Anatomy of a 21st Century Media Executive

Sometime today I’ll give a presentation to a group of academics who want to know what should be taught to 21st century media students. They are professors who train future executives of newspapers, magazines, television and radio stations, film studios, photo agencies, advertising or public relations companies, and totally Internet (what we used to call pure-play) media companies.

The answer consists of four parts.

First, teach ethics, objectivity, research, and probity; in other words, the classical teachings of media schools. Those core skills are essential if you work in a media company that informs, entertains, or persuades. If you’re a reporter or an editor, you certainly need to be ethical and objective and to know how to research your subjects. Likewise, if you’re an advertising or public relations executive, you need to provide your company with ethical, objective, and well-researched opinions and decisions. All jokes aside, even Hollywood executives will find their careers extended if they have those skills. Ethics, objectivity, research, and probity are the skeleton and muscle of a successful media executive.

The second part is something that too few media schools teach: how to make a living. Public relations and advertising schools teach it. Most TV and film schools do, too. Yet too few media schools teach their newspapers, magazines, radio, and photo students how to make a living. Some of that may be because the 20th century belief was that journalism and business are not only separate topics but should be walled away from each other. However, the real-life facts are that, whether they’ll be working for themselves or a company, journalists, radio personnel, and photographers have to learn to make a living.

In recent years, there’s been a movement afoot to teach students entrepreneurship. It’s a movement perhaps arising from fears that there won’t be enough jobs in traditional media companies and that students will wind up working for themselves. That’s OK, but people who won’t end up working for themselves ultimately need to know how their companies earn money and operate. For example, many good reporters get promoted to editors and, if they’re good at that, then get promoted into business management jobs (publisher, station manager, etc.). A solid knowledge of how their businesses operate and how to make a living are akin to digestive and circulatory system for a successful media executive. Without it, she won’t get far or last long.

The third part is something that media schools are only beginning to teach: how to be multisensory. During the 21st century, a media executive won’t be very successful if she deals only with one sense. You can’t deal anymore in just audio. Or just video. Or just text. Unlike during previous centuries, media executives must be reasonably multisensory.

Note that I say “reasonably.” When most newspaper people are told that they must learn video, they erroneously jump to the conclusion that someone wants them to be carrying professional television Betacams on their shoulders. That’s unreasonable. What they really need to do is be aware that most stories they cover might have a video or audio angle. If so, they should carry a Handycam or digital audio recorder or else invite along one of their company’s videographers or audio engineers. Moreover, they should learn to report by voice or video. Have the videographer or audio engineer ask them, “Tell us about this story you just wrote” and roll tape (or digital memory). I’m always amazed at how few print reporters know how to tell a story by voice or on video. After all, they’re supposed to be consummate storytellers. The brain and nervous system of a successful 21st century media executive knows how to tell a story that is heard and seen, not just read.

The fourth, and final, part consists of something no media school I know (except perhaps my own) is teaching: why traditional mass media content is being used less by people and what are the new types and forms of content media companies need to create to replace it to adapt and survive in this new era.

It’s no secret that traditional mass media newspapers, magazines, and broadcast shows are getting less audience than they did as little as 10 years ago. The bald fact is that such content and how it’s always been packaged aren’t working well anymore.

Most media companies and media schools have attempted to fix that problem by simply transplanting traditional content online, as if the problem involves the delivery platform and not the content. Yet almost all traditional newspapers, magazines, and broadcast content are used less frequently (less daily if it’s daily, less weekly if it’s weekly, etc.) and less thoroughly than via traditional delivery formats, according to Nielsen Online, comScore, and other ratings agencies. To paraphrase the Clinton campaign of the 1990s: It’s the content, stupid, not the delivery platform.

Almost every media-industry or media-school conference I’ve been to has tried to divine the content, production, and business models of the future without first answering exactly why the old ones no longer work. The answers aren’t superficial and are more than skin deep. Yet no successful 21st century media executive can survive without having all I’ve mentioned above — skeleton, muscles, digestive, circulatory, nervous system, and brain — encased in the answer of why mass media content is being used less and what new types and forms of content are needed to replace it. Media’s appearance will change. We’re starting to see traditional media companies getting bruised and ripped apart about this even now.

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