The value of money
By Michael Skoler
After 30 years in journalism, I believe in the power of money. Not for what it buys. Not for the power it confers. Not as a substitute for meaning. Rather, I believe in money because it can be a powerful test of whether our work is valued and valuable.
I never wrote for my high school or college newspaper. Never went to journalism school. Never considered a writing career. One day, I simply quit a job in a four-person office selling wholesale travel to France and bought a book: How to be a Freelance Writer by David Martindale.
The book warned how tough it was to survive, let alone thrive as a freelance writer. But the money didn’t matter. The life sounded endlessly interesting and important. I imagined my writing would captivate, entertain and change lives. Most every journalist, I bet, has been lured by that siren song.
I started writing from the illegal sublets and lofts I shared in New York City. I lived on wholesale vegetables and occasional editing jobs passed around among friends. My parents were desperate for me to get a graduate degree and a career. I was desperate to earn enough to buy one of the early suitcase-sized portable computers so I could stop retyping drafts as I wrote and rewrote every story a dozen times.
I eventually moved into public radio, well before National Public Radio became the mainstream news machine it is today. I worked all the time, out of passion, and finally got a dream job as an NPR foreign correspondent. Yet four years later, I threw it away – to earn an MBA.
And that’s when I learned about the value of money, and, ultimately, the value of news.
Business school felt like another foreign posting. I went because I saw in 1997 that journalism was heading for a huge transformation, if not a revolution. I knew that if journalists didn’t develop the skills to lead that transformation, the bean counters would lead it – with disastrous results.
So after trading my Mac for a PC and taking a weeklong crash course in Excel, I started learning the key rules of business culture: Enterprises have to grow or die, for there is no standing still. How you sell is just as important as what you sell. And in business, money is the way you keep score.
My journalist colleagues thought I was a sellout, someone who had given up on serving society to join the money-hungry crowd. But I felt a pioneer, exploring a new world of opportunities for journalism. The BBC, transmitting in dozens of languages through shortwave, reached much of the world, but Coke with smart marketing and a brilliant distribution strategy had reached the whole world, supplying its distinctive bottles to even the tiniest villages of Africa or the Asian steppes.
I marveled at the Weather Channel. It turned the 30-second snippet of news that told us what coat to wear and whether to carry an umbrella into a 24/7 passion for the latest news and explanations of nature’s forces. e Weather Channel ultimately sold for $3.5 billion.
And, frankly, I was humbled. Where colleagues pooh-poohed the commercial success of Coke or the Weather Channel as marketing manipulation of the masses, I came to see value being created and tested.
You can argue all you want about what people should value. Yet the marketplace, flawed as I know it is, is a cold shower. It reveals what people actually value enough to spend their time and money on. That cold shower is now a torrential rain blowing through the news business.
For a long time, news organizations had an umbrella protecting us from the market storm: a virtual monopoly. News was expensive to gather and expensive to distribute. Most cities and towns had just one newspaper. Only the largest radio and TV network affiliates offered much daily news. Smaller stations retreated from expensive civic reporting to cover weather, crime and accidents. Whether we provided much value or not, big media was the only option.
What’s more, people usually didn’t pay for the news. The advertisers paid. They wanted to reach the buying public and monopoly news was an easy way to do that. For the public, whatever journalists delivered was worth the cheap price of a newspaper or the free price of radio and TV news. Journalists never really tested their value in the marketplace.
Then the Internet came riding with the storm clouds. Suddenly, the cost of gathering and distributing the news plummeted, so more people could enter the game. They didn’t need printing plants to spread their writing or expensive licenses to distribute radio shows or video. It was so cheap and easy to spread news that someone could set up shop covering a small slice of news for just a small niche of passionate people. These small shops – sometimes a single blogger – could now compete with the news giants who tried to cover everything for everyone – and covered nothing with brilliance.
Suddenly consumers of news were free from their reliance on mainstream media. They could search out their own news from the flood of information inundating the Internet. And just as suddenly, mainstream news outlets could no longer count on their monopolies to deliver a big and predictable audience for their shows and publications.
