Online journalism startups have it backward

A journalism company is worth only as much as its data. That data should be current, because it's engaged in daily news activity, but it's knowledge that brings advertisers to you and your ability to make a marketplace.

Journalism is the business of organizing and advocating an industry, location or lifestyle.

I have spent most of my career studying online journalism in its challenge to the status quo.

I have practiced my craft online since 1985, but my interest in it goes back to 1977, when I argued with my professors at Northwestern's Medill School about the possible impact of an online world on the news business.

(To the right, old Joe Medill 1823-1899, from Wikipedia. Publisher and co-owner of The Chicago Tribune, Mayor of Chicago in the wake of the 1871 Fire.)

What I learned then is routinely ignored now, especially by online journalism start-ups.

Simply put they have it backward. They are making a case for their product on the editorial mechanics, and they should be concentrating on the ad side, on the business case.

Look at that definition again. Journalism is a business. It's not a profession. That's a lie told by j-schools to young journalists so they won't notice the names on their schools are those of publishers, of businessmen. Journalists are people who work for people.

Second, organizing and advocating. Note that organizing comes first.

Organizing is what every publisher promises both advertisers and readers. It is their business case. Back in the 20th century the most eagerly-awaited product of every vertical publisher was their industry directory. Lists like the Billboard 100 are the consumer manifestation of this.

Market intelligence is what brings people to you, not your exposes. IDC bought Forrester, then went private, on the value of the data and market expertise the company held, not the latest headlines from ComputerWorld.

A journalism company, in other words, is worth only as much as its data. That data should be current, because it's engaged in daily news activity, but it's knowledge that brings advertisers to you, knowledge of your readers, a focus on their interests, and your ability to bring together buyers and sellers.

IT companies advertise with ZDNet not because they love my blogging, but because ZDNet ad salesmen can demonstrate that advertising with us helps their bottom lines. They measure things, they organize markets. They are the engine of the company. I'm the entertainment.

As Mark Knopfler sang in his song Stand Up Guy, "Who keeps the do-re-me in our pockets, keeps the party going on? It's the man who sells the potion. I'm just the one that sings the songs."

I do what I do because I love what I do. I know my income is limited as a result. The real heroes of this game are the people who hire people like me, the people who define markets, who direct the investigation of them, who organize the data, and who keep the doors open.

If you want to be one of them, more power to you. I'll send you my resume when they tire of me here. But don't pretend that you can be a journalist after you launch. You'll be a businessman.

Be a good one. I need the work.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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