Exiting Media: Pondering new rules for an old profession

I just got kicked out of the tent.

After 32 years navigating my way up and through the media and publishing circus, I found myself standing on the outside, with no clear vision for how to get back in.

Back in 1986, a journalist pulled me aside at a state-wide journalism award ceremony. His grizzled features spoke of decades in the trenches. It was the dawn of digital, but I imagined this guy still banged out stories on a Smith Corona.

He held a cocktail in one hand and put a beefy arm around my shoulders as he said, “You’re in the tent.”

I looked around at the dozens of other journalists from across the state and then the ballroom walls that surrounded us. There was no evidence of a tent. I assumed, probably correctly, he was a little drunk.

“Tent?” I repeated, being careful to sound more interested than skeptical.

While we had just met, and I’d told him little about my career — there was none before this first reporting gig at a local newspaper — he intuited from my ill-fitting suit and baby-faced features that I was new to the industry.

“You got your first journalism job!” he almost shouted, though his unshaven face was mere inches from mine.

I nodded, knowing this to be true but not understanding where the tent came in.

“You’re inside the tent, now feel free to move about,” he grinned.

I finally understood that, by “tent,” he meant the journalism industry (we rarely called it “media” back then).

I started to answer, but my new best friend barreled on, “Now that you’re in, it’s pretty hard to get kicked out. Do your job, make contacts and you’ll be fine.”

I realized that, for him, this “tent” encompassed all of journalism. As Father Journalism saw it, I could move from job-to-job, company-to-company, role-to-role, without ever leaving the big tent, a.k.a. the Journalism industry.

I never saw Father Journalism again. Considering his age, I assume he’s moved onto the big media outlet in the sky — online journalism. But I thought of him often.

He was right.

I worked hard and kept my ear to the ground, always thinking about my next opportunity and the next-big-thing in journalism and, later, media. I steered my way around what turned out to be a very large tent, stunned at how, instead of narrowing its focus, media expanded to every hour and place in our existence.

Its inescapable nature generated more and more opportunities. Sea changes in content production and consumptions rolled over the industry and I rode those waves from job-to-job and company-to-company.

The largest wave I rode, a tidal wave, really, was the shift to online.

The already substantial media tent added an annex in the mid-nineties to the Web. Initially, it was the small room that sucked time and resources from the larger one. Somewhere along the way, though, the ratio flipped, and that annex dwarfed the original tent space.

Slowly, but surely, the old tent folded, and the new tent and a host of new rules became the norm.

In my career, I managed to move from one space to the other quite easily. It was, to be honest, part intuition and part luck. I leapt into online media before I was ready, but, knowing it was still part of the tent, didn’t worry too much.

For years, I kept one foot in the original old-media tent, still working for and running old-school print publications that relied on subscription fees and, mostly, advertiser revenues based on juiced-up circulation numbers.

In the online tent, though, we scoffed at those rules. We had exact audience numbers and we could deliver live eye-balls with a single link in an email or from a well-designed homepage. Charging for the content the way, say, Father Journalism had, was an anathema to the online ideal.

Content is free. Ideas are free.

As the new media tent experienced its first spasms of doubt, we talked about pay walls.

Still relatively young and brash, I hunted down my then company’s CFO who weeks before had given the go-ahead for an online network-wide paywall plan. It was set to go into effect in a matter of weeks.

I took the elevator up to the executive floor hoping I could run into somebody in charge. The CFO was standing in the hallway, almost as if he was waiting for me.

“We can’t do this.”

He looked at me or rather, through me, clearly thinking about his next meeting with our CEO.

“What can’t we do?” he asked.

“The paywall.”

That got his attention. I was, after all, in charge of our largest web site, our biggest traffic driver.

“Why not?” he asked.

“It will, if we’re lucky, cut our traffic by two-thirds,” I told him. “And it could be worse. What we have is not unique across the Web. People will go where they can get their content for free.”

The CFO’s eyes widened almost imperceptibly. He said nothing and then hurried away to get to that meeting.

Whatever I said, though, worked. We didn’t raise a paywall and I literally did a victory dance.

In hindsight, I wish we had built that wall. I bet that many in the media industry wish the same thing.

My argument, which accurately predicted what could happen to a site behind a paywall, didn’t account for how the counterbalance of click-based online ad revenue would capsize.

I remained in the tent, working for a pair of online media companies that each had to find new ways to fund their journalism efforts. Like others, they took the old idea of “Custom Content” and spun it into “Branded Content and the hybrid “Brand-Supported Content.”

Like Custom Content, Branded content is all the stuff you read that is strongly influenced by the sponsors who pay for it. Brands come up with the concept and brand journalists write the content that fits the “big idea.” It paid the bills.

It was around that time that the tent started to fill up with social media infiltrators, platforms that were already hosting links back to our stories but wanted to play a larger role in online media — without being media companies.

Within a few years, those social media partners became more important than brands and old-school click-based advertisers.

Now, it’s worth pausing here to state the obvious: Media had lost its way and the tent was in tatters. We were all chasing clicks. We wanted to create good content, and many did (and still do), but that didn’t pay the bills. The deep dives and investigative journalism rarely drove the clicks. The gnawing concern that content economics were broken grew into a full-blown crisis.

Up is down. In is out.

Media companies that were once the next big thing or could attract millions of dollars in funding with a well-timed conference appearance were stalling out, collapsing, losing focus.

I still understood what to do and how to do it, but realized I’d long ago lost control of my own narrative. I was still moving about the tent, but had this sense that maybe I was too close to the exits.

Then one day, I got kicked out.

From outside the big online media tent, I can see the flaws, how the tent moorings have come undone. How those still on the inside are huddling together, concerned, confused. The social media infiltrators are still there, and they help some, but those inside don’t trust them like they used to.

The media tent is at risk of blowing away.

And if it does, that may be okay. The world of journalism, media and content is now too vast for a single tent. These skills bleed out into numerous industries.

In the meantime, the economics of journalism float overhead, unsure of where to land. Is it advertising? Is it the new economy of crypto currency? Is it the ever-growing number of per-view based paywalls?

I miss the tent and hope it rebuilds, not so much so I can reenter it, but for those entering the media landscape. They still need that network to grow and learn and to meet Father Journalism.

As for me, my path may be outside the tent, joining the traveling circus of story tellers.