Jay Rosen may have overstated when he told journalists to quit their jobs if they can’t understand their organization’s business model. But Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan way overstated in telling journalists not to listen to Rosen.
I highly recommend reading both pieces. Rosen’s post is full of good advice for understanding the path your business is taking and contributing to making progress along the path. Nolan’s post is fascinating, the kind of scornful dismissal of Rosen’s visionary digital thinking that I normally expect from those clinging to legacy media, not one of the digital upstarts that the troglodytes are so scornful of.
Jay made 15 points that I recommend reading. I’m going to address seven points, somewhat repeating and overlapping with his:
- Journalists should absolutely try to understand your organization’s business: how you deliver value and how the company plans to make money from that value.
- Business models change, sometimes with little warning, sometimes for the better and sometimes not. You won’t always be informed immediately of the changes.
- Colleagues need to understand and believe in the value you provide.
- We can protect our integrity and still discuss and understand the business.
- Learn the language; you always have.
- Leaders are critical to the success of a changing organization.
- Business model issues are worth changing jobs over, but I recommend trying to change the organization before quitting it (and finding another job first, too).
I’ll elaborate shortly, but first I’ll defend Rosen against Nolan’s anti-intellectualist insult. Noting the New York University professor’s brief career at the Buffalo Courier-Express before joining academia, Nolan said Rosen “makes money by producing proclamations about journalism rather than by producing actual journalism.”
I think Rosen’s experience with First Look Media and some NYU projects gives him actual journalism experience that brings useful insights. But I value his distance from the entrenched culture of news organizations. Without the emotional attachments that come with experience, he has studied news organizations closely and is able to identify issues more clearly than insiders and discuss them more bluntly.
I dealt with Rosen directly in my times at the Cedar Rapids Gazette, TBD and Digital First Media. He studied each of our organizations carefully, learning from our successes and mistakes, and providing helpful advice and observations. I can think of few journalism academics who have more insight to offer to news organizations.
Elaborating on the points above:
Understand the business model
Nolan couldn’t be more wrong in dismissing understanding of the business model as just a nice piece of knowledge to have, like understanding evolution or hip-hop music. Journalists are smart and creative people who, as Jay noted, have not had a “seat at the table when the key decisions were made.”
Journalists who understand how they provide value and how the company plans to make money from that value can help their organization and their career both by providing more value and by contributing ideas for making more money. For instance, I think ideas like my suggestion of commissioned obituaries (which hasn’t caught on anywhere yet, but I am certain it can work) are more likely to come from journalists than from our sales colleagues. From niche products that expand revenue opportunities in the existing model to bold experiments that seek to expand the model, journalists should join the discussions of how to build a prosperous future.
I’ve warned that I think paywalls are not a productive business model for most local news organizations. But most are following that path and I wish them well. If your organization is charging subscriptions, you need to understand that and you need to provide content of distinct value, rather than commodity-type stories that readers can find anywhere for free.
Nolan’s blithe dismissal of Rosen’s urging that understanding the business model is a journalist’s job is flippant: “The reporter’s job is to report and write stories,” he says, ignoring the thousands of reporters who have been laid off despite reporting and writing stories well. I’m not saying that getting involved in building a better business model will save your job (check my track record). But I’d rather go down fighting to save the business than wishing it would save my job.
Rosen and Nolan talked mostly about the business model. I might refer to is more as the business path or strategy. However you want to call it, you should definitely seek to understand it and be concerned about you or the business if you can’t.
Business models change
Understanding the business model or path or strategy is not something you achieve. It is something you pursue. Once you think you have achieved it, it might change again. It may change in a brilliant way, reacting to a new challenge or opportunity or perhaps following a successful experiment. It may change in an awful way, because the company gave up on an idea too soon, lacked the commitment to carry through with a project or decided to sell or decided the value you were creating is no longer what it wants to sell.
You can think you work for a company that’s following a smart business path, and think you’re in top-level discussions, and think your bosses are being transparent and think you understand. But still you might learn that someone even higher decided the company needs to head in a different direction. At the very least, your pursuit of understanding starts all over again.
Colleagues need to understand
I spend a lot of time exhorting journalists to update and innovate, and we need to do more and better. But our colleagues in sales, customer service, product development and technology need to understand the full business path as well, including the value you create, the best user experience for that product and the best opportunities for making money from the value you provide.
