When Journalism Professors Moonlight

What Can Go Wrong When Dabbling Outside Your Expertise

Am I a bad person because I monitor several journalism professors’ Twitter and Facebook feeds specifically because I think that their postings provide apt measurement of how clueless or ignorant they can be about media management and the business model problems of the news industry?

Let me tell you the two reasons why I feel no guilt at all: scope and scholarship.

The National Restaurant Association here in the U.S. estimates that 60 percent of all new restaurants fail within the first year and 80 percent within five years. Have you ever considered why? The owners of those new restaurants must have thought what they cooked would attract and satisfy consumers, leading to success. So, why then do most instead fail? Research studies by that association, as well as by academe, report that establishing, operating, and sustaining a restaurant requires much more expertise than just cooking. It requires expertise about accounting and finance, about customer service, about local and state regulations, about location and product marketing and advertising, about personnel management in not just the kitchen, etc. In other words, diverse expertise beyond just cooking.

Cooks and chefs might believe that their culinary skills are all that are needed for a restaurant’s success. Yet 60 to 80 percent of the time hard reality will demonstrate otherwise. That reality is why the best schools for cooks or chefs (such as the Culinary Institute of America, Cornell University, Johnson & Wales University, etc.) have specifically established and teach undergraduate or postgraduate curricula about restaurant & hospitality management. Graduates of schools that teach such management curricula have higher success rate running restaurants than do graduates of cooking schools that lack such curricula.

Newsrooms are the kitchens of the news industry; editors and journalists are its chefs and cooks; and journalism professors are who instruct new cooks. Much like professors at the best culinary schools are experts at cooking, journalism professors are experts at teaching journalism: make no mistake about that. However, I estimate that 95 to 98 percent of journalism professors have no academic degrees, training, nor actual experience running any business, nonetheless a media one. Sure, some of those journalism professors might have been editors before teaching and thus have managed the personnel and budget of a newsroom; but that is akin to managing a kitchen, not an entire restaurant. They lack diverse expertise in accounting and finance, customer service, local and state regulations, location and product marketing and perhaps advertising, necessary required to operate a media business enterprise.

Moreover, most journalism schools in the United States lack any Media Management curriculum. I have been fortunate the past 15 years to work for a school that does. During all but two of years, its Media Management curriculum had been jointly taught by both the media school and the business schools at my university. Graduates of that curriculum need gain the expertise of both.

Indeed, imagine the howl from journalism professors if business school professors claimed attempted to teach or claimed expertise in journalism! Yet so many journalism professors nowadays moonlight as if they were media management professors. Hardly a day goes by without me reading one or more journalism professors suggestions how to solve the media’s business problems despite their having no academic degrees, training, nor professional expertise in business. Have they performed scholarly research or published peer-reviewed academic papers in the specific field of media management? Have they attended any academic conferences in that field of Media Management, such as the International Media Management Academics Association or the World Media Economics and Management Conference? Would they be qualified or capable to teach a non-media business course, nonetheless one about the specialized subject as media business?

Moreover, I shake my head in dismay at the number of journalism professors who have begun teaching what they term ‘Media Entrepreneurship’ in apparent academic imitation of television shows such as Shark Tank or Dragon’s Den. Almost none of those professors have academic degrees, training, or experience in the general field of business, nonetheless the business specialty of entrepreneurship. (Indeed, perhaps their only tangible entrepreneurial experience was simply the intrepreneurship of launched such a course within their college!) Despite their lack of academic qualifications or professional credentials to teach business, they purport to their students to be expert enough about both entrepreneurship and media business to teach the combination of those subjects at an accredited collegiate level.

None of these journalism professors dabbling in Media Management or teaching Media Entrepreneurship have researched or can competently explain the fundamental reasons why during the past 15 to 20 years most traditional media industries have lost half their previous consumers, half their previous advertisers, and lost more than half their annual revenues. What answers these journalism professors might give are superficial and lame excuses such as ‘Wall Street or corporate greed’, ‘media corporate consolidations’, the failures of traditional media industries to find viable business models online, or other merely symptomatic effects of the actual problems. If you don’t know the underlying cause of a disease, then you shouldn’t be practicing medicine. Likewise, if you don’t know the underlying cause of the huge problem in the media management arena, you shouldn’t be dabbling, moonlighting, or practicing Media Management or teaching Media Entrepreneurship. What harm might there be otherwise? Ask your doctor.

Virtually all blog or other postings journalism professors make in the field of media management focus on how to continue sustaining newsroom payrolls. They purport solutions such as government subsidies for the news industry, government forcing Individuated Media companies to share revenues with distressed Mass Media news outlets, moguls purchasing news outlets, journalists ditching print or traditional broadcasting instead to start online-only news outlets, etc. None of their suggestions actually focus on either the fundamental causes of journalism employment declines during the past 20 years or how nowadays to self-sustainably integrate journalism into the new media environment.

I do understand that these journalism professors mean well. Yet most of what they blog or post concerning media management issues would quickly be given a ‘C’, ‘D’, or in some cases, ‘F’ grade if they were new students in an actual Media Management curriculum because their suggestions are almost always simplistic or superficial, not new but have long been studied and rejected. I know because I’ve been teaching that curriculum at the postgraduate level in a major school of media since 2007 and had consulted full-time for the prior ten years about these problems of media management.

Unfortunately, these journalism professors’ steady din of suggestions or ‘solutions’ about media management issues tend to drown out expert ones from actual Media Management professors simply because professors of Journalism outnumber those of Media Management by a ratio of about 30 or 40 to one. In other words, the dilletantism of Journalism professors posting about Media Management dilutes or sidetracks effective implementation of actual solutions. Don’t listen to people who suggest flu remedies for COVID.

However well-meaning, Journalism professors need to stay in their own lane for the logical, as well as scholastic, reasons that I’ve mentioned. Professors of Media Management defer to their actual qualifications, credentials, experience, and expertise about journalistic issues. They would do well likewise to defer to we who have the actual qualifications, credentials, experience, and expertise to teach Media Management issues. The media industries will be better that way.

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