Journalism is the business of influence

Journalism cultivates and trades in many dimensions of influence.

Illustration of a news team, selling ads, writing copy and tweeting.

Good journalists do what they do because they care. They have interests. The organizations that employ journalists also are guided by interests. They have purpose.

The Washington Post wears their mission on their sleeve. Their tagline is “Democracy dies in darkness.” This stated vision is shared by many in journalism. If true, journalism has a huge reach and impact.

The power to keep democracy alive, if true, is remarkable influence. I love naming things, so let’s call this kind of influence, fourth estate influence.12

But even if it’s not, you know, completely true, we can disaggregate fourth estate influence into less maximal aspects, including positive and negative aspects. The positive aspect would be public interest influence. Let’s call the negative aspect deep wrongs influence.

Next lets consider that most news organizations sell advertisements. They sell those advertisements on the basis of their ability to reach customers. That ability to reach customers is sold to advertisers. Let’s call this ad selling influence.

But these days, because of Google and Facebook and the internet, the news industry’s ad selling influence is waning. So most news orgs are going through an uptick in subscription revenue. That ability of news orgs to convince people to purchase subscriptions is an important kind of influence. Let’s call this subscription selling influence.3

These kinds of influence are related, overlapping, and interdependent, no question. But I think it’s helpful to name them. Let’s add at least two more.

It’s widely held that trust and reputation are the stock and trade of news. A news team cannot retain an audience without trust. A news team literally cannot do their work without this kind of influence. Let’s call this brand influence.4

Journalism teams have a lot of shared expertise. From beats, to style guides, story craft, editorial decision-making, headline writing, typography design, and data visualization, news orgs invest heavily in their ability to tell stories, and engage audiences. Let’s call this power that news orgs cultivate, craft influence.

Influence is everywhere. Journalism trades in it.

  1. Often when I say that journalism is the business of influence, people balk. This happens for a few reasons. One, some people think influence is only a narrow, negative concept. Two, public relations is often thought of as the industry of influence, and people (wrongfully in my opinion) think journalism is separate from public relations. Three, people are suspicious, reasonably, of the business of status.
  2. In this article, “Next time you wonder why New York Times people get so defensive, read this,” Jay Rosen looks at the power of the press by looking at the power of audiences, which I think is interesting.
  3. Here’s a nice article by Jay Rosen about De Correspondent, “This is what a news organization built on reader trust looks like,” explaining the power of subscriptions.
  4. See for example, “Public trust in private realities,” “The trust problem isn’t new,” “Advocating a healthy civic life is no journalistic crime,” “Hint: it’s about your brand“.

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