Data dashboard.
Opinion Top stories

How much should journalists know about the news business?

Reflections on the ongoing debate on how much journalists should know about the business of the media they produce content for

Editor’s note: In The Fix’s new Friday column, tech and media journalist David Tvrdon reflects on how the forces of business, technology and journalism intersect and what that means for the media industry.

Look at two Tweets from the past week from two editors from different newsrooms, you will see two different views on journalism vs. the business of news.

The story of two approaches

I’m in the camp “the more information you know, the better choices you can make” and that everyone in the newsroom should understand the underlying business of news.

That does not mean the other camp is not right. New York Times editor-in-chief Dean Bacquet in a recent interview for the Longform podcast said he does not get the granular subscriber or cancellation data. He says, he does not care for that “retail level” of gaining or losing subscribers, he thinks about building an audience.

On the other end of the spectrum, you can find for example Slovakia’s Denník N which gives its journalists as much data as they can. In his presentation, Tomas Bella, the co-founder and head of digital at Denník N, gave a snapshot of what journalists in the newsroom get every morning – the best-performing articles based on the number of subscriptions they gained together with the exact amount of how much was paid.

I guess it comes down to tradition, transparency, and different managerial styles. There is no one approach that will give you the definitive path to resolving all your problems. Honestly, I believe, above all, it is about trust.

Ad media managers

Speaking of managers in news media and trust, there is a lot to unpack here. Some disclosure: I have only worked in one newsroom, so my first-hand experience is limited. Also, I believe there are plenty of great media managers out there.

I had the fortune (before the pandemic) to regularly meet journalists and editors from all over Europe. Frequently, we ended up talking about the transitions from being a journalist to becoming a manager and almost always someone would say that “Being a good journalist doesn’t make you a good manager”.

If you ever worked in a newsroom you will now many managers (and they have different titles) used to be journalists. Journalists usually cannot stand managers who do not understand journalism. Unfortunately, good journalists don’t make automatically good managers.

Don’t take my word for it. Frederic Filloux, the editor of the popular tech and media blog Monday Note, recently wrote this:

Careless management is part of the reason why the media industry has ceded a wide-open field to agile tech companies unencumbered by the weight of the past. My generation of journalists, totally untrained to become managers, let a culture of complacency and alleged intellectual superiority prevail where we should have changed the game and focused on innovation, creativity, and agility. Had we done so, a large part of news aggregation, search, Natural Language Processing, Machine Learning applied to information, advertising technologies, subscription systems, CMS, and newsletters would still be largely controlled by media operators.

The title of the blogpost was Managing a News Operation the Netflix Way. Filloux was evidently impacted by some of the ways Reed Hastings described in his book. As I am currently finishing the same No Rules Rules book, I have the same feelings.

Hastings talks a lot about candor, full transparency, getting the best people for the job, and surprisingly trust is mentioned a lot of times. At Netflix, apparently, once you get the job you also get the responsibility to take action. You can consult your boss if you want to but ultimately the decision-making is up to you. They only tell you to act in the best interest of the company.

Obviously, the whole Netflix approach is much more nuanced and Hastings goes deep into explaining that there are underlying principles you need to first take care of otherwise it all falls apart.

But then I read an interview with Spotify founder Daniel Ek who again confirmed he trusts his team and leaves the day-to-day decision-making to them and he focuses on longterm vision.

That brings me back to media managers and the point Filloux was trying to make – becoming a media manager does not make anyone a good manager and there is a learning curve (well if one is willing to admit that he or she is not born with managerial skills).

According to Hastings, once you have the right people, giving them freedom and responsibility leads to innovation and creativity.

In the newsroom, it can mean a lot of things but first and foremost, your news org might just better compete in the fast-changing digital world.

%d bloggers like this: