Business and Journalism

In my Principles and History of Journalism class today the guest lecturer was Professor Tim McGuire, the Frank Russell Chair for the Business of Journalism at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Prof. McGuire also teaches Business and Journalism classes and Ethics classes. Before retiring in 2002, Prof. McGuire worked for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and wrote a syndicated column for United Media called More than Work. Prof. McGuire holds many honors, including being a Pulitzer jurist six times. To say the least, Professor McGuire is an authority on journalism.

Prof. McGuire didn’t waste time getting down to the root of the problem festering in the open wounds of modern journalism. Where is the money? Where are the jobs? What are skilled journalists to do? How will journalism retain its integrity in this new world dominated by the World Wide Web? How will the truth and beauty of journalism survive the fight between Old and New?

Prof. McGuire showed this video to the class and afterward he asked what the conclusion meant. The answer? No one has the money! The Old Model doesn’t have any money, the New Model doesn’t have the money – no one does. Mainstream media is under assault and it isn’t going to be remedied by newspapers merely creating an online version of their tangible paper. The central problem for Old Model media is that advertising has been decoupled from news. Now people can have their news and eat it too, whenever and wherever…without the pesky advertisements.

The Old Model media advertising business long had a monkey on its back. This nagging, yet accepted as unavoidable, problem was that advertisers had to pay for the whole audience, not just the audience that would buy their products. So if an advertiser in a local newspaper paid for 1,000 eyeballs, they accepted that maybe half would actually buy what was advertised. This was just the way it worked.

So what changed? The ability to direct advertising at people who are highly likely to buy the product, otherwise known as ‘Specificity.’ This means that car advertisements are placed on websites about cars, sports equipment advertisements are at ESPN, and an ad for ASU phone covers shows up on the side of my Facebook profile because I go to ASU. Now advertisers, when using the web, are able to pay only for the eyeballs that are more likely to buy their products. “Hurray!” shouts the advertisers, while newspapers and other Old Model media outlets groan and say “I guess we should figure out this online thing.”

This is where I say, in my heart of hearts, I miss the Old Model media. Part of me longs for the journalism of Woodward and Bernstein, Robert Novak, or Walter Cronkite. The image from the movie All the President’s Men where Woodward and Bernstein sit in the library going through hundreds of pieces of paper is strangely attractive to me, it seems more real than the Google search I would do today. And then I shake my head and return to reality.

Prof. McGuire said, in his no-nonsense, cut the crap way, “You want to be a journalist. Who the heck’s going to pay you?!” He stressed that what needs to be on the top priority of young journalists’ minds is the question, “What mechanisms are going to be in place to allow you [the journalist] to be a journalist and be paid?” The answer is daunting, and yet exciting at the same time. The answer is we, the next generation of journalists, need to invent the new platforms from which to continue the legacy of independent, reliable, accurate, and comprehensive journalism.

Today the audience sits on a grand throne, demanding news 24/7. Journalists have largely been relegated to stumbling along, trying their best to appease the expectations of the audience. Prof. McGuire described this as the Push/Pull issue: Journalists no longer push news on the audience, rather, the audience decides when and how it wants to pull its news from the journalist. This leads to sub par journalism and regurgitation of old stories just so there can be something ‘new’ for the audience every five minutes.

A lot of this can seem unnerving to the student sitting in his or her JMC110 class, who just wants to be a good journalist…and get a job after graduating. Never fear. This isn’t a tale of despair, instead it is one of hope. I asked Prof. McGuire after class what would be his advice for me and other young journalists. What should we do in this Old vs. New world? His main point is that we need to become New Journalists. Learn how to do everything, from writing a news report, to shooting and editing video, to creating a website. Don’t disregard the old, learn its history – its triumphs and failures. Know from where you come as a journalist, and at the same time embrace this newness. The face of journalism is changing, its visage is still clouded by contention and confusion. The task that faces New Journalists is to clarify the face of journalism, revamp it and build it up to its full potential. The future of journalism is now, and now is the time to learn the craft and make it our own.

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