RALEIGH — Some parents in Naples, Fla., are upset that their kids in journalism classes are being graded in part on how many ads they sell for the school newspaper. I think the Collier County School District may be onto something.
Journalists have always touted the “wall of separation” between news and advertising. That’s well and good. You don’t want the local car dealer telling you to kill that story on SUV rollovers, do you?
But there’s a problem when journalists huffily refuse to be concerned with their paper's solvency. Newsprint prices going up? Not their worry. Ad sales tanking? Not their problem. Layoffs necessary because of rising newsprint prices and low ad sales? Whoa, there, skipper! This is the newsroom. We’re doing God’s work. Not that many of us actually believe in God, you understand, but you know what we mean, right?
Back during the 1991 downturn I learned firsthand how ignorant many (most?) reporters and editors are about matters of economics and business. Our paper had to make some layoffs in order to keep our bank happy and, as managing editor, it was my lot to inform the unfortunate few. You see, we’d just borrowed $28 million to build a new plant and the bank wanted certain assurances that we’d pay it back. Profit margin was one of the key indicators that made them happy or nervous, and our margin had shrunk to the nervous level.
Since newsprint and personnel are the two biggest expenditures at any newspaper, the obvious solution was to cut back on newsprint and cut back on FTEs (full-time equivalents). Often the FTE costs can be held down by not filling vacant positions, which invariably brings howls of protest from desk editors who have open positions. But sometimes there just aren’t enough open positions to make up the difference between lagging revenue and growing expenditures. That’s where layoffs come in.
These realities don’t often intrude into the journalistic mind, and it certainly isn’t easily understood by the person you’re looking in the eye and saying, "I have some bad news."
Many reporters become editors and many editors later become publishers. When a newsman becomes a publisher he suddenly has to be concerned with the bottom line. The reason that most publishers come from the ad side is that they understand economic realities and don’t look down their nose at profit. Some editors make this transition successfully, for which they are named turncoats by the ink-stained wretches in the newsroom. But many do not.
Which brings me back to the Collier County School District. Perhaps forcing reporters and editors to at least give some thought to the business side of the high school paper is something that will help the industry in the future. After all, it's suffering through the biggest crisis in the history of print journalism and the current crop of news executives don't seem to have a clue about how to deal with it.
Maybe when these kids get into a professional newsroom, they will have some new ideas about how to make their product appealing to the consumer instead of holding the reader in contempt, as is usually the case these days. They might also have a healthy respect for those working on the revenue side. After all, they bring in the bucks that pay their salaries.
Jon Ham is vice president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of its newspaper Carolina Journal.