#jcarn: Asking the right question about capitalism and journalism: What is value?

Note: This post is another installment for the Carnival of Journalism project, where people passionate about journalism are sharing ideas in the blogosphere about ways to preserve and improve the craft.

This month’s prompt:

Can a good journalist also be a good capitalist? If so, how? Or why not?

The simple answer is yes, someone can be good at doing journalism and making money. The problem is it’s the wrong question.

Umair Haque, a creative thinker and blogger who recently published the e-book “Betterness: Economic for Humans,” has it right. He urges organizations to seek arête — virtue — to “maximize human potential and minimize suffering, instead of merely maximizing near-term profit, shareholder value, or revenue.” (p. 40)

It’s a grand variation of a motto many journalists cite: Comfort the afflicted; afflict the comfortable. As journalists, we want to improve the public good through our research, investigations, and stories. The reason so many of us are so passionate about this crazy craft that consumes our lives is we believe it can change the world and elevate the human condition.

The problem with the question as stated is we’ve seen what the profit motive can do to journalism. It led to the yellow journalism of the late 19th century, when stories were fabricated and sensationalized for the sake of sales. Indeed, the Christian Science Monitor and the Missouri School of Journalism were created and the New York Times evolved under Adolph Ochs as responses to the market-driven journalism of the day.

They were pursuing a greater goal, a greater journalism beyond profits.

We are at a similar crossroads today, as publicly traded media giants contort and flounder trying to meet competitive threats from all sides.

Take Gannett Co. Inc., the nation’s largest newspaper company. Like many of our major media companies, it has focused on maximizing shareholder value, a capitalist virtue. To meet the expectations of the market, it laid off 700 employees in July — its fourth major layoff in three years.

Shortly thereafter, CEO Craig Dubow resigned from the company because of health problems and received a $37.1 million payout per his employment contract. Yet Gannett is still struggling to find its way as a journalistic enterprise.

The market-driven model does have its share of successes in today’s media environment: Pixar, Google, Apple. When Steve Jobs died in October, many drew inspiration from his quotation about success:

My passion has been to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products. [T]he products, not the profits, were the motivation. [Former Apple CEO John] Sculley flipped these priorities to where the goal was to make money. It’s a subtle difference, but it ends up meaning everything.

As we’ve discovered lately, though, even Jobs and Apple made some concessions to be able to manufacture millions of iPods, iPhones, and iPads to feed the technological masses (and, not coincidentally, its income statement).

Fortunately, journalists at news organizations big and small are figuring out a way beyond the traditional free markets we’ve touted for so many years:

  • NPR: National Public Radio has gradually been weaning itself from public dollars to develop self-sustaining support through grants and listener donations. Joan Kroc, the wife of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, donated more than $200 million from her estate and helped firm the financial footing of the nonprofit news organization.
  • ProPublica: This nonprofit website was the first online-only organization to win a Pulitzer Prize for its journalistic excellence. In three years, its donations have grown from 18 percent of total contributions in 2009 to almost half in 2011.
  • MinnPostOne of the first high-profile ventures into nonprofit online journalism, MinnPost.com made its way into the black this year.
  • WellCommons: This public-health community-journalism site, created by Jane Stevens as part of the for-profit Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World media organization, has connected the community and a small staff to focus on health issues facing Lawrence. Stevens is now creating her own version of that model in California.

The focus in these examples is financial viability, not profitability. The income statement makes the journalism possible, and it’s this reality that inspired the original #jcarn prompt. But the driving force in these examples is the journalism, the greater public good, arête. If we focus too much on the market, on the push for profitability, the inevitable result becomes dollar signs over human beings.

Today’s list of great capitalists would have to include Warren Buffett, whose Berkshire Hathaway Inc. had more than $372 billion in assets as of third quarter 2011. But even a great capitalist such as he considers the idea of taxes in the context of society, not in terms of personal gain. As he told ABC News recently:

The question is what is fair when you have to raise multi-trillions to fund the United States of America.

It is in this context we should view Berkshire Hathaway’s purchase of the Omaha World Herald. Buffett would not have bought into the newspaper if he did not see inherent value. The question is how much profit is enough for value: Forty percent? Ten percent? One?

For Buffett, “value” includes the public good. As he said at the press conference announcing the sale:

I think newspapers . . . have a decent future. It won’t be like the past. But there are still a lot of things newspapers can do better than any other media. They not only can be sustained, but are important.

They not only can be sustained, but are important. It is here that our conversation should begin.


2 thoughts on “#jcarn: Asking the right question about capitalism and journalism: What is value?

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