Why Journalism Failed

Posted on October 22nd, by Michael Rosenblum in Journalism. 16 comments


The last bastion of Feudalism in the US

If you went to Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, the odds are you could just as easily have gone to Columbia University’s Law School instead.

Had you gone there, however, your life would be radically different.

For while journalists across the country are reeling and facing unemployment in 1929 like numbers, lawyers are doing just fine. They always have done just fine.

The reason is the difference between Law and Journalism as professions, and it is one worth examining; one which Mssrs. Downie and Schudson assiduously avoid.

At the end of the final year at Columbia Law School, firms come swarming, seducing the best and the brightest students to come and work for them.  

The firms, by the way, are nothing more than partnerships of lawyers themselves, often past grads of Columbia or other such fine institutions.  

The firms hire the first year associates, pay them reasonable salaries and then set out to further educate and nurture the associates; the best of which will become in their turn, partners in those very firms.

Thus lawyers have built for themselves a professional institution that goes far beyond the school. It embraces and takes care of the members of the profession. The lawyers are partners in the firms and the firms themselves exact enormous power in the world of politics and professions.  It works. 

The firms, ironically, come and go, but the institution survives and thrives.  Lord Day & Lord, Coudert Bros.;  Millbank, Tweed; Case, White; Fried Frank… and so many more. They provided a home and a locus for a generation of Columbia grads.  

Now, let’s look at Journalism.

Journalists who graduated from Columbia in 1983, when I did, went to work for large institutions for the most part – The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal (where my classmates, Pulitzer Prize winners Geraldine Brooks, Tony Horwitz and Ron Susskind all went), NBC News, CBS News (where I went).  

These were very very powerful corporations.  Far richer than Millbank Tweed.

Yet no one who went to work for The Wall Street Journal or CBS News or The New York Times was ever offered a partnership in those companies.

Those companies were owned by rich and powerful families.  

We, the Columbia grads – smart and aggressive, were offered the role of serf.

And not even well-paid serf at that.  Honored serf, for sure.  But serf never the less.

Thus we (and thousands of other journalists) never had any real interest in the ‘business’ of the business. And why should we? It was clearly out of our hands.  In fact, our culture of journalism had inculcated in us the ‘belief’ that the ‘business’ should be handled by the ‘business people’ down the hall. Not us.  Business was not for us. And neither, apparently, was equity.

This was a cultural belief deeply held by all journalists, much to their detriment.

So while the legal profession went on, nurturing it’s graduates, training them, and making sure that they were not only well fed, but rich and successful; journalism, the supposedly more progressive of the two professions, was in fact the one that was the most troglodyte.  The last vestige of the Middle Ages.  ‘Yes m’lord Sulzberger.. and doff your cap and tug at your forelock.”

This is why journalism is dying today.

Because we did not pay attention. Because we had no vested interest in our own profession.  Because we acted like and were treated like children. Infantalized.

Imagine a law firm in which the partners took a ‘hands off’ policy toward the very business of runing the firm!  Sullivan Cromwell – filled with smart lawyers. But the ‘business’ part of Sullivan and Cromwell? Well, we leave that to the ‘business’ people.

And the partners at Sullivan and Cromwell, all of  whom take home well over $1 million a year. Suppose we just salaried them and fired them when they got to be around 50 years old and too expensive to carry.  Unthinkable? 

That’s what happened to journalists.

Those who built the NY Times on their hard work and sweat an brains found themselves living only by the good graces of the beneficent Sulzberger family – whose only claim to fame and power was by dint of their position as President of the Lucky Sperm Club.

It’s an outrage.

But more than that – it is the singular reason that we as a smart and well educated professional class did not pay attention to key events like The Internet Revolution From Which We Should All Have Profited Mightily But Did Not.

Because we were ‘hands off”.

And, this nonsense continues to this day.

Yes, Press Baron Murdoch…. my Lord.

Please don’t fire me…. my Lord Press Baron.

Please allow me to scrape a few crumbs in to feed my family while you earn billions on my labor.

What is wrong with us?

Failure to own.

16 thoughts on “Why Journalism Failed

  1. Great post. I’ve written quite a few times that journalists’ lack of business training makes them ill-equipped to address the industry’s problems; it’s the basis of part two of my post about problems with Downie. It’s interesting to read an explanation of why they might lack that training. Perhaps/hopefully it will change as journalists take over the means of production through the Internet. Good work.

  2. Brilliant stuff! 🙂 But what you propose instead? The only solution as I see now is “everyman for himself” – your own web sites that will earn for themselves. “Proffesional blogs” – but that won’t happen in farm terms either. Dust in the wind. Thats what journalists are. And I know that by myself.

