The tale of the broken car: why working harder won’t save the journalism industry

Let’s talk today about what will not fix the journalism business model — working harder.

First, let me just say this: After being in newsrooms now for 17 years and after serving on the boards of directors for two nonprofit media organizations, I can assure you, journalists are a hard working group. I have yet to meet a truly lazy reporter.

Sure, we have all had our moments where we didn’t check that one last detail, or where we just had to blow off the rest of the afternoon. But truly lazy reporters don’t make it through two years in a professional newsroom.

I can’t think of a single time in my life when I have looked out into a room full of reporters and said to myself, “you know what’s wrong — it’s that we just don’t work hard enough.”

American journalists are already working hard — I would contend that they are being overworked. So, let me go on the record right now and say this once and for all — to save our industry we do NOT need to work harder, and we do NOT just need to do more.

We are dealing with a systemic breakdown in the news industry. No amount of working harder or doing more will fix this. Why? Well, let’s play a little imagination game here for a second.

Imagine that you are driving down the road and your car starts sputtering. It finally gives out and you are stuck on the side of the highway and your car won’t go anymore. What do you do? Well, you could try harder and do more of what you had been doing – push that gas pedal to the floor … I bet the car still won’t go anywhere.

To be sure, you could work harder and get that car moving again. Don’t believe me? Go ahead, just hop out and start pushing. The harder you push, the faster it will go. But is that the best solution? I think not.

The better solution would be to figure out what went wrong with the system and address that. But when you haven’t been in the habit of thinking your system could fail, you also don’t get in the habit of evaluating that system critically.

In the case of the news industry, we have been fat, enjoying an industry monopoly for a half century, and we began to believe our own myth: “we do things right, and everyone else just needs to appreciate us.”

In the case of our car, we need to figure out if it needs more gas or needs a new engine, or maybe something went wrong in an internal system we know nothing about. Interestingly, the same is true of our industry.

What neither situation needs is for someone to simply to work harder.

And that’s where we are right now. Ad revenues have sputtered and are now failing to make the industry go anymore. What has the news industry’s solution been? It has been to ask journalists to work harder, post more content to our websites, work longer hours to cover every shift and posting on weekends, all while trying to eek out another 10 cents per thousand page views.

We pushed the gas pedal to the floor, and when that didn’t work, we hopped out and we pushed.

Instead we need to be looking at the engines and the fuels that will get us moving again. Ad revenues are a piece, but they aren’t the whole. Subscriptions are nice, but they don’t translate well to the web (though hats off to everyone trying out pay walls. I’m in your corner. Don’t get me started on the whole “information wants to be free” debate. That is a post all in itself.)

We need systemic solutions.

As best as I can find, there are four possible revenue sources for media companies. Period. Advertising and subscriptions are great. But we need to be looking for other ways to support the industry.

More on that later.

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About mdgiusti

Michael Giusti is a journalist and educator. He is the Adviser and Chief Administrative Officer for the Loyola Student Media, which publishes the nationally award-winning Maroon newspaper. He has 20 years experience as a professional journalist and has worked in daily newsrooms, weekly business journals and as a freelancer for national and international publications. He holds an MBA and is passionate about media business models.
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6 Responses to The tale of the broken car: why working harder won’t save the journalism industry

  1. Pingback: In newsrooms, failure is often caused by faulty systems, not people | Journalism Ink

  2. Thad says:

    Great points that hold true in the world of trades, at least going by my experience.

    We are making the slow move toward focusing ever more on our proprietary data/research–especially since we don’t have our conferences anymore–and I wonder how that will work out. I am optimistic, hopeful and excited about this shift, but it’s certainly not painless. One of our big challenges is figuring out how much to chase the news already out there–and you certainly can’t ignore it–and when to pull back, slow down and focus on what we potentially can do better than what one finds via Google News, other trades and other outlets.

    We’ve figured out how to work harder. It’s not hard to work harder. I am not sure we’ve figured out how to work smarter, to shamelessly cop a slogan from a retail chain that employed years ago.

    Right now we are like everyone else: Let’s do the fast news. Let’s do the deep analysis. Let’s spread our wings wider and wider and do it all and not miss anything. I fear trying to do it all is unsustainable and perhaps self-defeating unless one has the deep resources of, say, a Bloomberg or Dow Jones. But I am not sure what the new balance will, or should, be.

    • mdgiusti says:

      I hear you man. We are certainly on the same page. The way I teach it here in my newsroom is that you need to break the news into two categories: commodity and value. But figuring out what that means in practice and how to allocate your resources appropriately — now that’s the trick, isn’t it?

      • Thad says:

        Indeed. And we have pretty smart people here trying to figure out–and some of those people come from more traditional backgrounds in journalism, which means those strong values are being used in determining where we are going. But I worry we won’t be able to set the needed priorities (though, to be fair, we’ve gotten a lot better at that in 2013 simply because of manpower realities). But that old newspaper mentality, as attractive as it is, also often calls for chasing all the news all the time, and that’s a hard habit to tweak in this brave new world.

  3. markpoepsel says:

    Mike, this is a great post. I want to play devil’s advocate and argue that learning to think critically about the system and learning to figure out, to continue the metaphor, how engines work IS working harder. I guess I’m seeking clarification that simply working harder WITHIN the structure isn’t going to help you, but working really really hard is important, and that might mean advocating for stopping doing some of the other tasks journalists are given every day.

    • mdgiusti says:

      The distinction I am drawing is that examining your system is working *differently* … sure analysis is hard work. It should be built into the process, and not on top of the process. I interviewed a source last week who summed it up well. He said “we can do anything, but we can’t do everything.”

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