Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron created a stir in the newsiverse last year when he said newsrooms shouldn’t “labor in isolation from the business operations” and that journalists could engage their business colleagues without endangering “our principles of independent and honest coverage.”
Few among the 39 news leaders we spoke to in 31 media companies would have disagreed with the Post’s editor.
Asked whether their journalists “need to understand the business side of your organization better in order to work more directly with units focused on events, sponsorship/advertising, subscriptions or membership,” two-thirds answered “yes” (25 of 39, or 64 percent). And in their open-ended explanations, about half of those who said “no” explained that understanding aspects of the business side were important to at least some people in their newsroom — especially issues related to market, audience and product.
“Journalists need to understand the business side of things in order to help our business colleagues find and create things that can generate money yet align with our editorial sensibilities,” said Ron Smith, deputy managing editor for daily news and production at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, who was among those who answered “yes” to our business question.
Scott Montgomery, NPR’s managing editor for digital news, said no, he did not think the newsroom “needs to work more directly with units that touch events and sponsorship.” But, he added, “I do think our journalists need to understand our business and our place in the competitive landscape. We need more clear-eyed realism about our challenges and what we need to prosper in the market place.”
Overall, the answers were as definitive among those who worked non-commercial, nonprofit media (9 of 15, or 60 percent) as they were among those who worked in commercial, for-profit news companies (16 of 24, or 67 percent).
“Our mission is our business model,” said Scott Lewis, CEO and editor-in-chief for the nonprofit news site Voice of San Diego. News people “can’t think of self promotion as separate from their duties as journalists. It’s their product.”
For the news leaders we questioned, this was not a lofty, philosophical topic. This was a concrete discussion about the kinds of roles and know-how their organizations need on staff.
Asked about positions “that didn’t exist in your news organization previously,” people told us about newly created roles for a grants manager at Texas Tribune and an operations manager “to help with business growth” at the Gimlet Media podcasting service. Boston public radio station WBUR-FM hired an executive director for its Public Radio Business Lab, a role funded by the Knight Foundation. And National Geographic created a “Director of Content Initiatives” to serve as a “liaison between the digital content staff and the advertising and sponsorship unit to help with better digital advertising and sponsorship integration.”
We also found business responsibilities embedded in many job postings. WBUR, for instance, was seeking an associate producer to its iLab program incubator — a position that required a person who could “participate in marketing activities to identify and build audience for new programming efforts, including on-air promotion, social media campaigns and live events.”
At U.S. News & World Report, an opening for News Editor/Project Manager (an interesting title in and of itself) required applicants who would “work well as part of a team that includes both editorial and non-editorial personnel.”
When the nonprofit Religion News Service was hiring a new editor-in-chief, it sought a journalist who could work “with the business and technology staff on audience growth initiatives, subscriber relations, marketing and sales leads, and new product development.”
Likewise, the executive editor at the nonprofit Oklahoma Watch, an investigative news site based in Norman, Oklahoma, was hiring a chief operating officer to “increase fundraising and earned revenue and expand marketing and outreach” and “help draw up a multi-year business plan.”
For many news organizations, managing the “business side” is a management responsibility. Our questionnaire specifically asked participating organizations if management skills (which we defined in part as “process, people and decision-making, budgets”) was a hiring priority for the coming year. Only a quarter said it was (8 of 31, or 26 percent).
However, the open-ended questions in our survey and follow-up interviews told us a somewhat different story. As one senior media executive bluntly put it, “No existing managers in my organizations have the skills to teach or develop beyond basic levels in my two most needed areas.”
Another editor recalled arriving at a new company in the preceding year to find an organization where many of the newsroom’s middle managers needed “a lot of training” — front-end editing, having difficult conversations, productive critiquing. “A lot of basic management wasn’t there,” this editor confided, asking to speak anonymously for obvious reasons.
One of the most significant management challenges we heard about was leading the newsroom overhauls that market changes require. But many of the leaders we spoke to saw this more as a training issue than a recruiting issue — which may explain why management skills did not show up as prominently in the answers to our questions about hiring priorities.
“I think every organization needs training in leadership and conflict management,” said Smith of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “Why? Change can’t happen without strong leaders and any change will involve conflict that a good leader must be able to manage.”
