I realized today to my amazement that I may long have been a secret disciple of Milton Friedman.
The famed laissez-faire economist held that business and mission don’t go together, according to Adlai Wertman, of USC’s Marshall School of Business. “And I’m not sure I disagree with him,” Wertman told students and faculty at this week’s USC Annenberg Director’s Forum. “I’m not sure I trust business with anything else.”
This throws a complex light on the collapse of the conventional economic model for journalism – which has consisted of trusting business with this mission so dear to our (and, we hope, the nation’s) hearts. That collapse feels no less catastrophic to those who are losing their jobs, nor to faithful news consumers who see shrinking newspapers and dumbed-down newscasts. And it’s still deeply worrisome when you think about who will have the power, guts and access to go up against big government and big business, so as to keep us informed about the nation and the world.
Still, it is fitting to be reminded of the ways in which the economic model has distorted the mission.
Consider the view of Wertman, who spent 18 years as an investment banker and another seven devoted to helping the homeless (“The first two or three ‘From Wall Street to Skid Row’ headlines were clever, but the 18th or 19th??!!”) before coming to the academy. Confronted with the nation’s inability to resolve the many ills confronting it, Wertman told the Journalism School: “I think it’s all your fault. In my view, the political world follows journalism.” And journalism has led down the wrong paths in our failure to give attention to poverty, homelessness and other weighty and complex issues.
The profit model may be responsible for much of the problem: “There is a major difference between a mission-driven business and a business,” he said. Profit-seeking companies “quickly go from no social mission to no social responsibility.” The result has been, in Wertman’s opinion, a distorted notion of “what the public wants” when it comes to journalism, and a terribly inadequate news diet for a self-governing people.
So what’s to be done?
“If you are asking, ‘Can I create new models that are mission-driven in journalism, and make a living?’ Absolutely!” said Wertman. Start with the focus, he advised. The new models that seem to do well are very targeted.
“Donors want to know, ‘What are you going to effect?’ That’s the hardest part. Once you figure out your mission, you can do anything. And I teach, the narrower the mission, the better.”
For some of us, then, the problem may actually be that what we are worried about is saving journalism. Wrong focus.
“Take the mission away from journalism and think more about journalism as a tool: We care about poverty, and how could we use journalism as a tool to make a difference,” he said.
If that sounds like advocacy said Wertman, it needn’t be. You persuade your donors (and consumers) that a full, fair, balanced and proportional picture of the issue is the best way to get people interested and informed, and thus to bring about action.
Mission accomplished: A new model for effective journalism – albeit not one of interest to Wall Street. But maybe enough to keep you off Skid Row.