The day media stopped understanding people

Professor George Sylvie, from University of Texas, explains why the only way that the news industry could go back on track is by doing something it has been ignoring for years

I can only speak for myself — and by “myself” I mean “media” and its embedded systems. Media organizations, schools, papers, offices, training, writing, books, politics, management, tech, myths, mistakes, failures and so on. Not anthropology or biology — only media. And I can safely assure you that this is not a field in which academia and companies get along.

Scholars will lividly deny this standpoint, mutants (half teacher, half underpaid reporter) will emerge from the darkness in backlash… I don’t care. Honestly, I would love to be wrong, but 100 years of history haven’t shown otherwise.

First of all, they rarely speak the same language. Second, they definitely don’t cohabitate in the same universe (it would require some nonsense TV series crossover to do that, like Superman and I Love Lucy — yeah, that happened). Moreover, both sides always look at the same issue — here’s journalism, it’s broken, fix it! — from different perspectives which may seem like an advantage but, due to some unsolved mystery, never is. “Different perspectives”, in this case, is a whole new level of dystopian world where contenders fight against holograms in octagons that don’t exist in the same dimension. Really messy stuff.

Too bad these two species can’t find a way to pull off a “collaboration between intelligence agencies” because there are: a) a few exceptions, and b) a lot of good people on both sides. Professor George Sylvie, from the University of Texas (UT), is “a” and “b”. The Louisiana native has been studying the news industry for the last three decades, and has published some of the most well-rounded books about this topic, such as Media management: A casebook approach (in its fifth edition by Taylor & Francis) and Newsroom decision-making: Under new management.

In short, this guy knows his stuff.

I’ve met professor Sylvie in Austin, Texas, where we had the chance to talk about how industry crisis affects J Schools, the outlandish lack of debate about what media companies do with their profits and the most important aspect about why news organizations went on a toboggan ride to hell: “Executives don’t have the time or the patience to understand what drives the money itself — how to make customers and employees satisfied”.

How does the news industry crisis affect the universities and journalism schools?
Good question, with the answer being “many ways”. First, the industry has a big hand in J School accreditation, telling the better schools what courses they can offer as well as issues concerning administration, hiring, mission, etc. The problem is the re-accreditation process often is political and not rigorous, depending on the site visit team and how well its report gets evaluated. As to the journalism crisis, with higher education funding largely being controlled by schools of law, business, and engineering, the issues of enrollment numbers, private donor financing, alumni base, and academic pecking order all fight to control what J Schools do, often with outside funding being the determining issue.

Which leads us to…
So the ensuing falloff from the recurring crisis means academic deans’ (often with no appreciative journalistic experience or affability) — control the purse strings and the public relations, with student needs a distant priority. Even when the industry weighs in, it is in self-interest (read: entry-level jobs) instead of educational effectiveness and best industry strategies. So education gets done piecemeal, in misshapen courses with unqualified teachers teaching unmotivated students how to best market themselves and get an air-conditioned office job in front of a computer, not how to afflict the comfortable or even how to locate the uncomfortable in society. There are exceptions, of course, but they are short-lived or personality-driven. Thus, there’s a talent drain in terms of sheer prepared journalists. Most graduates are, instead, media generalists, I believe.

The five editions of your book Media management go from 1993 to 2016 and they cover basic aspects, such as leadership, motivation, innovation etc. Does it mean that the key pillars remains, no matter if you’re dealing with a 1990’s problem or a 2016 challenge?
Knowledge and educational dogma change extremely slowly, so basics usually apply until research shows they don’t. Technology and innovation — on which media heavily invests and relies upon — are the most dynamic and fluid areas, as you can imagine, meaning professors/authors must stay current about many fields. That includes technology, of course, but also psychology, economics, government politics and regulation, law, and sociology.

What hasn’t changed?
Strategy — not because it’s constant but because media management scholars (of whom there are relatively few) are more enamored by technology instead of markets, competition, strategy, leadership and human resources. Thus such issues as leadership, structure, and profitability are being under-studied or left to general business scholars, who often have no sense of journalism’s public mission. Part of this is because accreditation processes don’t allow J Schools enough room to add more business-related (or even corporate culture-related) courses to the required curriculum; they favor entry-level or freelance-ready graduates.

“This same principle/process eludes today’s executive editors and news directors, but with the goal being more of keeping one’s job, looking as if one is in charge, and pleasing one’s superiors”

Let’s ask the media industry one of the first questions of your book: which one is better, leadership or management?
Leadership and management are distinctly different. Modern Western society’s view of “leadership” is more white, male and personality-driven because that’s what we (the mass media) have trained potential followers to expect or to identify as leadership. In fact, however, a real leader is often a person who develops a workable, profitable vision, based on experience, tacit and overt knowledge, public relations savvy, and collaborative/participative skills, and decision-making awareness. The details would take too long to explain here, but let’s just say you need leadership and management skills to succeed on both a numerical and personable scale.

