Reporter Ricardo Zanirato, (right) interviews Leivinha, who scored the 1,000th goal for Brazil's national team, in 2006. Photo by Sérgio Spagnuolo

Journalism is not a business

But fortunately media companies are

Making money is good. Almost everyone who lives in society can agree with that.

Believe it or not, the same goes for journalists. Everybody in journalism is tired of saying that this is not a very well-paid job, that the industry must reform itself, that jobs are being erased and that Facebook is eating them alive. Yet, they gotta raise money to make journalism.

How do you do that?

Whoever figures out the best way will be a hero. But one thing will always stay in the way:

Journalism itself is not a business. It simply isn’t.

You can try to disguise journalism like branded content, but it is the same thing as calling soy milk, well, milk — when it’s nothing more than just an extract from a grain that is called that for commercial purposes. Sure, you might call it whatever you want, but it’s not real milk — and most people can tell, even if they like it.

Volt’s example

As Volt Data Lab, a new data-driven news agency in Brazil, is making its final adjustments on strategy, tech components, pricing and marketing before our mid-year launch, there is always a question that we face: how are you going to make money with that?

Well, this should be — but it’s not — a “yes or no” answer. You see, Volt is trying a whole new business approach in Brazil: selling data analysis and data visualizations as a newswire. In our country, either a newsroom has its own data team (very few do) or they commission freelancers to work on projects they want (also very few do). There’s simply no cost-effective venture for newsrooms to tap all the reporting resources that data journalism can offer.

While no, we cannot absolutely guarantee that we will be financially sustainable (if so, we would be in the much more profitable fortune-teller business instead), at the same time yes, we are positive there is money to be made by this venture.

We are adamant about the value of what we are offering, as Volt has other revenue streams as well (courses, on demand stories for news media, consulting), which are already on the way — see our partnership with NGO Gastos Abertos or fact-checking site Aos Fatos.

Questions about making money are fine. We embrace them, just as we embrace skepticism, critics and suggestions. Feedback is great.

But what questions on financial sustainability miss, however, is the real objective of journalism: to inform people so they can govern themselves.

If Volt wanted to focus only on branded content, teaching courses or consultancy — which would be fine by the way — it would not be doing journalism. It would be a services company, which is not what we want.

Volt wants to do real journalism, but it has to survive as a company. Since we don’t have the scale to use ads nor the inclination to write branded content stories, this is why we chose a model where our subscribers — newsrooms and NGOs — pay for our content.

If they will pay our very reasonable monthly fee to republish, explore, get early access to text, codes and graphics and to suggest and interact with us about what they want, it remains to be seen.

We are betting some publishers—enough publishers—will. Or we will find another business model that accommodates real journalism.

But what I’m learning from building a company is: if you only want to do journalism and not worry about sustaining a business, you might not want to open your own venture after all.

But if making tons of money for your company and yourself is the sole objective, you definitely do not want to do any journalism at all.

Sérgio Spagnuolo is the editor of Volt Data Lab, a data journalism news agency in Brazil, and a Tow-Knight Fellow for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNYJSchool in the Spring 2016 cohort.

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