What Journalists Don’t Know About Money

By Jack Limpert

One of the great learning experiences for an editor is the annual budget meeting where you have to defend any overspending in the current  year, argue for any increased spending in the next year, and make cuts and compromises to get the money and people needed to improve the publication. I always felt it was the editor’s job to protect other editorial people from the often heated arguments about magazine revenues and spending—church and state and all that—but in retrospect maybe it would have been good to let several editors and writers sit in on the budget meetings each year so they better understood the real world of publishing.

The real world of publishing? It’s that if you want to continue improving you have to do constant pruning. It’s delivering bad news to some journalists: We don’t need you anymore. Yes, I know you’ve been doing your best but things have changed; let’s see if we can help you find another job so you can leave with a smile. We tried to make it as painless as possible but sometimes the cuts weren’t at all gentle.

Usually when I looked back at the painful changes a year later, I thought the magazine was better off for it. Sometimes the “better off” also was true for the editor or writer who had to leave.
When I read stories, like this one today by 29-year-old Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein about why investing in infrastructure (more government spending) is more important than cutting spending, my first reaction is  to wonder if the writer ever had to sit in on an annual budget meeting and make hard decisions about what had to be cut before you could get what you wanted to make things better. The nature of most journalists is to want to improve society, which often means more government money “invested” in doing good things.

My skepticism about let’s just spend without balancing nice-feeling generosity with painful cuts mirrors some of the political opposition to candidate Barack Obama in 2008: The guy has never held a real job, he doesn’t understand what’s needed to make something run sensibly and efficiently, he’s never had to fire anybody. That argument never seemed to resonate with journalists: Who cares about profits and losses? We’re sociologists, not economists. We want to relieve pain, not inflict it.

One journalist, Jonathan Rauch, wrote a brilliant piece on this in 1992 for the National Journal. It became a good book, Demosclerosis, but his ideas now seem mostly forgotten:

“In Washington, every program is quasi-permanent, every mistake is written into a law that some vested interest will defend furiously. The result is that as the old clutter accumulates, government cannot adapt.

“First, old programs and policies cannot be gotten rid of, and yet continue to suck up money and energy. And so there is little money or energy for new programs and policies. The old crowds out the new.

“Second, and at least as important: When every program is permanent, the price of failure becomes extravagant. The key to experimenting successfully is knowing that you can correct your mistakes and try again. But what if you are stuck with your mistakes forever, or at least for decades?”
At any journalistic enterprise the editor often has to cut things (including people) that, as Rauch said, “continue to suck up money and energy.” You can’t let the old crowd out the new. You have to get rid of your mistakes. You can’t let the short-term kill you in the long-term.

A journalist who had been promoted to the top editor’s job at a magazine once told me, “I can’t believe I’m signing checks for $100,000.” Yeah, I thought, but wait until they tell you to cut editorial expenses by $200,000 next year.

Speak Your Mind