Don't let the bottom line distract you from the finish line in news publishing

The minister at my church riffed during a recent sermon on the reaction to the shooting this month of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ). He spoke of how he saw our society valuing life, in both its rhetoric and its economics. The statement, late in the sermon, that has stuck in my mind was his assertion that “We too rarely think about the society we want to be, and instead settle for the society that we think we can afford.”

The minister connected this attitude to what he described as a business-driven mentality about government spending: We can’t waste time with pie-in-the-sky idealism, but must instead limit ourselves to what our current income can support. Temper your expectations and learn to live within your bottom line.

The funny thing is (and this is where we get to the OJR stuff), that no successful entrepreneur or business person I know actually thinks that way.

Forget-what-we-want, just-do-what-we-can is the mantra not of the business leader, but the middle manager. It’s the philosophy of a second- or third-generation CEO who’s trying to run out the clock before his retirement, not someone who’s trying to build a business.

Unfortunately, it’s also too often the attitude of journalists when they attempt to launch their own news website businesses.

I suppose you can’t fault them. If the only business role models you’ve had during your professional career are the “let’s-bleed-the-print-side-for-every-last-buck” managers of the newspaper industry, you might be lulled into believing that bottom-line myopia represents the way you’re supposed to approach business.

When we work with aspiring journalist entrepreneurs in our annual KDMC boot camps, we try lead them to look past the “Big M” – money. Focus instead on the “pain,” the community need that you hope to alleviate with your business.

In other words, think about the community you want to live in, and not your bottom line.

From there, think next about how you can meet that need. What talent, skill and resources do you have, right now, that you can apply to this challenge? What can you acquire?

Is the need real? As you think about the need, and study it, do you find that you need to redefine the need? To frame it differently? Does that affect the way you should plan to approach and address it?

I believe in the methodology of community organizing. The focus there very much remains on relationships – establishing them, developing them and building upon them – to address a challenge or achieve a goal. For journalists, who want to build an audience and establish influence within a community, taking attention from relationship building to obsess over raising and spending money can – and will – kill their businesses.

Money has immense mass within the universe of business. It creates its own gravity. If you begin with money, your attention never can escape its orbit.

To move where you want and do what you want, you must instead focus elsewhere.

Obviously, you can’t operate a business as a spendthrift. But a too-sharp focus on money limits opportunity. A focus on accomplishments creates incentive to find either more money or – more importantly – a way to get work done without it.

The best entrepreneurs get in business because they want to do something. (That’s very much the case with almost all journalists I know who’ve contemplated starting their own sites.) So do it. Find a way. If you don’t think you can do it with the money and resources you have now, you won’t. So find a way to do it with those resources.

That is what entrepreneurship is all about. It’s not about settling for bottom-line limits, but finding new ways to make great things happen.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. says:

    I’m afraid our local newspaper has lost its journalistic mission in its desparate need to financially survive. Thirty years ago, who would have thought a newsroom full of talent would be forced to pander to the Kate-Gosselin-watchers of the world.