Why 99% of media executives have failed spectacularly in this transition to the digital age?
Consider that executives today are too conditioned to manage budgets and develop sales, instead of understanding customer and employee behaviors. Most media executives don’t spend enough time around real people to do so. They are paid exorbitant salaries to make important shareholders — whoever they might be perceived by the executive — happy. Last time I looked, that happiness was money-driven. As a result, executives don’t have the time or the patience to understand what drives the money itself — how to make customers and employees satisfied (notice I didn’t say “happy”). If executives understood this, they wouldn’t take the job until they convinced the shareholders of this same truth, because only then can you, as the executive, do the true job of generating revenue through customer and employee satisfaction. This same principle/process eludes today’s executive editors and news directors, but with the goal being more of keeping one’s job, looking as if one is in charge, and pleasing one’s superiors. “False professionalism”, I call it, and it affects even those in the newsroom.

Do you believe there is a chance that someday people will actually pay for the news the same way they pay for Netflix and Spotify?
The answer to this hinges on newsroom structural flexibility in producing appealing formats, whatever they might be. Right now, the determining factors are what a company does with its profits — are they reinvested or returned to shareholders? The more the news industry caters to shareholders, the less likely the possibility of bigger players rivaling Netflix for content on demand from generalist audiences. Smaller, more localized players might continue to surprise experts, but even there the smaller papers are subject to consolidation from money-grubbing would-be owners. This is less true in TV, but no one will cry if TV news dries up. Fewer police and crime stories might even be a good thing.

"The world needs independent journalism" and The Guardian needs your money, obviously

Could you share some thoughts on the donation model, that appears to be working well for big companies, such as The Guardian, and smaller ones, such as The Texas Tribune?
It works, again, depending on the depth of your resources and the goodness or sustainability of your cause. Texas is a unique state, so is England. I doubt you’ll see broader imitations, though, as the appeal gets diluted the larger, more diffuse the idea becomes. Focused, brand-style recognition drives these ventures, so diversity blurs the product. “California Tribune”? Doubtful. So bully for those who get this act to work for them, but don’t expect the industry in general to lean this way, unless we go whole hog and solicit state subsidies — again, the smallness of Sweden (and its homogeneity) makes this idea feasible.

Last year mobile internet traffic surpassed the desktop traffic, and apparently this is bad news for publishers, because people read less on mobile compared to desktop. Where do we go from here?
This is only bad news if you believe it’s bad news. Anything can be capitalized, if you ask your potential customers first. This may mean the comeback of the inverted pyramid, or the story summary, or the detailed graphic. It’s a dead end only for people who think in terms of obstacles. Maybe (fingers crossed) we’ll see an increase in photo essays (not the clickbait kind, either).

And here we go again with that treasure hunt…
Yes, mobile is just another way of asking, “How can I make money with this?” More likely, it may mean (finally) that publishers give up on Facebook dollars and make a grab for Instagram dollars instead. Or that newsrooms find an entertaining way to tell the news that takes advantage of certain apps. This is why journalism schools need to groom software developers who also can design print pages, or convince accreditors to allow them to add such courses without somehow penalizing the journalism student.

Do you believe it still make sense for a media company to be print-first?
Yes, until proven otherwise that profits lie elsewhere. My UT colleague Iris Chyi has spent her entire academic career trying to get publishers to listen to what their eyes are telling them. Numbers don’t lie, but liars (and cowards) use numbers to convince others that they’re not seeing what their eyes tell them. Print-first makes sense until digital dimes start growing into digital dollars, especially if your product includes quality, community-enhancing content since there’s not much chance of abstract issues translating easily into video. Democracy is messy and it’s not always televisable, so democracy-serving print media always will have opportunities at viability — at least until the myriad new revenue streams start to find stronger financial footing in the revenue pie. This is particularly true if subscription-based revenue drives your engine, as good, quality content will always be valued and in demand. The key, however, resides in how agile your print organization becomes in pursuing alternate formats to which popular tastes will sometimes migrate.

As you’ve been pointing out for a long time, market niche was a great bet for media entrepreneurs a decade ago. What would be the new tip, the 2018 bet?
Invest in your people and have faith in their ability to research and develop their own futures. All it takes is a budget line item that never disappears. Structure (properly planned and funded) solves all ills.

Two decades of hardcore journalism in a past life; now Digital Media PhD candidate @ University of Porto, coffee taster and vinyl aficionado

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