As people drifted away from mainstream news, journalists have had to face, for the first time, a classic question that every business must face: What value does my business offer? What exactly are people paying for and how does that enrich their lives or help them accomplish jobs that are important to them? What am I selling that customers want to buy?
At first, journalists scoffed at the question of what value they were providing to the public. After all, journalism is nothing less than the foundation of democracy. Thomas Jefferson said, “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” And we rally behind those words because we are the watchdogs of government; we are truth- tellers; we comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. How’s that for value?
But we journalists aren’t the ones who buy the news. We sell it. No business makes money pleasing itself. Business is about giving customers what they value. But instead of asking people what they want from news and delivering it, we look around at what is popular.
We see the success of celebrity news sites like TMZ and get depressed. We think that people want diversion and conclude that the public is not really fit to judge what they want or need.
We lament that real journalism would die if left to the market. And we don’t recognize our own arrogance in the assumption that people need us more than they actually want us. No business can afford that sort of arrogance.
Some journalists have gone so far as to propose government subsidies and foundation grants as the only way to support the news in this new Internet market. News, they argue, is too important to society to let it compete in the free marketplace. People, it is assumed, don’t know what is good for them and our society.
To me, that’s an awfully bleak assessment of the people who once were and should be our loyal fans. I entered journalism because I believed stories could enlighten, entertain and engage. Because I believe that people want to be engaged. They care about their neighbors, seek the truth, want a fair society and expect that government should be held accountable to the people.
I still believe that. I don’t think people are turning to celebrity gossip as news. I think they are turning away from news, or at least news that leaves them feeling disempowered and disconnected.
If people are drifting away from journalism toward entertainment and pastimes, perhaps, it is our fault. It is our failure to draw meaningful connections between the “news” and the lives of the audience. It is our reliance on a handful of experts, with titles, to explain the news. And it is our ignorance that those we serve – the audience – has far more knowledge and experience and connections than we imagine, if we would only listen to them.
I fear that we have become disconnected from the public. We have made ourselves the judges of what is meaningful in the world, instead of asking the audience. Now and then, we judge right and our coverage builds connections between people, mobilizes action and changes lives.
It has meaning. But if journalists don’t do that often enough, then what daily dose of value is the public getting for their money or attention?
People pay for what they value and what enriches their lives. They don’t always choose wisely. They don’t always pay in cash. Sometimes they pay in loyalty, or trust, or engagement. But they do choose. And we ignore the message behind their choices at our peril.
Money, as personal wealth, still doesn’t matter to me. It never has. But money as a test of value does matter. If people won’t support today’s journalism in a way that translates into revenue, something is seriously wrong with how we practice our profession. We aren’t enriching their lives or helping them accomplish tasks they care about. We have to face the truth: Our work isn’t considered valuable, even when we offer it online for free.
We can choose to blame people for not seeing the value we create. We can convince ourselves that it is enough to serve a small slice of society – those who read the news out of long habit or see news as helping mark them as the educated elite. But that isn’t why we entered journalism. We wanted to engage, enrich and inspire people. We wanted to change the world. To do that, we need to connect.
And the first step is to be more like a business – in the best sense of providing customer service. I’ve learned to ask myself a tough question when it comes to my work. Am I creating the value I imagine? Am I creating value that is obvious not just to me, but to those I aim to serve. Does my news organization create enough value, day in and day out, that people will somehow pay for it?
One way to find out is to see if people will spend their time engaging with us in our work. The other way is to put our value to the test in the marketplace and see if people will spend their money on it. If they won’t, then we either listen to what they tell us and find a way to serve their needs, or we close shop.
I know money is no substitute for value. But it is a decent way to keep score.
Michael Skoler’s piece is from a series of essays on Voices & Values of Journalism that has been created by Images & Voices of Hope with the generous support of the Fetzer Institute and the Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University. Our collective intention is to make these essays widely available to journalists, aspiring journalists and anyone interested in the field as part of an emergent curriculum to explore the deep foundation of values that support the important work that journalists do.