Carnival of Journalism: Journalists As Capitalists

My entry in the January Carnival of journalism. This month’s theme comes from Michael Rosenblum: “Can a good journalist also be a good capitalist?

Videojournalist Michael Rosenblum asserts (without evidence or explanation) that “there is an instinctive aversion to the idea of making money amongst most journalists.”

There are a lot of  journalists who aren’t allergic to making money. Think Barbara Walters or George Will. And business journalist median income exceeds the median income for the U.S. as a whole. Most journalists are in the 99% like most Americans. So?

He continues:

We instinctively associate making money with ‘evil’.  We like to investigate it. If someone is making a ton of money, then they must be doing something wrong…

See Peter Schweizer’s Throw Them All Out or Hacker and Pierson’s Winner Take All Politics or Barry Lynn’s How the new monopolies are destroying open markets for widespread (and lightly reported) examples of where “they are doing something wrong.” Just saying.

Craigslist, which pretty much eviscerated newspapers classifieds should have been developed and owned by us.

Google – all the news that fit to print – and a whole lot more – should have been developed and owned by us.

Youtube, Facebook, you name it.  We should be exploiting this mother for all she is worth.  But we don’t.

We are the perpetual groveling employees, beggaring for a few crumbs and generally seeing our jobs and incomes slashed as the web and new digital technologies roll over the old.

Who is this “we” that should have anticipated and developed Craigslist, Google, YouTube, etc? I don’t think that the CEOs and chairmen of the boards of NBC, CBS, ABC, The Washington Post, The New York Times, etc. think of themselves as being part of the great unwashed “us” that is working journalists.

The “us” that should have anticipated Craigslist (newspapers) has not been/is not currently owned by “us” the people who are journalists. The “us” that should have anticipated YouTube (television news) has not been/is not currently owned by “us” the extreme minority of people who work in television who are journalists.

Forget for a moment that starting and growing a business takes a different set of skills, desires and motivations than becoming an investigative or sports journalist. There’s a reason — a solid and rational one — that explains why journalists, as a group, haven’t owned newspapers, TV stations and to a lesser extent radio stations: they are bloody expensive endeavors with massive fixed costs. These businesses required a lot of capital, one of the definitions of capitalist:

capitalist: a person who has capital especially invested in business; broadly : a person of wealth : plutocrat – from Merriam-Webster

Modern information creation and dissemination is marked by a distinctly reduced need for capital. In other words, you don’t have to be a capitalist to start a online publishing venture. Its one of the reasons the capitalists are getting their butts handed to them by internet start-ups.

We have to embrace making money – lots and lots of money – as a good. As a goal.

We should arrange ourselves the way lawyers do, as limited partnerships.  Then some of the partners can carry on with their ‘investigative journalism’ while the others engage in more lucrative PR or Image Control and others launch web-related IPOs.

Making money should be our primary goal? Really? (I call “embracing” something making it a primary goal.)

Making money your priority in life is a route destined to dead-end in the cul de sac of unhappiness. It’s not great as a reason for starting a business, either. Here’s Ross Perot on business goals (Computer World, 1986):

I’ve seen great people come into the business world primarily motivated to make money. Almost without exception, they failed.

Saying that a key goal should be starting a company just so you can IPO is in the same ludicrous ballpark. It reminds of the Boeing VP in 1998 who declared, at an all-hands meeting, that Boeing’s business purpose was not to build airplanes but to provide a good ROI for stockholders! (I wanted to run screaming from the auditorium.)

I this this disdainful Steve Jobs quote sums it up:

I hate it when people call themselves “entrepreneurs” when what they’re really trying to do is launch a startup and then sell or go public, so they can cash in and move on. They’re unwilling to do the work it takes to build a real company, which is the hardest work in business. That’s how you really make a contribution and add to the legacy of those who went before. You build a company that will still stand for something a generation or two from now. That’s what Walt Disney did, and Hewlett and Packard, and the people who built Intel. They created a company to last, not just to make money.

Isaacson, W. (2011). Steve JobsKindle Locations 9760-9764Simon & Schuster, Inc.

I think Rosenblum is confusing “capitalist” with “entrepreneur” or “risk-taker” or “inventor”. (I’m being charitable in avoiding the hanging softball “greed is good” opportunity.) Without question, he’s ignoring the truly radical change in economics that has been wrought by digital communication technology.

Craig Newmark didn’t start Craigslist because he wanted to make a lot of money. He started Craigslist to scratch an itch; it was a hobby. And because he learned that he wasn’t a good manager, he hired someone to run the company. His job is customer service. Heck, even Newmark doesn’t ascribe to Rosenblum’s insistence that making “lots” of money is important!

What turned Craigslist into the dominant community bulletin board that it is today was not a desire to be a capitalist; it was a desire to solve a problem and do it well. Digital technology made it possible to solve this problem without a lot of capital. Digital technology, coupled with exponential growth in the global network of computers, eviscerated the newspaper monopoly that had relied on classified ads as a key revenue stream.

