The Dirty Words Journalists Have to Say Without Blushing

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The following text is a translation from the Spanish version of a lecture James Breiner gave at the University of La Sabana in Bogotá, Colombia, on August 22.

Journalists today have the opportunity to create the future of the industry. But to do so, we have to change some of our long-held beliefs and attitudes. We have to create new business models (Oh, those awful words!) and learn to say some words without blushing.

This need to change comes about because of the nature of our profession, which for most is a vocation. As journalists we have to keep our distance from political and business interests to maintain our credibility. Still, as a group we can be arrogant, self-righteous and holier-than-thou (I include myself in this criticism). We tend to view ourselves as high priests of an exclusive profession and bearers of a special ethical standard that few others can live up to. We see ourselves as purer, more objective, less affected by the prejudices of the mere mortals we cover.

That is at least part of the reason we have trouble in the new world of entrepreneurial journalism, where we can start and run our own news operations. If we want to go out on our own, we have to recognize for the first time that journalism is a business and that someone has to pay the bills. All of this involves getting our hands on the first dirty word: money.

1. Money.

The very word makes us cringe because we associate it with dirty things like influence peddling, lobbyists, bribery, corruption and other topics of our investigative journalism.

But money is the fuel that drives any journalism organization. Without money, journalists can’t be paid a decent salary. They can’t buy a house, clothing, food, medicine. Without salaries for talented, experienced people, there is no high-quality journalism.

I like the thoughts on this topic from the excellent entrepreneurial journalist Ignacio Escolar, founder of the Spanish investigative news site eldiario.es. In just six years, this independent site has achieved major impact with its revelations of corruption at the highest levels of government, the financial sector and even higher education.

Video interview of Ignacio Escolar in Spanish with English subtitles. 

Escolar says that journalism is not a business but rather a public service; still, it is a public service that has to be profitable. His publication has grown to generate $5 million in annual revenues and has a newsroom staff of 66 journalists, a result of sound management (the results, with graphics, in Spanish).

That brings us to our next dirty word . . .

2. Business. Journalism is a business.

Yes, it’s a public service, and it’s also a business. If it weren’t a business, journalists would not be able to collect a paycheck. Now that journalists are launching startups, they are waking up to the fact that they need to acquire some basic business skills if they want to survive and thrive. Journalism schools are offering more courses in how to launch and run a startup. There are also many courses online.

But no startup will survive without having people skilled in technology and business as well as journalism.

Recommendation: Start your own news business, do it online at low cost and create something that serves your community.

3. Marketing.

This is the discipline of identifying needs and problems of a community, creating a product to serve that community, and communicating compelling messages about the product to that community. Marketing helps us reach and serve more people and serve them better.

Careful: we are not talking about an “audience,” which is merely a collection of eyeballs, but a community that shares values, interests, aspirations, institutions, passions and often a geography.

For the last half-century or so, we journalists have lived in a bubble, isolated from readers by a Chinese wall between the newsroom and the business side. We didn’t really know for sure who was reading our articles or why. We didn’t have to. Newspapers and broadcast media had a monopoly and were extremely profitable.

Some of us assumed that the public had a civic responsibility to read our stories, and we gave too little attention to making our work readable and relevant to the daily lives of the community. Too often we wrote to impress each other, our competitors or the small world of our sources.

But today, with so much competition, no one is paying attention to our boring columns about the inside baseball of party politics. The public has voted with their feet and abandoned the media that don’t offer news that is relevant to their daily lives. 

These days the journalists and marketing-sales people of a publication have to share ideas about how to make the content relevant to the community they serve and how to use the preferred channels of the community to interact with them.

Tools like Google Analytics offer a statistical basis for getting to know the community better. You have to identify loyal users, who are the most likely to pay for products and services, and you measure loyalty by how often users visit your site, how much time they spend, which contents they prefer, where they live, what channels they use to access the site, etc. These metrics of loyalty and engagement are more important than total users and page views.

This dirty word — marketing — means to listen to the community, to understand their needs and aspirations, to treat them with respect and to find ways to serve them. Which brings us to the next dirty word . . .