NPR Visuals Editor Brian Boyer, who moved to journalism in 2009 after spending seven years working in the software business, has been mystified by the lack of basic management skills and practices in his new industry: “Goal-setting and measurement. Analytics. Evidence-driven decision making. Organizational health. Being a good manager. Working as one big team, not many competing fiefdoms. Seriously. There are great books on this stuff. People need to … read them.”
Self-reflective news leaders saw the need for more of these kinds of skills in themselves. “Our senior team needs training, too, including me,” said Chalkbeat CEO Elizabeth Green, adding: “I repeatedly fantasize about spending time following [people in] key new roles at better financed news organizations. A day with the audience development team at BuzzFeed. A day with the product team at Vox. A day with the metrics team at Upworthy. I also fantasize about looking at multiple news organizations’ org charts side-by-side — and also in a chronological view so I can understand how they have evolved over time and where they are going as I define our own org chart.”
Two other inter-connected factors may be driving the appetite for management training: evolving business strategies and related turnover, especially in top newsroom positions. We saw this in action during the research for this report. In one case, National Geographic, the company changed its entire business model, merging its nonprofit print and digital arms with its for-profit broadcast unit in an expanded partnership with 20th Century Fox (a move that occurred after our survey and follow-up interviews were completed, which is why we are still counted its answers among our non-profit media companies in this report).
In fact, of the media executives and news leaders at 31 organizations who answered our questionnaire, a third had taken on their current position in the previous year, moved up or left their company the months immediately after they responded. If that amount of change in a little more than a year is at all representative of the industry as a whole, management is another superpower — even if it is not a hiring priority
At the end of our questionnaire, we asked a classic journalism question: “What did we miss?” Eight people from seven organizations said something about leadership or management training. But only one of those people had also selected “management” as one of their top five-to-10 hiring priorities. If we’d combined all of those answers (from 15 of 31 organizations), we might be able to think of management as a newsroom need at nearly the same level as, say, product ownership/development. But the distinction between training and hiring priorities seems to matter in this case: Most newsrooms aren’t looking for more management. But in many cases, they need better management..
A majority of news leaders told us they thought journalists needed to have a better sense of their organizations’ business realities — either to understand the markets they are competing in or to play a direct role in generating editorially sound ideas for keeping their newsrooms open.
John Drescher, executive editor, The News & Observer:
“We have created new print and digital products and found underwriters for those new products. In the newsroom, we have more of an entrepreneurial spirit than we once had. I’d like to expand that. It’s vital that newsrooms and ad staffs work together to develop new products and create more opportunities for advertisers. Newsrooms must maintain the final say on the journalism but newsrooms have to communicate with ad staffs and listen to their ideas.”
Greg Borowski, deputy managing editor, projects, investigations and digital innovation, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
“The days of isolation are long gone. This does not mean an ethics-breaching things, but a strong understanding of the needs on the business side is increasingly vital. I always frame it as our readers (and viewers) are the audience for advertisers. If we are creating content, for instance, that the advertising department may be able to sell, but doing it in the ‘wrong’ manner (i.e., publishing on a Wednesday when Fridays work better, or not gathering the content in the same place online, or in the same section in print, we need to be able to work together so that the work can be financially supported. Another example: If we are already covering a topic — say outdoors, the environment and travel — and there is a market for it if we repackage and put it together online, or even in print, then we need to be open to that. “
Mark Briggs, director of digital media, KING 5 Seattle:
“Regardless of whether they work with other units, journalists should have a better understanding of how brand-building strategies can assist the overall business and it’s not just a matter of ratings points and page views.”
Elizabeth Green, CEO, Chalkbeat:
“I think what’s really needed here is for journalists not to become business people (although some of them will), but instead for them to have literacy in what business means in journalism. Reporters today spend a lot of time worrying about revenue, but often lack the sophistication…to evaluate what makes a revenue situation good or bad. I also think journalists need to gain more ‘business’ skills that are nicely applied to their work, but have historically been undervalued in weak-culture news organizations. I have in mind skills like project management, leadership, HR and supervision, organizational systems, and recruiting.”
Daniel Eilemberg, senior vice president, digital, Fusion:
“We believe transparency and empathy are important parts of our organization and culture. The better we all understand each other’s roles, goals and accomplishments, the better we can align goals across the organization. That is not to say that journalists need to have a deep understanding of the sales process, or that should be involved in it in a any way. But it does help when they understand what the market is responding to and where the organization is having success. At the end of the day, everyone understands we need to have a successful business.”