Friday, March 28, 2008

College Tour, Part 4: Show them the money

I recently had the opportunity to visit a number of universities and to attend two conventions for college journalists. This is the conclusion of a four-part series on my experiences. You can see part one here. You can read part two here. Check out part three here.

After a month of visiting with college students and teachers, I've reached two conclusions.
First, many journalism programs are doing a tremendous disservice to their students. Too many teachers are stuck firmly in the past. And they seem determined to drag their students back in time to an era they understood. For every gifted educator like Ralph Braseth at Ole Miss, Jacquie Lamer at Northwest Missouri State and Chris Carroll at Vanderbilt, there are at least two dinosaurs filling students' heads with nonsense.
Second, many journalism students are woefully unprepared to enter our business. Too many of them are preparing for careers that just won't exist in the near future. These students are naive. They seem to have little interest in studying the industry they are about to enter. They don't read the trade press. They don't follow the debates about the future of journalism. They seem unaware of the tremendous difficulties faced by most traditional publishers. Because they don't follow developments in the business, they have no idea of what the business wants from them.

Interestingly, the solution to both problems is the same.
It's time for journalism programs to start talking about, and teaching about, money.

Cut our losses
For a long time I was hopeful that journalism teachers would learn to embrace the future. I had this idea that the ability of the Web to reach people around the globe would enchant teachers. I believed that interactivity, feedback functions, user-generated content and all the other forms of conversational and democratic storytelling would appeal to people who dedicated their lives to telling stories and spreading information.
But I was wrong.
New media has brought out the worst in many teachers -- turning them defensive, bitter, cowardly and curmudgeonly. The rise of new media, in other words, has had the same effect on many teachers that it has had on many legacy editors.
But there is a difference between editors and teachers. And it's silly for us not to acknowledge it:
We can fire editors.

Many journalism programs are burdened with teachers who are poorly suited to teach a subject that changes as rapidly as does the media world.
But we're stuck with them. The rules of tenure and the traditions of academia mean that these folks ain't going anywhere.
So it's time for a "work around."

The Benjamins
One of the arguments I hear over and over again from legacy editors and dinosaur teachers goes something like this: "Newspapers/my company/publishers make plenty of money already. The profit margins are huge. There's no real problem. The owners/investors/suits just need to be less greedy and spend some of that money on training/preserving the publication/hiring reporters to cover Congress and buying me a cellphone/video camera/Internet connection for my house."
But that's the sort of argument that can only be made by someone who doesn't have a clue about business finance.
Profit margins aren't a forward-looking measurement. They are a backward-looking measurement. More important -- far, far, far more important -- is that profit margins in the publishing industry are often dictated by the banks and other institutions that lend money to publishing companies. Debt covenants set minimum performance levels on a wide variety of metrics -- particularly on net income, EBITDA and similar measurements of "profit." In fact, there's an argument to be made that publishers are being forced to cut expenses (lay off workers) in order to make the numbers required by the covenants. In other words, those high profit margins are the problem, not the solution. And they cannot be cut. Throw in the pressures of competing for capital in a world dominated by hedge funds and private equity, and it's easy for a publisher to fall into a death spiral.
(For a clearer discussion of this, check out this piece by Alan Mutter.)

Don't teach what you don't know
Almost every journalist and journalism teacher at one time or another has made a joke about his inability to do math. The math- and numbers-phobic journalist is a stereotype. But like all stereotypes, there is some truth to it.
So it's simply too much to ask that journalism teachers master the world of accounting and debt finance. There's probably no way to force them to learn. And as we've seen with new media, if you can't force teachers to learn something, then many of them won't learn.
Students, however, are a different matter.
We can force students to learn. Heck, that's what college is all about!

So here's my modest proposal.
If you're a teacher or college administrator who "gets it," who understands the pressures upon the publishing world, sees the opportunities in digital media, and accepts that your students will work in a converged, new media world, this is what you should do:
1. Give up on trying to convert your peers.
2. Instead, push to give your students the tools that will allow them to see the world and the publishing industry clearly.
3. Fight to have a business finance and/or accounting course as a requirement for graduation.
4. Force every journalism student in your school to cover business. Invite business journalists to guest lecture on subjects like "reading an income statement" and "understanding SEC filings." Don't let anyone graduate who hasn't produced at least five multimedia pieces that focus on the world of business, investments and/or personal finance.
5. Distribute salary surveys whenever you can. Make sure your students know that new media pays more than old media.

(Sometimes the stars align. Today is one of those days. I wouldn't want to end my series on the College Tour without pointing readers toward Innovation in College Media, which is perhaps the best source of information for those looking to improve journalism education. Nor would I want to end this series without mentioning Angryjournalist, the site where thousands of our peers are whining, moaning and acting like spoiled children while hiding behind anonymous posts. College kids are reading that site. And it's teaching the wrong lessons. But as luck would have it, the founder of that site has written a guest post for Innovation in College Media. And it's a truly wonderful piece. I ask you to read it. And if you're a teacher, I beg you to share it with your students.)

tags: , , , , , , , journalism education

3 comments:

Joe Zekas said...

Paul,

Although it wasn't your focus, you've identified one of the major problems with j-schools: the students.

My experience as an employer is that schools of journalism and mass communication often function as aggregators of under-talented and under-motivated students looking for a place to drift without seeming to. Math is a problem for these students because they shy away from it – as they do from any subject that's intellectually demanding. Giving them a few math-like business-related assignments won't change anything.

You can't have great schools without great students or good schools without good students. The mediocre faculty at j-schools and mass communications programs simply reflects the student body: good profs have too much self-respect to spend their professional lives with the likes of the students these programs attract.

My recommendation would be to shutter the programs and steer the students toward learning something more substantive and more challenging.

I'd miss the programs greatly, since they simplify my hiring: possession of a journalism or mass communications degree correlates highly with a student who's a mope and whose resume almost always goes to the reject pile.

David Manaster said...

"Profit margins aren't a forward-looking measurement. They are a backward-looking measurement."

That's a great way to put it. I just had a meeting yesterday with my team where it took me about a half hour to say exactly that.

In a fast paced environment, today's challenges are not reflected in last quarter's numbers.

tgd said...

<< Profit margins aren't a forward-looking measurement. They are a backward-looking measurement. More important -- far, far, far more important -- is that profit margins in the publishing industry are often dictated by the banks and other institutions that lend money to publishing companies. >>
Spot on, Paul. I'd add one additional extension:

Media businesses have high fixed costs. Which means all the profits are made on the last few units of revenue. In other words, if you make $1,000 a day in revenue, the first $800 goes to cover your operating costs; the last $200 is your profit.

Which in turn means when your revenues drop just 10% - to $900 a day in this made-up example - your profits drop by half.
And when your profits drop by half with no sign of ever returning, your media property is now worth only half of what it was before. (See McClatchy and Minneapolis Star-Tribune for no finer example.)
-tgd