Google didn’t start as a company that would become a key  place for people to find news online. That happened after 9-11, when a Google engineer, Krishna Bharat, cobbled together a news service to meet his own desire for a dashboard of news from around the world. Digital technology made it possible to solve this problem without a lot of capital. The need for the service was so obvious that Google launched it publicly (as beta, of course) in early 2002. I’ve argued elsewhere about why Google isn’t the boogeyman that newspaper loudmouths like Rupert Murdoch claim and Rosenblum implies.

How to be successful in the new, digital marketplace?

There are simple but truthful rules of thumb like “be relevant.”

There’s luck and foresight, “be a first mover.”

But I think the most important recommendation is “know thyself.”

What are your strengths? What are your passions, the things you would do if no one ever paid you? What are the things you wouldn’t do for <insert large number here> dollars? Then find people to “partner” with, formally or informally. Think complementary (and be complimentary, when the occasion calls for it!).

But don’t let making a lot of money be your reason for being, your number one goal. Let it, instead, be the result of your reaching your goals.

By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

11 replies on “Carnival of Journalism: Journalists As Capitalists”

Dear Kathy,
This is all about journalists empowering themselves – taking control of their lives and their profession. Journalists act like children and they are taken advantage of all the time. Time for us to grow up and stop being taken advantage of by the people who own the businesses. That you could quote the CEO of Citicorp with a straight face shows me how much journalists have bought into this pile of crap about ‘doing God’s work and not thinking about owning the business – leave that to us ‘business’ people’. Crap!
In the 1990s I sold one of my companies (Video News International) to The New York Times. In doing so I became, for two years, President of New York Times Television. Lemme tell you, the New York Times is very very bottom line driven. Very. Very profit oriented. Very. It is a business, like any other business. And part of what journalism businesses thrive on is this Gift From God that their employees stick their fingers in their ears and say ‘la la la… we don’t know nothin’ about money. That’s not our job. So you keep taking advantage of us while we are allowed to work for you until you fire us. La la la.’
My whole point here is – enough!
Time to grow up and act like adults.

Hi, Carrie! If Michael’s post did nothing more than have folks realize that they don’t have to ask permission, it’s worth while (even if most of it is wrong!). I don’t want to imagine what being tenure track is like — I’ve heard, as I have friends who are on that path. I wish you the best of luck in whatever path you pick.

And Jonathan, yes the capital costs are low but as @DigiDave pointed out in his essay, there are costs. I remain firmly committed to my recommendation that anyone who wants to go into entrepreneurial journalism find partners, even if they are ex officio.

Ah, John – getting in touch with you is on my to-do list for my project! Look for an email.

Dear Michael, I can’t believe you don’t agree with my recommendations!

As to Jobs (a very small part of my argument): he worked for three or four years (I don’t remember which) for no salary; I didn’t say money wasn’t important, I said it wasn’t his goal. If it were, he would have gone the MSFT route (at least to short-term riches). And Apple’s not the only company that has a contract with China/Foxconn. (As a stockholder, I should figure out what I can do about that – but of course we don’t have much power in our HH over MSFT even though we have stock there, too. And a paycheck.)

Dear Kathy. Thanks for participating in this. Or course, I disagree with pretty much all of it. However, let’s clarify one piece of mythology – Steve Jobs was as interested in maximizing his income as he was in making great products (which he did). Otherwise, he never would have pre-dated his warrants. Like every other successful person, his eye was on the ball – when it wasn’t on the slave labor that was making his wonderful products.

I completely agree that it is really about passion, and that money just for the sake of money isn’t really going to take you anywhere. What I did find compelling about Rosenblum’s argument, though, was just that the lightbulb is slowly going on in my head that often large institutions crush that passion, take the best years of our lives and because we don’t have any financial freedom, we just take it and toil away into oblivion on mediocre projects. Not always, of course, and I’m overstating it a little bit here for effect, and institutions do a lot of good things, as Starkman has pointed out in CJR. But what I found kind of inspiring is the idea that maybe with an entrepreneurial mind-set and some actual money in the bank, you can REALLY follow your passion rather than spending so much of your energy and life force toiling for the man.

Kathy —

Very nicely put. I agree on all counts. This is kind of what I did with the Washington News Council ( Certainly not a path to riches, but it’s been fun! I also really like the way you display our TAO of Journalism seal on your site. Keep up the good work! We still should get together for coffee or lunch sometime. What’s your schedule in the next few weeks?

It is comforting to hear other journalists reinforcing the passion of the craft. We should feel empowered that it doesn’t — as you put it so well — take that much capital these days to do the journalism.

Hi, @Aine — thanks! I agree that media companies != journalism. And you’re right, the Venn diagram is not a large pool. That’s why I suggest journalists who want to break free of corporate media companies find partners with complementary skills.

I’m thinking the Venn diagram where journalist and programmer overlap is not that large a pool of talent to draw from. Journalism is about informing the public of what happened, when, how, etc. as well as acting as a watchdog to government (and increasingly, to corporate government). Thus, what Murdoch’s companies do is not necessarily journalism. I could say pretty much the same thing about ABC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC… Heh.

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