Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Dumb Teaching the Blind

Last week I had the privilege of delivering a lecture at the School of Journalism at UC Berkeley. The class, organized by colleague Alan Mutter, is about the evolving business of journalism.

The students are current or aspiring journalists, and the class is designed to give them some grounding in the current flux that is the journalism landscape. I felt like an agent of doom as I described my thoughts on the current state of the business side of journalism (see my earlier post).

Even worse, I had to give these students an overview of what it actually takes to start a journalism "business". When you are out to save the world by exposing evil, you really don't want to think about incorporation, payroll, Excel models etc. But these things all matter.

A great chef has talents well beyond cooking. If you can't raise money, save money, hire well, fire quickly, market yourself, stay true to vision but pivot tactically on a dime etc. you are doomed.

The challenge for journalism startups (and many other small businesses) is that they don't have to resources to outsource the unsavory bits of running a small business. It takes a long time to get the kind of traction with an audience that will allow monetization of one's efforts.

The costs of publishing and distributing content are approximately zero these days, and social networks can make marketing very inexpensive. However, that has also dramatically increased the noise through which you are trying to push your signal. Got a blog on environmental issues in Berkeley? That is noise to me, but signal to someone else. Breaking through all the noise to find enough people to listen to your signal is a big challenge. And, until you have 10,000+ regular readers, you probably can't make enough to eat. If you want to rely on advertising, better get above 50,000 monthly uniques.

So, I spent some time showing the journalists of tomorrow (and today) all the shit work that it will take to make their dream happen. To their credit, eyes remained mostly unglazed and nobody fell asleep. Questions were intelligent.

These folks really want to make a run at making a living reporting on what they are interested in. I hope they make it. A free press is a requirement of a free society, and having successful professional journalists is critical. By professional, I mean that they check their facts and generally are not idiots, like many bloggers out there. There will always be bias in journalism, and more so in the new model, but hopefully it will be mostly intelligent bias.

If we degenerate into a society that listens only to idiots like Rush Limbaugh and whoever his lefty equivalent is, then our days in ascendancy are over. Thinking is hard work, but someone has to do it.

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