It may be noble, but it’s no profession.
Even at Northwestern’s Medill School, where I received a year of training before being tossed into the world in 1978, I knew different. It’s a trade, the teachers told me there. They insisted I not call them “professor.” Journalism is a job. It’s writing for someone who buys ink by the barrel.
The problem with the journalism business is that it’s still locked in that mindset. Even after the print business is long dead, journalism is still measured by advertising linked to dead trees. There’s a reason for this. The business refused to adapt.
When people began seeking information online, a quarter century ago, journalism did not come along for the ride. I feel the blame. I knew then, after a decade covering the Internet, just how we should move forward, and I wrote about it. I asked publishers, “How hungry are you,” suggesting they seek commission income from business partners rather than selling billboards.
No one listened.
That’s not exactly true. Red Ventures doesn’t claim to be involved in journalism. According to their web site it’s “a portfolio of brands and digital platforms that improves every aspect of the consumer journey, helping people make better decisions while unleashing transformative growth for our businesses and partners.”
That’s word salad.
Red Ventures does content, but only as a byproduct of its real business, which is helping people sell stuff. That means building decision engines that lead readers to buying from “strategic partners.”
Does this sound unethical? It’s not. It’s journalism. The business of journalism is to organize and advocate a place, an industry, or a lifestyle. Aggregate an audience around something it cares about, then use that credibility to sell them relevant products and services.
Red Ventures listened to my Clues in the late 1990s. It’s now the journalism business.
Founder Ric Elias survived the flight of US Air 1549 , the plane Sully Sullenberger landed in the Hudson River back in 2009. The story was told in the 2016 movie “Sully,” starring Tom Hanks, directed by Clint Eastwood.
The reason I mention this is because Red Ventures has just bought C|Net. I interviewed to be executive editor of their site in 1995. A decade later I spent 5 years at their ZDNet site, blogging about open source and health IT. It was my last job in tech journalism. I was fired 10 years ago this month.
The editors had no clue about the advertising side of the house. They thought they were big swinging dicks in the tech industry.
Red Ventures knows better. To Ric Elias, content is the glossy front-end of a circus tent. Inside is all marketing. And you know what? That’s what the Houston Business Journal, the first paper I worked for back in 1978, was too. That’s what Houston City Magazine was earlier that year, what Interactive Age was in 1994, what the Chicago Tribune was in 1997, what ZDNet was in 2005, and what InvestorPlace is today. The only difference between them and Red Ventures is the sophistication of the tools meant to separate you from your money.
Red Ventures is based in Charlotte, not New York. My first employer, Bob Gray, was based in Houston, and eventually sold his four business papers to Scripps Howard out of Cincinnati. This is a good thing. News may happen in New York, Washington, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, but the only way to get above that news, and serve commerce, is to be somewhere else.
If you don’t have a functioning business model, like Red Ventures, the only way for you to survive in journalism is through patronage. This has always been the business model for political journalism. It’s been that way since Thomas Jefferson hired James Callender to spin against John Adams. Sean Hannity has more in common with the founders than Rachel Maddow does. He’s doing journalism as it was done in the 1790s. She’s doing it as it was done by Joseph Pulitzer starting in the 1870s, after crime made the business big enough to be its own patron for a while.
Aggregating an audience, holding them for an advertiser, then using that attention to sell them stuff. That’s all journalism is. That’s all it ever was. When it’s against the business model for a story to be told, it isn’t told.
Flash back 40 years. I was a young hotshot at the HBJ, which is what we called the business paper. I got the story of how political interests were carving up the city for cable service. I saw the map. I had permission to print it. I had it all, exclusive.
We printed the story. But my editor spun it as an honest business deal among honest men, not as what it was, a giant payoff to politicians by rapacious cable operators. That’s the way the business worked. Years later, after the ownership changed, I visited the office and my editor apologized, showing me off to his new crew as an example to be looked up to. I appreciated that, but I would have rather had the Pulitzer.
Since then, my journalism career has been done at the margins of the news. I have been fired from every job I ever had, except (so far) the current one. I have learned that the editor is always right, that the editor works for the publisher, and that if they don’t want to hear something I shut up. If I don’t like what they’re telling me, I can quit. Or I can tell the story on my own dime, not for money but for the satisfaction of telling it.
Journalism isn’t a profession. It’s not even a trade. It’s a business. It’s a market-making function. When journalism can’t make money, it survives on the patronage of those it’s covering.
Those of us who engage in this trade should understand that and accept it. Back at Northwestern, the first lecture we got, in September of 1977, was from the late George Heitz. He demanded we come to the front of the room, told us we were witnesses to history, and said that Northwestern had a business school around the corner.
“If you want to make money, go there,” he said.
I should have gone to Kellogg. I knew that when he said it. But I’ve had a lot of fun doing what I do and wouldn’t trade this life for anything.