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Home > Publications > Quill > Smooth News: Embrace your inner accountant


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Monday, May 7, 2007
Smooth News: Embrace your inner accountant

By Clint Brewer

It is easy to forget that at its most basic, journalism is not just a public service but a product peddled in the name of commerce. Yes, it sounds strange to say it out loud given our typically esoteric discussions within the Society of Professional Journalists, but most of us work for capitalist enterprises.

Though we are coached from freshman year J-School class to our cub reporter indoctrination period to resist the influences of the business side of the building, in the end the majority of the serious journalism being produced in this county comes from companies that exist to make money — lots and lots of money.

Somebody has to bring home the bacon so the newsroom can eat. And if one makes their way into newsroom management, they will find out just how much it takes to feed a decent-sized news operation.

Often, the end reward of a successful journalism career is a higher-paying management job that from day to day can have very little to do with the practice of journalism. Newsrooms management positions with budgetary responsibility require a professional journalist to cultivate other talents: marketing, human resources management, accounting and strategic planning to name just a few.

Ironically, many of us majored in journalism to avoid taking any more math in college. Now, decades later, your journalism career has been a success. Your reward? A spreadsheet filled with numbers accounting for how the newsroom you manage spends the company’s money.

Here are some steps to crafting a budget on your maiden management voyage:

Don’t be intimidated

The first step in learning how to craft and manage a newsroom budget is not to be intimidated.

It is likely your reporting career prepared you for just such a day. If you have ever sifted through government budgets, SEC filings or property records, you probably know a little more about numbers than you realize.

Look at the crafting of this budget in the same way you would write a budget story. It is simply a matter of making all the parts fit together and the numbers adding up logically.

Understand costs

Every media organization does it differently, but a newsroom budget is pretty simple. There are human expenses — that would be the actual journalists — and there are material expenses covering needs such as wire services and toner cartridges.

Unless you are creating a start-up, there will be budgets for your department prior to your tenure as manager. Obtain those budgets and understand what each budget line item entails when it comes to material expenses. Understand down to the account if possible what each vendor charges and what that rate is based on. Also, communicate directly with vendors and content services about when expected rate increases will come, and they will most likely come every year.

The next step is to carefully consider each cost. Responsible budgeting means spending your company’s money so it makes your product better. Trim fat where possible and invest back in the product when it is logical.

In terms of your newsroom employees, understand what your company’s philosophy is toward raises and promotions. Some companies are more generous than others, guaranteeing newsroom raises beyond a standard cost-of-living increase each year. Others take a wait-and-see approach, stopping each quarter to re-budget. Find out what the corporate philosophy is and work within that context.

Know expectations

It is crucial to know what is expected of your department each budget year.

Are you expected to cut expenses by a certain percentage?

Are you being given a certain percentage increase in your budget with the expectation of creating new products, adding staff positions or augmenting the base product in some way?

Is it a status quo budget with only raises to consider?

As with any other endeavor, if the premise is incorrect, the product will not meet expectations. Communicate with your direct supervisor to make sure you understand what the goal of your budget is each budget year.

Personnel, personnel, personnel

Perhaps the hardest task when building a newsroom budget is the issue of the staff itself. Journalists consider themselves chronically underpaid, and now you have to deal with dividing up a relatively small pie. That can be particularly hard on new managers if they came up through the ranks and are now managing people they once shared a foxhole with.

Personnel is the lifeblood of any news organization. The talent in your newsroom is the greatest commodity your company has, and their quality work is what the advertising and circulation departments market and sell.

You are the gatekeeper of that talent. Be a good steward by rewarding people who deserve it and sending a clear message to those who need to be more productive.

Any budget is a management tool. Make your newsroom budget decisions concerning personnel reflect the appropriate individual level of achievement and commitment of each newsroom staffer to the product’s improvement. Be a good steward of your company’s product by making your budget a fair one when it comes to the people you manage.

Be an advocate

When you are crafting your budget, be an active advocate for the news operation. In this day of cost cutting and cutbacks, it is unlikely others in the building will be.

Use those old reporter skills and study the political dynamics of the company’s budget year.

What managers are on the hot seat?

Where is your individual property in the corporate pecking order?

What new projects or initiatives will allow you to expand your team?

What can you sacrifice without giving up quality if cuts are called for?

In order to be successful, you have to play the game. Know the management terrain and the mood for the budget year. Then, be your department’s advocate to the powers that be. In the end, that can be a newsroom manager’s greatest contribution to their company’s journalistic efforts: making sure the resources are available to do good work.t


Clint Brewer is executive Editor The City Paper (Nashville) and SPJ President Elect.

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