Did journalism's business model distort journalism's social mission?

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.

About Geneva Overholser

Geneva Overholser is director of the School of Journalism at USC Annenberg.


  1. Your idea reminds me of a line from Larry Summers, originally in reference to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac:

    “It is hard in this world to do well. It is hard to do good. When I hear a claim that an institution is going to do both, I reach for my wallet. You should too.”

  2. The major forms of journalism are largely owned by profit-oriented corporations, who quite naturally demand that journalism operate as a means to generate profits (and not offend its corporate owners or advertisers).

    As long as this remains the case, journalism, in the traditional sense (such as investigative reporting) will continue to suffer. There’s simply no logical way of getting around this fact of life.

    If journalism organizations could somehow shift from corporate ownership to being independent and sponsored by donors, that could change.

    But convincing profit-oriented owners to let journalism business go out on its own will be a very hard sell. Perhaps it will be possible (particularly if its profit potential becomes so clearly deficient), but it will take a major effort by the major players in journalism, to pull off.

    I frankly don’t see the courage (or desperation) being high enough for that to happen.

  3. Thanks for two interesting comments. Love the Summers line!

  4. says:

    In the southern vernacular….. this is dumber than a fence post.

    The mission is the reason. The cancer of liberalism that pervade the product is disgusting to enough readers to stop reading.

    Your papers are not necessary and especially when the mission and advicy transcends news.

    Your industry is dying and is leading the recession

  5. says:

    Off topic…. but please SHOOT the design geek who thinks black text on blue-gray background is a good idea!

    For those of us with OLD eyes, it’s misery.

  6. Over their careers, some old newspaper editors perfected the art of dealing with angry advertisers. (Or so I hear. I

  7. Thanks for the comments, including many thoughtful points from Pattison. And BTW, re the black on grey, I believe change is coming!

  8. Guy Baehr says:

    The business model for most mass audience newspapers is broken and can’t be fixed. I

  9. Thanks Geneva,

    This is well said. The issues you raised are so relevant to my country Ghana.

    At the dawn of multiparty democracy in 1992 also came a proliferation of the media as never before in the history of the country.

    But by and large, they are mostly set up to make money and so the focus of journalism has greatly shifted from telling the news as it is to projecting personalities, businesses and politicians.

    This trend has rendered journalists and media organizations that want to serve the fundamental purpose of journalism redundant.

  10. says:

    As an online editor, this issue confronts me daily. Just today, we have been discussing how to implement a news-breaking service in consultation with the advertising department. A few years back, advertising would be informed about a year after the launch of such a thing.

    If society is unwilling to support journalism, and it has demonstrated that amply, who cares about ethics and professionalism?

  11. says:

    “Oh we’re all shifting to new ways to reach new audiences with new approaches to new issues..” um, what on earth does this mean? Most of us work for newspapers, wires, etc. go into newsrooms were we write, edit, shoot and so on. We get paid for this and receive benefits.
    With the massive layoffs, and more predicted, it is hard to see how a pink-slipped journo will vault into this world. Yet deriding them as dinos who are out of it seems flip and dismissive. How many bread and butter journalists will successfully start profit-making sites or blogs? Should they all have to?
    More specific advice, ideas and examples would be more productive for me.

  12. Thanks so much for this rich thinking in response to my post. So much comes down to whether traditional newsrooms can buck the predictions and do the innovation that is so needed. i’ve long written about alternatives http://genevaoverholser.com/?q=node/14 and am intrigued and hopeful about them. But i don’t think we’ll see any time soon widespread replacement for legacy media when it comes to the big stories on big business and big government.

  13. Elaine Clisham says:

    ‘K, I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that journalism has NEVER been a business model. Journalism is a product. (A very necessary product.) Any business model newspapers adopt needs to support great journalism, but journalism isn’t a business model. And there’s nothing magical about a newspaper — it’s just the best technology that’s historically been available to deliver that product. The fact that it happened also to be the best technology to deliver commercial messages — i.e., advertising — was nothing more than a happy coincidence.

    Well, the happy coincidence is over, and we’re going to need to face some harsh realities. Here at Newspaper Next Central we’ve spent a lot of time looking at other industries that have gone through what the newspaper industry is going through at the moment, and we’ve found the experience of Kodak particularly enlightening. Some of the things that Kodak has experienced are directly translatable:
    1. Our newspaper businesses will be smaller, just like Kodak’s film business, which shrank dramatically. That doesn’t mean our overall businesses will necessarily be smaller, although certainly that will be true for the near term. (See item 2, below.) Kodak is smaller than it used to be, but wildly profitable again, because they figured it out in time.
    2. It will be a while before new revenue streams make up what will be lost from print advertising, and we need to face that as a reality. Kodak’s digital revenue didn’t grow as fast as its film business shrank, but if they hadn’t made digital a priority that revenue wouldn’t have grown at all. We can’t dismiss new revenue streams because they’re not big enough.
    3. Half of a typical market has already voted that the newspaper is not its preferred source of information, just like Kodak film employees were using digital cameras at family gatherings. Instead of beating them up to change their minds, which they’re not really inclined to do, let’s focus on what other information, which might be nothing like news but will be just as critical to their daily lives, our organizations can provide. This effort doesn’t necessarily have to fall to newsrooms, but if we don’t do it somehow, another player will and we will have lost yet more of our local footprint.
    4. There ARE new revenue streams out there, but there’s no one silver bullet. We’ll need to look at an aggregation of small-bore solutions rather than one big behemoth like print advertising. That means new capabilities on the sales staff, new ways of charging customers, new ways of interacting with them, etc. Most newspapers have been really slow off the mark with this, and they continue to resist it at their peril.

    So, now that the happy coincidence is over, I would suggest the question should be, How can we assemble an array of revenue streams and an array of information products that support and enhance our journalism functions and expand our value and utility among our constituencies?

  14. Many thoughtful and accurate observations, but methinks the elephant is too large to be described usefully by the blind men and women around it. It’s true that advertising has been bled off from print newspapers by Web-based businesses; it’s also true that a smaller and smaller percentage of the population has been reading newspapers over the last several decades — whether they cared more about the news or the advertising — or the community stuff. I hear from people who tell me the only reason they’re still getting the paper is that doing the crossword is still easier (or more familiar, more likely) on paper than on screen. Nevertheless, many many businesses do make money even on Wall Street while maintaining a social mission. And if the mission of companies weren’t strong, all companies would be market manipulators, pornographers, drug dealers or casinos — wherever the margins are highest. I do endorse the “think of journalism as a tool” to accomplish social goals — comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable– as well as the Christensen-inspired “what ‘jobs’ do people want done, that one’s business assets can be mustered to help them with — but the latter only helps a business adapt to radical change. It doesn’t further the social goal of enabling a democratic society — the ultimate mission of journalism. So do I have the answer? Well, no…but I do agree that newspaper companies, many of them, resisted the disruptive changes too long, and are panicking and giving up on the low revenues of alternate models too soon. Have I agreed with and disagreed with everyone yet? Nope — there’s the canard about the liberal media, which apparently has taken firm root. Visit Project Censored or FAIR to see how many times mainstream media has taken the conservative position, from not challenging the rationales for the war in Iraq to repeating the ridiculous charges about Rev. Wright…But I’ve got to go. Now that I’ve escaped from the clutches of the newspaper world (with their not-so-gentle nudge), I have work to do!

  15. We tend to think of the changes sweeping journalism as economic and technological. But I keep being reminded how much deeper they go.

    Forms of discontent about journalism that weren