informative, interesting. My audience research suggests the problem with the commercial press right now is not the capitalistic structure, but rather the production quality. People are demanding new kinds of content that allow them to connect (with powerful sources, with each other, with issues) and inform themselves on their terms. People recognize that “bulk” does not equate to good journalism (or a good product, if we want to stick with capitalism-speak).

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.

Alternative Models Needed, Though!

Yet the environment of the professional journalist today is certainly challenging. We need to discover other models for doing good information work that complement the industry but do not rely on profits.

I am in the middle of creating a new syllabus for a press-theory seminar I will be teaching this spring, and one of my segments is on new news business models. In doing some research for it, I’m struck by how much innovation is out there compared to 2006 when I and most of my journalist friends either fled the industry or were laid off because of a decidedly failing business model.

I found real suggestions touching on:

And this is just to name a few. This Mediashift blog post from 2008 is a bit dated right now, but the ideas are still very relevant and possible. In looking at all of this in aggregate at this moment, I find myself feeling a sense of optimism about the future of this profession, capitalists and all.

3 comments

  1. Rosenblum

    Hi Sue
    That was a good blog, but the basic premise does not shift – the journalists are still the employees. In your story about the newspaper making cutbacks, I would have preferred if the reporters could have incorporated, gotten their own financing and bought the paper themselves. Now THAT is more what I have in mind.

  2. mediatrope

    Excellent point! I can’t believe I forgot the cooperative model, which I’d written about a couple weeks ago. The problem with that idea for many newsrooms is those companies pay their reporters so little, there’s no chance for such a coup.

  3. Pingback: Can a Good Journalist Be a Good Capitalist « Carnival of Journalism

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