Is journalism an industry?

Journalism is a business – that is how it is going to sustain itself; that is a key precept of the New Business Models for News Project. But is it still an industry dominated by companies and employment?

In the first part of his analysis of the news business, BusinessWeek chief economist Michael Mandel equates bad news about news with the number of journalists employed. He charts newspaper jobs falling from more than 450,000 in 1990 to fewer than 300,000 today and calls that depressing – which it is, if one of those lost jobs is yours. But it could also signal new efficiency and productivity, no? Looking at these numbers with the cold eye of an economist whose magazine and job aren’t on the block, perhaps it is nothing more than the path of an industry in restructuring. Perhaps it’s actually a signal of opportunity. Indeed, Mandel then laid that chart atop one for the loss of jobs in manufacturing and found them sinking in parallel, with newspapers just a bit ahead on the downward slope today. “Not good news, by any means,” he decreed.

But there is the nub of a much bigger trend: the fall news as an industry paralleling the end of the industrial economy. That’s not just about shedding the means of production and distribution now that they are cost burdens rather than barriers to entry. It’s about the decentralization of journalism as an industrial complex, about news no longer being based solely on employment.

A few months ago, I quibbled with Mandel’s BW cover story arguing that America has experienced an “innovation shortfall.” There, as here, I think he’s measuring the wrong economy: the old, centralized, big economy. In both cases, he misses new value elsewhere in the small economy of entrepreneurs and the noneconomy of volunteers.

I return again to the NewBizNews Project, where we modeled a sustainable economy of news at between 10-15% of a metro paper’s revenue – about as much as any of them bring online – with an equivalent amount of editorial staffing but those people are no longer all sitting under one roof; they work in – and oftentimes own – more than 100 separate enterprises. I return, too, to the Wikimedia Foundation calculating the value of time spent on edits alone with it adding up to hundreds of millions of dollars.

In both cases, tremendous value is created at tremendous efficiency outside of the company and in great measure outside of employment.

So is employment the measure of news? No. Is it the proper measure for every industry? Not necessarily. Is it the measure of the economy? Not as much as it used to be. Media is becoming the first major post-industry. Others will follow. You just have to know where to look.

* * *

It’s one matter when new value is created outside old companies in industries such as retail – in WWGD?, I cited $59.4 billion in sales from 547,000 merchants on eBay in 2007 vs. $26.3 billion in 853 Macy’s stores – but another matter when the employment is replaced in industries built around priesthoods: journalism, education, even government and medicine. Then not just economics but behaviors change.

Thus we see fretting about a “post-journalistic age” when new people perform some of the tasks journalism employees used to perform, whether that is advocates digging dirt or universities reporting their own scientific advances or sports teams funding their own reporting or volunteers organizing to report collaboratively. These are just a few of the latest examples from my pre-surgery tabs about voids being filled in new ways by new parties with new efficiencies. This is another reason it’s dangerous to calculate journalism’s size according to journalism’s jobs.

: LATER: Here’s Roy Greenslade still basing his analysis on staffing. Perhaps the better analysis is investment.

  • Jeff,

    I think you should use a different word than “noneconomy” for volunteers. The non-money economy is also much, much bigger than volunteerism, from parenting your children to making your own meal instead of eating out.

    Alvin and Heidi Toffler really get into this in their latest work “Revolutionary Wealth.” They argue (successfully I feel) that the money economy freely rides the coattails of the non-money economy.

    If you haven’t read the book I strongly urge you to do so. I think you’ll find it bolsters your positions a great deal, and will add even more nuance to understanding what’s happening in media today.

  • “It’s about the decentralization of journalism as an industrial complex, about news no longer being based solely on employment.” We are entering the era of “Artisanal News”.

    As you’ve discussed before, Journalism is no longer the product of an institution. It’s really become an individual pursuit. The ‘amount’ of journalistic output has likely dramatically increased since 1990 – probably more than inverse to the number of ‘professional’ journalism jobs.

    So it’s likely that there is probably an increase in overall journalism production, and that is the good news in our society today. It’s distribution model has changed more dramatically, as has its monetization. It’s been democratized and decentralized. But who’s making enough money doing it with the smaller audiences? Will be interesting to see what happens in the post-industry as it develops.

    Unfortunately our manufacturing base has not shifted in a similar fashion. For while journalism has blossomed from samizdat-like capabilities of bloggers, there has not been a parallel innovation in manufacturing. Those jobs are overseas and it’s not easy to bring them back. We can’t offshore most journalism.

  • So is employment the measure of news? No.

    In addition — not in contradiction — to the points you make, there is another reason why the decline in the size of the workforce in the news industry is not an accurate metric for changes in journalistic activity.

    In its industrial phase, editorial staffs at news organizations were engaged in a bundle of activities, many of which are not properly news and need not be performed by journalists when the news delivery medium is unbundled.

    In newspapers, can the comics or the crossword or Sudoku be called journalism? Is compiling movie listings or stock prices or sports box scores journalism? Is rewriting press releases or offering free space for public relations journalism?

    TV news is burdened by similar dead weight of non-journalistic activity. On local news, is the five-day weather forecast or the traffic helicopter update or the sports highlight reel really journalism? Think of the Today Show or Good Morning America: when they host a pop concert or offer a cooking how-to or stage a fashion show with Marie Claire or InStyle, are they really practicing journalism? What is the difference between an actor’s appearance to plug a movie on Tonight or the Late Show compared with his appearance on Today or GMA? Can we seriously say that the former interview is show business and the latter is journalism? Of course not.

    Unbundling newscasts and newspapers into their constituent parts for online distribution will surely mean that many fewer journalists will be employed than in their precursor bundled industries. Yet it will also surely mean that journalists will be freed to do what they are supposed to — deliver the news — rather than being conduits for listings, recreation, PR stunts, information, show business and service features.

    Their employment may go down but the percentage of their time spent on journalism proper will go up.

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  • Jeff
    I think it’s all about efficiency. We have to recalibrate the baseline.
    We’re now running three hyperlocal tv news stations, each one employs 7 people. Total. And they work. And they’re profitable. They could not have existed a few years ago, and they certainly would not be viable if they were built on the old model. We’ve effectively expanded the journalism but we’ve also created a mode that creates more journalism with far fewer people.

    Ironically, a few years ago when I participated in one of your ‘future of journalism’ exercises at CUNY the group started with a newspaper newsroom with more than 100 people and by the end had chopped it down to a dozen or so. Worked in theory… turns out it works in real life as well.

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  • Mike Mandel

    Hi Jeff,

    I don’t disagree with your points. I think you’ll find that my next post (coming in the next couple of days) will answer at least some (not all!) of your questions.


    • Mike,
      Good. I disagree with you at my peril.

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  • I would like to organize a conference/convention in the D.C. metro area that focuses on new paradigms of American economic sector integrity, workplace productivity, and wok-life balance. Would love to have your help in putting this together. Those of us that think alike need to create our own movement to help turn this economy around. I’ve lost a lot of my confidence in the news media because of the blatant social intimacy of its members with political and Hollywood glitterati, as well as big business. The “Fourth Estate” is NOT INDEPENDENT, if in fact it ever was. Citizen journalism is the wave of the present and future — the big question is: How do we get paid for our reporting and insightful commentary, much of which hits the mark so much more forthrightly than our cousins at the top of the increasingly unstable newsmaking food chaing?

  • I meant to say “food chain” … Where’s my editor??