Friday, December 26, 2014

Journalism and election campaigns display similar hangups

Media professor and gadfly Jay Rosen has put up an interesting post at PressThink about the understanding that anyone going into journalism had better be prepared to cultivate about the business models that technological and social changes are forcing on their profession.

Journalistic enterprises are all struggling to replace the system in which advertisers with few choices for reaching their target customers paid for content -- both "popular" and "serious" -- that would attract the readers and viewers they wanted to reach. The creators of the content, the journalists, proudly disdained the activity of the "business side" of a metaphorical wall where the money grubbers scrambled to fund the journalists' noble undertaking. (Very likely nothing truly this smoothly functioning ever quite existed, but the myth commanded allegiance nonetheless.)

This model no longer pays the bills because advertisers don't have to buy "content" that is more or less irrelevant to their market needs, such as, for example, local election news or investigative reporting that rattles any cages. They might be happier with nothing but weather and sports. And, indeed, as online media proliferate, advertising revenue will no longer be enough to pay for journalism as we have thought of it. Rosen insists that journalists can, and must, think differently in this difficult environment while retaining their professional integrity:

  • If you work in any kind of editorial organization, it is your job to understand the business model. If you feel you can’t do that, you should quit. By “understand the business model,” I mean you can (confidently) answer this question: What is the plan to bring in enough money to sustain the enterprise and permit it to grow? Can’t answer? You have the wrong job.
  • The business model is not the business only of the business “side” (a wretched metaphor) because a vital part of any such model is the way in which the editorial staff creates value, earns audience, wins mind share, generates influence, builds brand. These are the sorts of goods a good sales staff sells. It’s your job to understand the business model, because you have to know what kind of good you’re being asked to create, or you won’t be any good at creating it.
  • The Editor has to come to a clear agreement with the publisher and commercial staff on: a.) what the business model is, meaning: how are we going to sustain ourselves and grow? b.) exactly how -- in that model -- the editorial team creates value for the business, and c.) the zone of independence the editorial team will need to meet those expectations. ... Every successful publication that does journalism operates with a kind of contract between The Editor and the people who own the joint. (Unless they’re the same people.) If the contract is unclear, if different people have different ideas about what it says, if the staff doesn’t understand it, then neuroses will set in. The result will be an unhappy place to work.
  • If you work on the commercial “side” (misleading image) of an editorial company and you cannot explain the kind of value the journalists have to add for the business model to click on all cylinders, or if you see them as merely an expense item -- and a whiny, entitled one at that — then you too are in the wrong job. Please leave as soon as possible

Rosen enumerates some ideas for how such a media organization might work in another post.

I was struck by these points because they seemed so familiar. In my work on political campaigns, the same willful misunderstandings that Rosen calls out in journalism play out far too often. This is counter-intuitive. Campaigns are almost always topdown, disciplined structures with little pretense of collegiality. Anything legal goes; the ethical standard is a bald utilitarianism, with little pretense of any higher values. But nonetheless, something like what Rosen describes in journalism goes on in too many campaigns:
  • Message mavens, ad creators and organizers like to assume it's up to the fundraisers to find the cash to pay for their plans. Campaigns even contract out the fundraising function to separate operatives. Separation here is nuts. Your campaign plan, how you aim to win, is your pitch, at least in part.
  • Everybody in the campaign needs to be able to explain both message (why people should vote for your candidate or initiative) and why as many people as possible should contribute money so the campaign can execute its (excellent) plan. If fundraising is thought of as an esoteric (and slightly dirty) afterthought, this won't happen.
  • Strong campaign managers model the unity between voter contact initiatives (online media, ads, and knock-on-door field programs) and raising cash to pay for all of it.
  • Fundraisers shouldn't squirrel away their contacts from those scruffy field operatives. People with money aren't just pots of cash; they have friends and social networks too that need to be touched by the campaign. They should be drawn as much as possible into campaign activities. Even if they are unwilling, asking their participation for more than their cash reassures them that the campaign is working toward its goal.

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