Surviving the Media “Earthquake”

Reg Chua

Reginald Chua

Surviving the changes shaking the traditional media markets requires journalists to specialise and take responsibility for marketing their expertise, two industry leaders told students at the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre.

Reginald Chua, Editor-in-Chief of the South China Morning Post (SCMP), and Sheila Coronel, Director of the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University, spoke to about 40 students attending Vaudine England’s final Freelance Journalism class of the semester.

Sheila Coronel

Sheila Coronel

Chua focused on the evolving business model of journalism. Coronel advised how students should adapt. The lecture ranged from gloomy pragmatism to hopeful optimism.

“The sustainable business behind (journalism) seems to be falling apart very quickly,” Chua said.

“That’s important to all of us from a very personal point of view, because we want to be paid. But it’s also important from a structural point of view, because if we think journalism has value and is important to society, then we need to find a way to keep it going.”

Chua took up his post at the SCMP in July, 2009. The new job ended 16 years with The Wall Street Journal. He was the Journal’s Deputy Managing Editor in New York and was previously the editor of its Hong Kong-based Asia edition.

He challenged the audience, which included masters students with professional journalism experience, asking: “When you write a story, who is paying you?”

“You have to understand what business you’re in,” he said.

Early in his career with The Wall Street Journal, Chua said he learned a lesson about profit flow. A consultant had visited to evaluate the newspaper. Chua remembers telling the man with great assurance, “Thank God I’m in the news business, and people want news!”

The man replied, “No you’re not, you’re in the eyeball business. You make all of your money on advertising. And what are you selling when you are selling advertising? You’re selling eyeballs.”

Online competition has hurt “eyeball sales” with proliferation of free content and lower barriers to entry (publishers no longer need to own a printing press). However, Chua reminded students that new media also hold enormous potential for the future of journalism: broader reach at minimal expense, more storytelling potential and lower overheads.

The online journalism model remains in a state of transition. He compared restructuring of newsrooms to 19th century factories, when electricity redistributed the workflow in a steam-powered workplace.

“We’re just at the beginning of the stage of changing the newsroom factory floor, and we frankly don’t know how to do it,” he said.

“What the industry needs is journalists with imagination, people who have core values and understand the purpose of journalism.”

Journalists with talent will always find work, he said. The losers in the flattened media landscape will be middlemen, such as senior-level editors, as well as mediocre journalists. The key to success becomes specializing your expertise, while broadening your skills to capitalize on the new media opportunities.

“You got to think about what you bring to the table. You have to be the best, or the third best, at something. It may be a very small sliver of something, but you have to figure out what it is, and you have to figure out how to market and sell yourself.”

Coronel also advised that students develop an area of expertise. She said that specialization helps market one’s personal “brand name.”

She provided three exemplars of individuals with successful brand names: Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, who specializes in covering the developing world; Chris Anderson, editor of Wired Magazine, blogger and author specializing in technology; and freelance business journalist, Michelle Leder (examining corporate filings, and training others to do the same).

“These three people have very different interests, and very different sizes of audiences,” Coronel said. “They have succeeded in making themselves well-known brand names in the fields that they cover.”

She suggested that students consider developing their own five-year or 10-year plan to establish their brand.

Coronel established her reputation in investigative reporting. She became a journalist working in the Philippines in 1982. She covered politics and human rights abuses, and she helped to establish the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.

Her reporting exposed government corruption, which led to the imprisonment of President Joseph Estrada. She moved to New York City in 2006 to work at the Columbia School of Journalism.

Whatever one’s journalistic interest, new technologies offer tools for selling one’s brand name, she said. She warned students to be careful. Careless use of social media can be dangerous to one’s career.

Coronel said self-branding tools include:

  • Blogs: a possible revenue generator (Michelle Leader, for example, sells her consultation services from her blog)
  • Personal websites: featuring examples of work, biographical information, area of expertise, contact information
  • Twitter: provides a resource for promoting and distributing one’s work to readers
  • Facebook: another promotional resource, which can be used to poll or survey targeted demographics
  • LinkedIn: useful in career networking, finding work, self-promotion

Journalism remains a profitable enterprise. But the media shakeup has changed how many journalists earn income.

Coronel said the situation reminds her of the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991 which triggered massive earthquakes.

“It erupted spewing tons of ash and changing landscapes for hundreds of miles around,” she said.

“So what were once low-lying areas became hills, and what were once rivers became dry land, and what were once secure, nice communities were underwater.

“The entire terrain changed. This is what’s happening in the media now.”

— Doug Meigs