The Cyberbrains

Research and contemplation in new media

Lessons hard learned — and lost

We don’t need another techo-gadget this Christmas. Just leave Nelson Poynter under online journalism’s tree.Clyde Bentley

Last week many of us read two more online journalism sob stories. Steve Outing told us how his Enthusiast Group nose-dived despite his optimistic reading of media-use trends. And K. Paul Mallasch posted a hat-in-hand grovel for donations to keep the Muncie Free Press alive.

It’s an all-too-familiar plotline: Talented journalist has idea for award-winning publication. Said publication may indeed win a few awards and gain a following, but goes broke for lack of advertising support. It wouldn’t be so bad if that was the plot to a movie. But it’s a long-running series.

Nelson Poynter knew the script by heart in the 1940s when he was building the St. Petersburg Times. While he made a fortune with his business savvy, he recognized that most journalists are terrible business people. He set up the Modern Media Institute in part to give great reporters and editors the other skills they would need to keep out of bankruptcy court.

God bless him. I was a fellow to the Media Management and Entrepreneurial Program at what is now the Poynter Institute in 1989. Billed as a “mini-MBA” for journalists, it took the wind out of roomful of cocksure journalists by showing them there was a whole world of knowledge they had missed in their master’s degree programs. My 10 weeks at Poynter made my career.

I found that one need not be a media whore to make money in journalism. Certain audiences need certain information. And certain merchants want those audiences. The trick is to assemble the equation in a way that both conforms with one’s professional mores and pays the bills.

I don’t really know what happened to Nelson Poynter’s dream of training journalists to keep their own profession solvent. The institute bearing his name wandered of to the feel-good topics of writing style, design and leadership. All very necessary, of course. But dozens of institutions taught them even in Nelson Poynter’s day without denting our reputation as fiscal incompetents.

Despite our best intentions, online journalism will not flourish until we bring Nelson Poynter’s lessons into the 21st century. By nature, we journalists launch our ventures with our vision of a story – then hope someone will pay us for it. Unfortunately, Americans have never been willing to pay directly for news – though they are quite willing to pay indirectly by adding the cost of advertising to the goods they purchase.

The path to success I learned at the Poynter Institute was to first find a group of merchants unable to reach the customers they need. Then find out what type of journalism those customers want. It’s not rocket science, just directionality.

So I’m sorry for your losses, Steve, K. Paul, etc. But I won’t be donating and I will shed few tears. It’s time for a tough love in our profession. And old Nelson was one tough bird.La sua parte positiva e’ che il casino di due di tre o di quattro verra’ pagato 40 unita’ per una unita’ giocata, e un poker creato da quattro Assi verra’ pagato 80 unita per una sola unita’ puntata.

November 27, 2007 - Posted by | Clyde Bentley

1 Comment »

  1. Yeah, I hated to beg for work/donations…

    Things are looking up, though.


    Comment by K. Paul Mallasch | January 18, 2008 | Reply

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: