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A brief introduction to the business side of journalism

Not many people outside the industry understand journalism and how it’s funded. That wouldn’t be a problem if the same people realized they didn’t understand how it’s funded. One frequently hears or sees someone accusing something of being clickbait or fishing for clicks, with no concept what clicks are worth. In esports, there seems to be a common belief that a company can attain profitability simply by getting to the front page of League of Legends subreddit consistently.

Of course, the larger issue of not understanding media monetization is not limited to esports. And there’s a degree to which I sympathize with readers and viewers. Why would they know how it works? There are many industries about which I know nothing because I’m not in them and have made no attempt to understand them.

But journalism is a different kind of industry because it touches the lives of almost everyone. And in many ways, it’s not an industry at all. At its very best, journalism is a public good. It informs citizens, encourages wise decision-making and quite literally makes the world better. At its worst, it obfuscates, makes people dumber, and prevents progress. Maybe because of the pervasiveness of journalism, or “the media,” everyone thinks they know how it’s supposed to work.

My colleague Vince Nairn has a great column about esports media. This is not that column. I want to focus exclusively on how journalism is funded. I don’t consider myself a professional journalist anymore. I’ve firmly moved to the business side of the industry. But I have a journalism degree and worked professionally as a business journalist for several years. I’ve seen every monetization strategy that exists. I’ve worked at newspapers reliant on advertising and some memberships. I worked at Bloomberg News, which makes money by selling expensive subscriptions to Bloomberg “terminals” that give users access to troves of financial information. I’ve worked at Debtwire, where all the information was behind a paywall. And now, in addition to Slingshot, I’m executive publisher of Talking Points Memo, which gives 99 percent of content away for free and is funded through a mix of advertising and memberships.

The first thing to understand about the business of journalism is that journalism is not a business. This fact needs to be understood or the entire premise of monetizing journalism might not make sense.

Journalism is an activity. Anyone can “do” journalism. A professional journalist just happens to do journalism (or at least claim to) and get paid enough to live off of it. But the primary purpose of journalism is the transfer of information from those who have it to those who don’t have it, and there’s a belief that information should be free. Because of this, most are hesitant to pay for journalism. In order to fund journalism, some other source of revenue must be found to subsidize its production. This monetization has often come from advertising, subscriptions, licensing, or events. In some cases, journalism is thought to be of such importance it is funded through donations in a non-profit structure.

But journalism, on its face, is not sustainable on its own. If it was, people would be more willing to pay for it. Imagine walking into a grocery story and all the produce, meat, dry goods, etc. were free, and the grocery store made all of its money through advertisements plastered all over the walls.

That’s the publishing industry: The monetization of journalism. I’m going to be publishing more articles that dive into various monetization strategies and the dynamics and economics of journalism and content creation. I hope you find them insightful.


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