We can’t leave the business to the business side any more

“Journalists are the reason people pay for news in the first place. We are the product. The problem is, we’re still producing a 19th-century product and selling to a 21st-century audience, with predictable results.”

This might be more hope than prediction, but 2018 will be the year journalists stop waiting for someone else to save journalism.

Despite the recent success of The Washington Post and The New York Times, the news business remains in financial free fall — particularly at the local and regional level. And this at a time of relative economic prosperity, which is all the more worrying.

I don’t have to remind anyone here what the death of local news could mean for democracy. But for journalists, this crisis is existential. Marketing managers and sales executives can always find something else to sell or market. When the local paper in a one-paper town is gone without anything to take its place…well, that’s a future we simply can’t allow to happen.

I don’t know a single journalist who got into the business to spend time learning about ad models, paywalls, funnels, and the like. But that’s exactly what has to happen, and soon.

After all, journalists are the reason people pay for news in the first place. We are the product. The problem is, we’re still producing a 19th-century product and selling to a 21st-century audience, with predictable results. That has to change, and journalists need to be the ones driving that change.

I am seeing some small, but significant, steps in this direction: Two journalists, Natalie Hanman and Amanda Michel, grew The Guardian’s membership program from a few thousand to nearly 800,000 paying supporters in a year. The New York Times will soon be led by journalist A.G. Sulzberger, who, from the 2014 Innovation Report on, has brought much more of a business focus to the newsroom.

The Washington Post recently appointed a product editor as a way to bring the newsroom and business side closer together. Product management is a subject now taught in journalism schools and discussed at just about every conference I’ve attended at over the past 12 months.

All of this is good, just not nearly enough. Leaving the business of news to the business side is a luxury newsrooms can’t afford much longer.

Aron Pilhofer is the James B. Steele Chair in Journalism Innovation at Temple University.

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