4. Customer (reader, user, viewer, listener).

We don’t like to think of our readers and users as “customers” but that is what they are. They are the people who presumably benefit from consuming our product. They are the most important customers of the organization, more important than any advertiser or sponsor. Some news organizations prefer to call them “partners,” “members,” “friends” or some other term that suggests a relationship that goes deeper than an economic transaction.

Our customers use the information in the publication to make informed decisions about the most important issues in their daily lives regarding health care, education, entertainment, housing, the environment, small business, technology, computer games and an infinite number of possibilities in niche publications.

We tend to think of our users in the abstract, but now, with the rise of social media, we have tools to interact with the audience and discover what is really important to them. We can take advantage of their knowledge to improve our articles and connect with them. That connection is the basis of a sound customer relationship.

Recommendation: Get down from the pulpit and interact with your community, have a conversation with them in the places they prefer, which might be in social media. 

5. Advertiser, sponsor.

These are the people who buy advertising or sponsorships from the news enterprise. The best clients are the ones who understand the rules of the game, namely that buying a sponsorship or an advertisement does not give them a voice in the editorial product.

To avoid conflicts, my advice is to lay out the publication’s ethical principles in the client contract. Perhaps something like this: “Because our product’s value to readers and sponsors depends on its credibility, we will not allow any client to compromise that credibility by having an undeserved or undue influence on the editorial product.” 

At the same time, a news organization will have to be more transparent than in the past and be more open with the public about editorial processes and how editorial decisions are made. That enhances credibility, the most important economic asset of the publication.

Moving on to the next dirty word . . .

6. Profits.

For journalists, the adjective “obscene” is often applied to “profits”: obscene profits. But even nonprofit news organizations have to take in more than they spend. If you are not generating enough revenue, you can’t pay salaries, web hosting, utilities, transportation, rent; you can’t buy good computers, software and telephones for your staff.

Entrepreneurial journalists need to learn the discipline of controlling costs to produce profits, because those profits can be used to improve the product. Profits are not obscene when they are justly and fairly earned.

Recommendation: Learn some basic accrual accounting and the basics of cash flow. Even former English majors can do it. 

Which brings us to perhaps the ugliest word for journalists . . .

7. Monetize.

We cringe when we hear it. It sounds so dirty when associated with our ethically produced products. But what it really means is to capture the value of our credibility, of the trust our community has in our work, of the relevance of our work, of the public service we provide.

Nothing dirty in that.

Good journalism is good business.

If you start your own news business, you eventually will have to tell an advertiser-sponsor, No.

When I was editor of Business First of Columbus, our paper did an investigative story about a bank’s behind-the-scenes manipulations to get the state to take over a failed office project. The stories scuttled the deal and caused the bank, our biggest advertiser, to cancel its contract.

The reaction of my boss, publisher Carole Williams, to the canceled contract gave me words to live by. The lost revenue would hurt us in the short run, she said, but would not result in cutbacks at the paper.  We had other advertisers. Investigative stories strengthened our credibility and made advertisers want to be associated with us, she said. In other words, good journalism was good business. In turn, profitability safeguarded our editorial independence.

Right now, good journalism is not always good business because the profession and the industry (they seem to be less related these days) are struggling to redefine themselves. However, I am confident that journalists can add some new words to their vocabulary and not feel squeamish about using them. The entrepreneurial journalists who learn how to make a business out of producing news and information will be the ones who redefine the profession and the industry. And it won’t make them blush to make a profit.


This post first appeared on James Breiner’s blog and is cross-posted here with permission.

James Breiner is a digital media consultant, bilingual in Spanish and English. He specializes in journalism innovation, entrepreneurship and multimedia. He has done consulting and teaching in more than a dozen countries in Europe, Asia and the Americas. He is currently visiting professor of communication at the University of Navarra in Spain.

One thought on “The Dirty Words Journalists Have to Say Without Blushing

  1. This publication is quite enriching. I am an upcoming practicing journalist with keen interest in developmental issues such as poverty,diseases, water sanitation and environment, health and corruption which are common social malaise in Africa. I come from Nigeria. I am interested in partnership with you in order to enhance my performance and strengthen my career by way of trainings and fellowships . Thank you.

    Chris Nyamtu

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