Shoptalk: ‘Journalism Thinking’ Needs a Call to Arms

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Think of it like the rise of “design thinking.”

Nobody has ever said: “But what’s the business model for ‘design thinking?’” That’s because design thinking isn’t bundled with a single revenue model. It is an approach to the world. It is a belief that business and government and society are better served by a methodology that comes with an evolving set of norms and bounds and best practices. We can do the same with the best of newsroom culture.

The question then isn’t “What is the business model for local journalism?” but rather “How do we expand and defend journalism thinking?”

For more than 150 years, the two-income-stream, double-sided marketplace model of advertising and subscriptions was so powerful and effective for so long that we forgot why we would even want to have any other model at all. We essentially planted all our farms with a single crop and then watched a virus infect and destroy it. We had no resistance, no business model diversity. No leader in our industry is old enough to remember a time when they were in true open-market competition, let alone such seismic industry rediscovery. So mostly our entrepreneurial journalism endeavors of today amount to planting the same crop again—but this time with a newsletter.

This isn’t a time to give up and say we should all go nonprofit — that’s delaying the reckoning we must confront: the economy is moving ahead briskly with too few true experiments with entrepreneurial journalism. This is a call to arms for acts of entrepreneurship. To take on the bloody and bruising act of creative destruction, ensuring more who do that are flying the flag of journalism thinking.

We can have a new generation of journalism practitioners, provided we do the critical work of developing those models. To do this, it is crucial we understand first that journalism is not an industry, it is a strategy.

With that foundation, we can think about the existing markets and industry segments that would benefit from the values of journalism thinking—values like the belief that hard, honest conversations make for better results, that the mirror of storytelling has always shaped humanity’s self-understanding and that third-party referees that are owned by no one party, including government, are crucial.

Technically Media, the 20-person, decade-old media company I co-founded, is at a telling crossroads. We publish two local niche brands that now compete in market segments not otherwise populated by journalism practitioners.

Technical.ly, which reports on local economies in change, is competing in an open market to support company talent acquisition strategies, in particular employer branding. Generocity.org, which reports on the local nonprofit community in Philadelphia, is developing programming so that large social service providers might rely on us to offer professional development support. We’re listening to our very specific customers. It took us a long time to get here, to both understand this moment and to square off for it.

Now we’re in a new battle with our competitors, none of whom produce journalism and often, I argue, are not particularly beneficial for the communities they serve. This is thrilling.

I want to unseat them, and I need help doing it, and I want far more scrappy, news organizations to do the same thing in other market segments. Journalism organizations should be squaring off against polling firms, creative agencies, design studios, touring companies, field researchers, consultancies, theaters, bars and anything that would be challenged and improved by journalism thinking. Let the market determine the best outcomes, but give journalism thinking a chance to be part of the mix.

Collectively, we could bring greater transparency, community engagement, responsibility, storytelling and commitment to truth everywhere in our economy. With new market positions, we can call for new standards and expectations in an era in which companies owe more to their communities than to shareholders. Incorporating journalism thinking is an act of social entrepreneurship that can have lasting societal and civic outcomes.

To publishers, journalists, news executives, funders and allies: what market are we attacking and how does journalism thinking strengthen our position? How do we get more of these marketplace head-on collisions to take place? We talk about them, we celebrate them, we build them, we fund them.

Of course my point is not that other news organizations should compete in some arcane HR subcategory necessarily. My point is the future of the best of newsroom outcomes is only going to be achieved if we believe journalism thinking must survive, with the aid of market incentives that will ensure they last. To do that is simple: Solve a community problem people already pay for, which a newsroom will strengthen. Then fight like hell.

Christopher Wink is the CEO and co-founder of Technically Media, which publishes Technical.ly and Generocity.org. Find the full version of this essay and other links from the monthly newsletter he sends at tinyletter.com/christopherwink.

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