Why would you work for a dying industry?

One day a while back, I met a one of those digital guru type people at a conference. The kind of person who writes “thought leader” on their CV without irony. Surprisingly I don’t actually mind these people all that much, taken with a liberal dose of salt. It can be quite fun to have one’s thoughts led once in a while.

We talked about the media, which is where I work and what I spend a lot of my life talking about. Twenty seconds in, I was a little taken aback when the guru asked me “So, why would you work in a dying industry anyway?” He was referencing how Google and Facebook are eating all our money, and some of our best people to boot.

I’m not a journalist. I’m a nerd who should, in his mind, probably be lounging on a bean bag at a tech co somewhere.

Clearly, I was in danger at this stage of being trolled. Annoyingly, I find myself immune to trolling on the internet but terribly vulnerable to it in person. But hey, I’ve heard worse at board meetings. I’ll see your provocative question, went my internal monologue, and raise you a sincere answer.

I leant back, took a long sip on my Old Fashioned (I don’t think this actually happened, but it adds to the narrative ambience) and said “Sir, I am not in the optimisation business.”

These words not having the explosive impact I was hoping for, I groped for an explanation.

Twenty years ago, when the media was essentially rolling around laughing in piles of print advertising money, I probably wouldn’t have been interested. There was no incentive to disrupt. Where’s the fun in fine tuning?

Where the media was once, big tech is now. The money tap is jammed in the “open” position, and someone has hidden the butter. Which also helps explain why I’m not in desperate pursuit of one of their logos on my CV.

So it’s cool to work in a place where everybody gets that you have to reinvent what it is you’re doing. It’s creative, and hard, and intellectually interesting. Retrofitting a purpose to a business model is easy. Retrofitting a business model to a purpose is tricky.

And then there’s a couple other reasons. The big one is — not sure if you’ve noticed or not — but the media turns out to be pretty important. 2017 makes that more obvious on a daily basis.

The way I look at things, as nerds we should be finding ways of making the world smarter and more empathetic. You could argue in the last two decades we’ve by and large pretty much failed at this. At the risk of sounding like I’m applying for an EU innovation grant, I believe in shared digital spaces. The world doesn’t need any more filter bubbles.

Oh, and a final one: people in the media are some of the most interesting, intelligent and occasionally eccentric that you’ll find.

Why would you work for a dying industry?