We haven’t been innovative enough at developing broader revenue bases, and we need to get better. Most news organizations remain too dependent on the traditional revenue streams of advertising and subscriptions. You need to lead and contribute to discussions and experiments with new sources of revenue.
We can protect our integrity
The traditional “separation of church and state” between the business and editorial operations, which Rosen addresses, grew out of valid concerns about protecting the integrity of the news and editorial content. We can and should still protect the integrity, but we can and should join discussions about the business strategy and business experiments.
As I told my publisher when I was editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, I thought it was essential for me to contribute to decisions about the how of making money, but avoid involvement in the who.
And I remember clearly Michael Gartner, when he was president of the Des Moines Register and Tribune Company in the 1980s, telling a sales colleague that all he had to sell to businesses was access to an audience that trusted our newspaper. Trust in a product is as essential today as it was then, and I think colleagues throughout the news organization need to discuss and protect the trust as we experiment with our business path.
Learn the language
Journalists can be scornful of buzzwords. But we’ve always learned and adopted our own language: pica poles, bulldog editions and 8-heds. We learn the jargon of the beats we cover. We specialize in language and use it artfully in our storytelling and commentary. We can and need to learn and understand the language of change. Nolan’s dismissive suggestion that you can Google the terminology or even email him and he’ll explain it to you was silly and demeaning.
The journalists who are scornful of buzzwords are perfectly capable of learning them. The problem isn’t inability to learn, but refusal. And you shouldn’t learn them by Googling or emailing Nolan, either of which might deliver an unhelpful or even inaccurate explanation, at least of how a term is being used in your organization and how it relates to your strategy.
Learn the language in conversation with your colleagues. Because you should and you always have.
Leaders are critical to change
Rosen makes excellent points about the importance of the editor in leading change in a news organization and in negotiating the business path with other leaders in the organization:
There can never be a situation where The Editor doesn’t know what the business model is, doesn’t accept it as appropriate and doable, or can’t articulate it.
The editor can’t make the change happen single-handedly. But key leaders, such as the editor, publisher, product manager, sales manager and CEO, are critical to leading change. They can rally or discourage the troops.They can support or sabotage. They can clarify or confuse the vision and the mission.
A powerful leader can be worth sticking around for, someone you want to help work through the changes and experiments in the business path. A leader who was great in the legacy model but lacks competence, confidence or enthusiasm in pursuing the new strategy is a serious cause for concern. A leader you don’t trust is a crisis.
It’s worth changing jobs
Rosen sort of dramatically stated “you should quit” if you can’t understand your organization’s business model. I don’t think he meant, and I wouldn’t endorse, walking into the boss’s office and quitting abruptly just because you can’t understand. Try to understand and try to help your organization clarify or focus a muddled or conflicting strategy. But if your efforts to understand are thwarted, either because the operation is so screwed up that it defies understanding or because bosses won’t let you learn, I would start exploring other options.
I need my paycheck and you probably do, too. I admire colleagues who have quit on such principles. I would encourage searching, then quitting when you’re ready to make your next move.
My last five job changes all involved — to varying degrees and in varying ways — the organization’s business path, either my concern for where it was headed, a change in the course that I didn’t like or a change in course that left me no choice. The moves didn’t always work out well for the long term. But I don’t regret any of them. It was time to go and I moved on to good opportunities.
I am happy for colleagues who have enjoyed long and happy tenures in the same place. But I also have known many colleagues who stayed too long where they were miserable, and failure to understand the business path and how they provided value was always at the heart of their misery or at least a significant part.
Following up on the previous point, a visionary leader can be a reason to stay with an organization longer than you otherwise might (and that has contributed to my turning down an opportunity to leave). And an ineffective or untrustworthy leader can hasten a departure (and has for me).
But I caution against moving to a new organization solely because of its leader. Look at the ownership situation, the business path and the progress the organization is making. Leaders come and go, and you want a new organization whose strength goes deeper than one person.
Rosen provides an excellent list of points — better than I have here — for journalists to consider about our organizations. I suggest you read the comments as well. Jay and several readers have excellent discussions there. Go ahead and read the Nolan piece, too. He makes some valid points, except when he tells you not to listen to Jay Rosen.
Note: I’ll invite response from Rosen and Nolan and update if they respond.