Help Wanted: A New Cadre of Business Leaders for News
Why we need, and may now get, top talent on both sides of the newsroom Wall
Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (especially its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.
For decades, one of the peculiarities of the business of news was the contrast between the talent of top editors and senior business people. There were exceptions on both sides, to be sure, but the best editors at the best news publications were generally among the most capable at what they did in the country; many of the nation’s most promising young writers and reporters aspired to these roles, and aimed at them from early in their careers.
On the business side, by contrast, very few of the most able young people going into business looked to news as a career path. While usually prosperous, most print businesses in the postwar era presented relatively few management challenges and little opportunity to fundamentally alter their course. Family management of many leading news companies exacerbated the problem: top jobs there were off-limits to rising managers, which could not help but send the most ambitious in other directions.
During the decades when the news business was enormously profitable this dichotomy didn’t matter all that much. The news side demanded more creativity than the business side, and got it. If the business operations were insular, slower to innovate, or less efficient, well, near-monopolies and high profit margins tended to overwhelm those factors.
In our own time, this has changed, with critical implications. During the 16 years (and counting) of the business crisis of the press, the challenge of running news businesses has grown enormously. (Tragically as it turns out, the complexity arrived with the dawn of digital publishing a decade earlier, but went unrecognized, or was just fumbled, by many of the managers then in place.)
Top business side jobs aren’t just harder now, they can also be much more rewarding, at least psychically. Opportunities abound to build a new set of institutions to replace the legacy institutions that are, mostly, faltering. And new skills are called for: many of the rising entities are nonprofits, with analogous but distinct revenue streams; technology continues to evolve, and fluency with the issues it spawns are essential; at the same time, changes in viewpoint about the world of work and our society more generally put a premium on more diverse workforces, more equitable workplaces and greater and more sensitive attention to motivating and retaining staff. Nor, in some cases, is it too late for a new cadre of managers to recast and reinvigorate some of our great legacy publications.
Identifying and supporting a new generation of business managers for news is thus a crucial task of our era. It’s how I spend a lot of my time these days, and it can be enormously satisfying.
This week, the American Journalism Project, which was founded in significant measure to help address this issue and with which I am delighted to work, joined with a stellar group of local partners to announce what is being called the Ohio Local News Initiative. The first tasks of this new entity will be to select news and business leaders for its initial effort, an independent newsroom in and for Cleveland. It’s an honor to serve on the search committee to identify a CEO for the Ohio Local News Initiative—the job description is here.
Roles like this one don’t come with stock options, nor do they pay double-digit or triple-digit multiples of the amount earned by a company’s lowest paid employee. But they pay competitively, as they should, and they offer all the challenge any entrepreneur could ask for. Most important, they present an opportunity to help transform a community, to shore up local democratic governance at a moment when it may hang in the balance across the country, to build something that matters, and that needs to endure. These are business roles fully worthy of sitting side by side with the best journalists working today.
 Among the news companies managed by family members were The New York Times Co., The Washington Post Co., Knight-Ridder, Times-Mirror, Advance/Conde Nast, McClatchy, the Boston Globe and a host of smaller independent metropolitan newspapers. A similar dynamic held at companies long run by their founders and controlling shareholders, from Time-Life to CBS to Rolling Stone.
 Some might say similar issues are starting to be seen in some technology companies whose growth may have outstripped the abilities of their founders to effectively manage them.
If you go back to the the last century, the "joke" was that the business model for a local newspaper was that you get some good journalists, some good ad sales people, and everything else you do as cheaply as you can. This was an expressly stated formula. That worked then in local-monopoly days, and newspapers became very focused on tightly managing expenses for the short term.
The only news companies that recruited at top MBA programs in the 1980s were Time Inc. and the NY Times. The other ones that regularly hired MBA's then were the ones experimenting with electronic information services, like Knight Ridder and Dow Jones. The early platforms like Prodigy and some "teletext" services, which some news companies were involved with, did attract some good business talent back then.
But as the business challenges become greater, more digital and more interesting, I hope you're right that combining the interesting challenges with the important social mission will bring in a new influx of business talent to take the industry forward.
I'm in complete agreement with your analysis, Dick. And we are finding some success in attracting good business minds into our work at Cityside. But here in the Bay Area (and I imagine you found something similar in NY), the rewards for someone good at, say, product, audience or sponsorship in the tech industry are so enormous that a lot of talent is unavailable to us.
Fortunately there are some who understand our broader mission and are inspired by that. And there's certainly a growing tech diaspora who want to do work with meaning. But the challenge of finding talent on the business side is substantial.