Smith: Back to school with a hard look at the business of journalism

School is starting up, and students are returning with tales from their summer internships in the American media landscape. While they generally have had good experiences, there’s deep worry about the economics of the journalism profession.

For most of my adult life, the economics of journalism were quite simple: Advertising and circulation.

Advertisers knew that they were selling to an audience that would buy their products. The audience had few other ways to be informed about their communities than their local newspaper and television stations.

But the internet has changed all of that. Ask a group of young people how they get their news today and few hands will go up for television, radio and newspapers. Most hands will rise for Twitter, first, and Facebook, second. It’s a trend that’s seeping through to adults as well.

Interestingly, most of these “new” news sites are simply aggregating the news that’s flowing from traditional sources. But with fewer employees – the direct result of declining revenues in traditional newsrooms – there’s far less factual information than ever before.

Who knows what’s going on when nobody is there to report?

I saw this at the beginning of my career at a small newspaper in the South. My first job was to cover a city council that was not used to seeing a reporter. I succeeded a reporter who had never attended council meetings and relied on the mayor to give his version of events several days after the council meeting.

On the police beat, the names of prominent citizens were often removed from the ledgers if they’d been arrested for driving under the influence or much worse. On the county beat, private driveways and parking lots of influential citizens and politicians had been paved for years at the expense of taxpayers.

The reporting of these realities woke up the citizenry and angered the politicians. One of my fellow reporting colleagues saw this firsthand when he was literally thrown into a pot of stew at a political rally. A week did not go by when I did not receive a threatening phone call.

But the politics changed in five years. A city council that had no college graduates and was all white males morphed into a highly educated group that included women and minorities. The town’s economy zoomed ahead on many levels.

There were certainly societal changes occurring at the same time that helped lead to this dramatic changeover. But the light provided by strong journalism was perhaps the leading force in transforming the town from an oligarchy to a democracy.

As I’ve talked to concerned students about today’s economic issues in journalism, I’ve encouraged them to do three things:

  • Be Swiss Army knives. When I graduated, I could do one thing: Report and write a news story for print. Today’s students must be able to do everything – from fixing broken software to flying drones to producing graphics and video for mobile.
  • Be entrepreneurs. When I graduated, there was a demarcation line between business and news. Today’s students must understand the business side of journalism and regularly experiment with new ideas to make money. Business education is a must.
  • Be passionate about your profession. There’s no better time to be coming onto the journalism scene because the entire field is being reinvented. Students have the opportunity to shape the future in ways that can’t be imagined today. Indeed, the American experiment in democracy depends upon their success.

Randall Smith

Randall D. Smith is the Donald W. Reynolds Chair in Business Journalism at the Missouri School of Journalism and is the founder of Missouri Business Alert. He can be reached at smithrandall@missouri.edu.

 

 

 

 


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