  3. Really interesting. Let’s take the argument further, and ask how journalism might create a partnership model like the legal professional. 3 or 4 smart/experienced journos set up shop, hang out a shingle, and produce great analytical journalism. They produce a newsletter, generate in-depth reporting for a small group of high-end clients, which subsidizes “pro bono” work on behalf of the public at large. It could work. There are already lots of fmr journos working for private clients. What if they create a public-facing product too? Thinking out loud here.

  4. Do you hold a government license to practice journalism? If not you could face a huge fine or prison time.

    Whoops – my bad. You are a journalist – not an attorney. There are no license requirements.

    Back in feudal days most professions were controlled by government sponsored guilds. These days there are only a few left. Lawyers being one.

    I don’t think promoting government licenses for journalists is going to fly in the US.

  5. You don’t need a license to establish a profit sharing partnership.
    Look at all the hedge funds.
    My point here is that journalism driven business like CBS and The NY Times eat up talented people’s lives who give their all. What they should offer back in return is partnership in the firm. The firm being NBC News, for example. Is that too much to ask? Why should people bust their asses for 30 years for the Sulzberger family, whose only real achievement in life was… well to be born into the Sulzberger family. I thought we tossed the nobility in 1776.

  6. Finessing forms of business organization is not going to help journos. You confuse the legal notion of partneship with the everyday notion of “equal partners”. A junior partner can typically be removed very easily – a senior partner is like senior management, they can be removed but it costs more.

    Now if journalists could put up significant barriers to entry like lawyers, that would change things overnight.

    But there are an awful lot of people, like yourself, pulling in the opposite direction:

    “Hi Any idiot can do this, I’m an idiot, but if I come work with you I want an equity stake in the organization”. Have I got that right?

  7. PS – if the Guardian (most popular newspaper website in the world) could convince journos to go with profit sharing rather than salaries, it would cost an average of $34,000 a year to work there.

  8. Ah, but journalists can put up significant barriers to entry. There are many ‘junior partners’ at a newspaper like The New York Times, but if Maureen Dowd, Paul Krugman, David Brooks, Thomas Friedman and a few others got together (the ones that the Times was once going to put behind the pay wall), they are, in fact, the Senior Partners – and said that they wanted equity positions (including right to control direction of the company) or they were leaving… what would happen? Curious. In the end, what would be more damaging – their leaving, or Arthur Sulzberger Jr leaving. Who would even notice the latter? In a world of the Internet where presses are increasingly superfluous, what is the core of the paper? Yet where does the residual power lie? It’s a remnant of another era – and IMHO, an unhealthy one; and I believe one that in the long run will simply not last.

  9. But why would David Pogue want control of the NYTimes? Or Walt Mossberg control over the WSJ. Isn’t the 7 figure salary a greater lure?

    Of course journalists will benefit from developing entrepreneurial skills. But the model would be the market trader not the partner in a law firm.

  10. From Erik Gunn, my classmate at Columbia (who WordPress seems not to like)

    I do think more can and should be taught to nurture an entrepreneurial spirit among journalists. But I think the analogy goes off the rails in a few places.

    For one thing, Mike, lawyers are not doing just fine.

    It may not necessarily undermine your overarching thesis, but…

    check this: http://lawshucks.com/2009/10/this-week-in-layoffs-10909/

    Big Law is laying off scores of associates. Big Law is canceling summer internship programs for law students. Big Law is cutting salaries of entering associates.

    I do think you’re on to something — it’s why I’ve chosen to have the freedom of being a freelance writer and editor for the last 14 years.

    I do agree with you that more can and should be done to cultivate an entrepreneurial spirit among journalists. But I’m not sure that will make journalists who do the most important work of shining a light on the dark places of our society — journalists who are way too few in number — any more financially comfortable.

    And that’s the real problem I have with your analogy: Who pays for lawyers, directly? They are hired guns, and they earn the fabulous wealth of which you speak because powerful interests pay them to advance those interests. Who pays to represent the poor? A combination of charity and the state.

    We already have a vast cadre of professional communicators who entrepreneurially go out and make vast sums by representing the interests of parties wealthy enough to pay them.

    They’re called Public Relations operatives.

  11. I suppose that law firms could have evolved with this kind of bifurcation, where driven entrepreneurs started law firms and just hired and fired lawyers at will. But I think the partnership model worked out better for the lawyer. Journalists must overcome their antipathy and fear of business.

  12. no – partnerships were the only permitted form of organization for lawyers until recently. It had nothing to do with sharing the wealth, it was a mechanism for holding them fully liable for any mistakes/frauds, preventing them from hiding behind the “corporate veil”.

  13. yr friend does not mention the tens of thousands of essentially unqualified para-legals in India working mostly compliance issues for US law firms. A great model for the partners – expenses in rupees, income in $$$.

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