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October 22, 2008

Making change ($$) in the Age of Change

The pressure is on to design a viable new business model for print journalism. At USC Annenberg School for Communication, I spend the better part of my day worrying about how students are going to get jobs, earn a living and make a difference in their chosen field: arts journalism.

Freaks me out to contemplate. But yesterday, I found, if not God, then a social entrepreneur who offered insights and possibilities. 

Adlai Wertman.jpgAdlai Wertman joined USC's Marshall School of Business this fall as a professor. Having  spent 19 years as an investment banker on Wall Street, he knows his money angles. In a conversion of what might be faith and responsibility, he spent the past seven on Skid Row in Los Angeles as President and CEO for Chrysalis, an organization that trains and employs the homeless. Chrysalis identifies and concentrates on the 1000 of Skid Row's least-likely-to-be-employed. Wertman knows from goodness.

Considering that the street and a cardboard condo seem a real possibility for some in journalism, I paid attention to Wertman at Annenberg's director's forum. He drew a strong distinction between a mission-driven business and a business.(Arts journalists are mission-driven, I reasoned, let's follow that route. I had earlier this semester taken my students to spend the day and night on Skid Row.Call it the Steve Lopez effect -- though this field trip has been an integral part of my Annenberg work for seven years, which is to say it's governed by authenticity and not airy fancy.) 

He said, "The money is always going to win. The money is chasing digital media and the money doesn't care about anything but the bottom line."  (True. We know that. So, we arts journalists may not "win." Now, lead me to our Mission.)

Wertman quoted economist Milton Freidman who said, "Business and mission don't belong together," adding, "I'm not sure I disagree with him because I'm not sure I trust business with anything else." (Okay, so if you are mission-driven, as the new arts journalism business in my imagination most organically would be, then you are really, really best off not even trying get a return on investment for whomever is fool enough to sink money in your mission.)

Wertman called these so-called fools, "Venture Philanthropists." Sweet. Has a ring to it. Part of his revolution or subterfuge is to steal the language of business. Social worker = social entrepreneur.  Executive director = CEO. Non-profit organization = an enterprise. He views the present as a time of unprecedented integration, seeing in it opportunity for social change. But, how to play into the old business model without "playing into its definition of success?"

This leads him to qustion the word "profit"?

The non-profit model in journalism, Wertman suggested, is closely aligned with organizations such as Human Rights Watch, which, at present, supports a consortium of more-than-decent staffed journalists who are breaking stories and focusing attention on human rights --  and they are not paid advocacy arms for HRW. The journalists write the truth about what they see and learn about human rights across the world. Just because they help HRW achieve its mission does not mean the journalists lose their integrity. A firewall exists. Their stories are also often published on Huffington Post.

Profit in Wertman's world is measured by making a difference to people one bowl of soup at a time. (Or one story, which in the case of Lopez at the LA Times, radicalized city policy on homelessness, not all for the better, but at least attention is now being paid.) 

"If people don't know about a subject, they won't care about it," Wertman argued, therefore it is in the interests of non-profits to get the word out about their mission and allow trained journalists to seek the truth without influence.

(What arts organizations are out there, I wondered, that care enough about good writing on the arts to staff journalists? Moreover, is it possible for a consortium of arts journalists to seize the opportunity in this border-blurring, bubble-popping digital world to frame a mission that is in alignment with a non-profit arts organization or foundation?)  

If the mission is to provide informed arts stories and reviews that helps an arts organization or foundation achieve its mission, then it could be a win-win.

Here's the deal: I never met an arts journalist who was in it for the money; most are in it for the art. Success is not measured by making bucket-loads, but by making a living and a difference -- one story at a time. We are, to this degree, more like the artists we cover. Wertman is training students to think differently about folks like us. We'd better be ready, stop fretting, moping, freaking out and get active (I thought to myself). Opportunities abound.

Any joiners out there? Venture philanthropists? Arts journalist missionaries? Ideas? 

October 22, 2008 11:41 AM | | Comments (1)

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Check out our new interview with Adlai Wertman at the home of MIPtalk - Conversations with the World’s Most Interesting People. Join the conversation at http://www.miptalk.com/?p=1

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