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Why journalistic ethics don’t have to conflict with business success

July 28, 2016 | By Jim Brady, founder and CEO—Spirited Media

I was speaking at a conference a few weeks ago about Spirited Media, the local news startup I currently run. After giving some background on our overall strategy, I took a few questions about our business model, which is primarily focused on events and not advertising. The questions were good ones, all coming from people who clearly understood that, without new revenue models, the survival of independent journalism is no sure thing.

It was quite encouraging to get so many questions about revenue. In fact, it felt too good to be true. And, of course, it was. Soon, the inevitable happened. One of the journalists in the room asked, essentially, “Why are you talking so much about business stuff? I remember meeting you a few years ago, and you were so high-minded about journalism. When exactly did you sell out?” Now, those were not his exact words, but I’m pretty sure those in attendance would agree that was the gist of the question/statement.

Welcome to journalism, the only industry where a significant amount of its smartest employees not only take pride in the fact they don’t care how the companies they work for make money, but chastise those who do.

As I noted earlier, most of the other attendees at this session were interested in the business side, which is encouraging. But there are still way too many journalists who throw their hands up at the first discussion of money, muttering, “This isn’t my problem. I just do the journalism.” Personally, I think that’s an ignorant point of view, one at the root of many of the cultural problems inside legacy news organizations.

No, I’m not suggesting blurring the church-state line between the editorial and the business side. I am as true a believer in the ethical foundation that says a news organization’s business concerns cannot impact its editorial output. But I believe too many journalists use that ethical bright line as an excuse not to engage in any conversation about the state of their company’s business. And that is where I believe the damage is done.

What’s even more maddening is that many of these same journalists are more than happy to pop off on social media or comment threads about the stupidity of their company’s business executives after a layoff or any negative business news.

So, no, journalists should not allow their ethics to be impacted by larger business considerations. But, in my opinion, you could steer an aircraft carrier through the gap between merely understanding how your business operates, and committing journalistic sins.

Here are a few of my core beliefs in how journalists should interact with the business side:

1. Talking to people who make the money for your company is not a problem. In fact, it should be encouraged.

When I became executive editor of washingtonpost.com in 2004, no one in sales was even allowed to use the conference room located on the editorial floor without direct permission from the editor, even though that conference room was located off the lobby and did not require any contact with the newsroom. I killed that rule on my first day.

I had returned to The Post after four years at AOL, and one of the best lessons I had learned there was how valuable it was to talk to the people who spent their time trying to make money for your company. In my first week at AOL, I was told I should go to lunch with the guy who led business development and sales for the sports channel I managed. My first thought was, “Am I allowed do to that?” But I did it, and came back a changed man. I learned a ton about what he was hearing when he went out to sell, what advertisers wanted to buy and what they wish existed that they could buy. I learned about the broader AOL business model. I learned that the people trying to bring in revenue were just as committed to their mission as we were to ours.

Of course, I’ve been making this point for years, and the response is usually: “But, Jim, going to lunch like that could put me in a compromising position.” Look, if the journalism ethics that have been instilled in us in college and throughout our professional careers cannot withstand dining with someone from sales, the problem may be the stability of those ethics, not the lunch.

2. Take time to learn how the company you work for makes money. Read quarterly earnings reports and SEC filings if you’re a publicly traded company, and ask questions of senior business leaders whenever you get the chance.

This is a recommendation that may only apply to journalism, since most employees in most other industries likely do this routinely. To me, there’s no excuse for not understanding your company’s basic business model. As I was leaving one of my previous jobs, I went to lunch with a relatively senior editor. Over lunch, it became clear that he didn’t really understand the breakdown of advertising and circulation revenue. He thought the split was closer to 50-50, when, of course, it was more like 85-15 in favor of advertising. I was just stunned that someone so senior could be so clueless about the company’s basic business. Hell, there’s a reason you can put a buck in a newspaper box and take all of them, right? And understanding the breakdown of different lines of revenue seems to me to be the least of what journalists ought to understand.

3. Be part of the solution. Use your brain to help come up with ideas for making money. Those ideas don’t need to have anything to do with your day-to-day job. Most journalists are pretty smart people; there’s no reason for you not to help.

At Billy Penn, the Philadelphia-based site that Spirited Media operates, we all sit around a table together: journalists, sales people, developers, event planners, etc. There is no physical separation, and, more importantly, no psychological one. We toss around ideas for stories, events, advertisers to pursue and new site features. No one is prohibited from weighing in on any topic. We all traffic in the same Slack channels. And nothing we’ve done has ever threatened the standard church-state line.

In fact, quite the opposite has happened. One example: When we were putting together a story last fall about Philadelphia-area microbreweries creating special Pope-themed beers for Pope Francis’s impending visit to the city, someone in the newsroom mentioned how cool it would be to get all those brewers in one place for a tasting. A few weeks later, we held a Pope-themed beer tasting event at a South Philly bar called POPE. No ethical boundaries were obliterated. No journalists were injured in the making of that event. And we made some money. Working with the business side is not that complicated, and not nearly as ominous as many journalists make it out to be.

As for the self-righteous questioner I faced a few weeks ago – who, by the way, is an educator – I hope that he’s not passing on the bad business-related habits of a previous generation of journalists. Instead of teaching students that anyone who cares about the business side should wear a scarlet letter, maybe he can help them understand the different business models that now exist in journalism.

Without a doubt, everyone in media must understand that how companies make money is important regardless of their job title. Current and future generations of journalists need to be part of solving the massive economic problem facing journalism, all while continuing to maintain the ethical boundaries that journalism has – and always should – defend. Because if being worried about how we make money is considered “selling out,” then I’m proud to be a sellout.

Jim Brady is the founder and CEO of Spirited Media, which operates the Philadelphia-based mobile news platform Billy Penn. He is also currently serving as the public editor for ESPN. Before launching Billy Penn, Jim’s also served as Executive Editor of washingtonpost.com, Editor in Chief of Digital First Media, General Manager ofTBD.com and Programming Director of News & Sports for America Online. He is a Past President of the Online News Association, and has also served on the boards of the American Society for News Editors and National Press Foundation.

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