In the past 30-plus years I’ve interviewed dozens of candidates for jobs in journalism. Among the questions I always posed is this one: Why are newspapers published?
To date, no journalism school graduate has known the answer, which is, of course, to make money for the publisher.
Last year I participated in a get-together with journalism students from the local college. I asked my question and received the same b.s. answers as always (“To… uh… provide the community with a voice?”)
When I told the students the answer, the instructor disagreed and repeated the same nonsense his students had already provided.
Mine was a common sense observation, gently delivered. As a friend of mine recently wrote, “If you want to see heads explode, try explaining to people that they are not the customer and the newspaper is not the product… advertisers are the customer and reader attention is the product.”
If you were to run that past your typical journalism school faculty, the resulting cranial detonations would register on the geology department’s seismometer.
And yet it is entirely, one hundred percent true.
We in the newsroom should have no illusions. Our entire purpose is to fill the “news hole,” which is the space left over after the advertisements have been placed on the page.
That’s the fact that underlies Seinfeld’s comical observation: “It’s amazing that the amount of news that happens in the world every day always just exactly fits the newspaper.”
That’s one way of looking at it. Another way is to say when you work for someone he/she is the customer to whom you are selling your effort, skill and industry. So if you are employed as a reporter then you work for the publisher through his/her agent the editor. (For purpose of this post, “publisher” means “owner”.)
Your job is to keep the publisher happy. Certain stories and topics will make him/her happy. Others will make him/her unhappy. Too much of one and not enough of the other and you will be unemployed.
The primary concern of the publisher is usually to make a profit. But the publisher may have more financial interests than just the newspaper. If, as is very common, the publisher is a major corporation or Feelthy Rich Capitalist, they
may will probably view the paper as an integral part of the corporation rather than a fully independent entity. They will then expect the paper to advance the interests of the corporation/FRC.
This isn’t just true of newspapers. It applies to magazines, radio and television news as well as some blogs. So if a corporation like General Electric were to purchase a television network, they would expect that network to advance GE’s interests. Those interests would include government policy and legislation that affect GE.
So if the leadership at GE concluded that it was in the best interests of GE that Candidate A defeated Candidate B in the next election, they would expect their network to help Candidate A win. This would affect what stories got coverage and how they were slanted.
It’s really that simple.