#jcarn: End of the newsroom’s iron curtain

Would the real entrepreneurial journalism please stand up?

Journalists are not supposed to be interested in money. It’s an ethical dilemma. That is why there is an iron curtain in between ad sales and editorial – if you know what ad space Macy’s is buying in the Sunday paper, how can you write that article on Macy’s corporate fails? You’ll be influenced. So, you turn your head, and the salespeople keep their hands out of editorial.

Even accepting a gift from a source, or letting the source pay for lunch, is an ethical dilemma! Readers trust you, and something as simple as a Subway sandwich can threaten your carefully built credibility.

Plus – there’s your ego. Journalism, capital J, is a public service. It’s like being a teacher – you do it because it is good for society, because it brings you joy. We commonly say, “I’m not in this vocation for the money!”

And then you prove your point by living on the poverty line. Some slave away to cover the news, paying freelancers a minimum and paying themselves nothing, depending on the month. Sometimes, putting personal savings into the news venture. This is called entrepreneurial journalism.

Of course, all entrepreneurship takes risk (making it very different from intrapreneurial, a smaller venture inside an established company). But in normal situations, entrepreneurship is risk followed by a potential payoff, and I don’t mean a warm and fuzzy watchdog “gotcha” payoff.

Journalism hasn’t changed. We still stand by these ethical standards.

But the audience? Did change.

So maybe, journalism needs to adopt a new set of ethical standards that allow us to serve this audience.

In old journalism, articles were edited excessively, because once the ink was printed, we were stuck with it for a whole day. Now, I catch a typo in TechCrunch, and it’s gone when I refresh the page. We don’t have readers that treat us as gospel anymore! The internet is known for scams and porn. Nobody believes half of what they read online. They will Google search, they will Quora and there’s always Wikipedia. People fact check as they read.

The audience is skeptical. If there’s the slightest bit of doubt in your copy, there will be a snarky comment to show for it. The founder of a small topic-based news site can manage just editorial, or both editorial and sales, and the skeptical audience will fact-check just the same.

We’ve got¬†Arrington¬†running around, dipping his hands into reporting on startups and funding them, at the same time, and claiming it is ok. There are many strong opinions on what this means, but what if he’s right?

I don’t think transparency gets us off the hook. I think we need to try to be objective. Just as objective as the reporter who was writing about corporate affairs at Macy’s, wearing an awesome Macy’s sweater dress but without knowing the Macy’s ad budget.

And I think journalists still shy away from aggressively chasing revenue models. Making money for doing something for the good of the people feels … wrong. It’s not.

News organizations were never in the content business. Nobody bought content. Advertisers bought an audience. Content herded an audience. Nobody pays to look at DamnYouAutoCorrect.com, but they might pay for related merchandise. Especially when we focus on topics, common beliefs, that an audience will join together and be excited about – there are things people will pay for. These are communities someone will pay to reach.

I hope entrepreneurs begin to recognize the opportunities around content, and news producers get comfortable with being a real entrepreneur – taking risk in anticipation of a cash payoff. These two groups can learn from each other.