Why journalists must care about money

I am mostly through the big annual conference for professor types in my field. Major topics of discussion include what we should be teaching students?

  1. Social media is a thing and you have to deal with it.
  2. The advertiser-supported model has changed and you have to deal with it.
  3. Big and bigger data is here, and you have to deal with it.

In my mind, these all fall under the same umbrella – if you want to get paid for what you do, you have to have an audience and prove you have an audience. Not too long ago, a major ethical concern in journalism was not letting the ad department influence news content. (This is still true, although definitions are getting stretched in some disturbing ways.) But as the audience  now finds your content mostly in ways other than picking up a paper from the front porch or tuning in 11, the journalist needs to be adept at selling his or her own messages.

Social media is a thing

I was really surprised yesterday to see conference tweets suggesting things like “Students should learn to use Twitter professionally”. Of course they should. If you are a writer, you must. The deconstruction of news caused by search means that audiences follow stories, not news brands. And they need help to have important stories pop up above the huge amount of noise caused by the “everyone can publish anything” online environment. So help them. Share what is important. Your work, and the work of others too (because sometimes they share back). You have to deal with it.


The advertiser-supported model has changed

Drops in advertiser support mean shrinking news staffs and fewer jobs for our students. Don’t despair. We still live in a mass-distribution economy, and purveyors of goods and services still need to reach potential buyers. And seeing it in conjunction with trusted content from a news organization probably works better than expecting people to join a Widgets-R-Us community or follow Soapy Soap on Facebook. But here’s the thing: You have to be able to prove that the advertising works. Works means gets people to buy things. When that connection is made online (where most news is today), you can measure that. Return on investment is an emerging area in digital marketing. It’s different than charging an advertiser based on impressions, or views or even clicks, and right now, it’s being defined. If you are a news organization, you need people who understand this. If you are an individual producer of content (like a student developing a portfolio), it’s a kind of knowledge you need to have. Analytics-driven media is here to stay, and you need to deal with it.


Big and bigger data is here, and you have to deal with it

Most journalism students are quite grumpy about dealing with numbers. Ask around at this conference, and you will find many faculty who have to review 6th-grade math concepts in college classes. But we need to get over that, if we want to have value in the marketplace of ideas. It’s time to train students to focus on their unique selling proposition as professional journalists. One component is professional ethics. This is hugely important, but I think by and large we do a pretty good job of teaching about that. The other is stories you need a professional to tell, and increasingly, those are data-based stories. Interview-based stories are ok, but they are also relatively easy to do. My students are reasonably good at it after a single course. Bloggers can do relatively easy things, too. So we have to be better. Instead of relying on the  bureaucrat to tell you about the growing or shrinking STD rate in your city, you can get the data yourself, see what is really happening, and ask much better questions. Skill in locating, analyzing and interpreting data is something most people don’t have, and can be a reason people read your stories. Numbers tell stories, and you have to deal with it. 

If you read this post, you probably came here from social media. And I’ll be using analytics to learn some things about you that will help me to write better content in the future. If you are a writer, these are things you’ll want to deal with as well. 

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