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Chronicle of Higher Education CEO advises learning digital, business aspects of journalism

SaveSaveSaveWhile guest speakers at the Cronkite School’s Must See Monday events often stress the importance of telling a good story, the latest presentation by CEO and editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Michael G. Riley, took a different approach. Riley encouraged students to balance the skill of reporting with an understanding of the digital and business aspects of the field.

Riley founded and managed, a political website for Time-CNN, which was one of the first national political websites and the first to do real-time election coverage in 1996. He was a correspondent for Time, editor and senior vice president of Congressional Quarterly, editor for The Roanoke Times, as well as editorial director at Bloomberg Government before working with The Chronicle of Higher Education.

“What are the lessons that I take away from this journey?” Riley said. “There are a dozen of them. I tried to cut it down to 11, but I couldn’t give them up so it’s an even dozen.”

Surveying the crowd of journalism students, Riley emphasized the power of the niche, explaining that mass audience is a very difficult thing to contain. If one deeply understands an area, the more one delves into that subject of expertise and the easier it would be to sell that information to people who care about it by making it readily available, Riley said.

“The audience is first,” Riley said. “There is nothing else that should come first. Who is the audience that you want? Who is the audience you need? Who is the audience you can you serve and serve well? You’ve got to have a laser light focus on that. Journalism is not a product…it’s really a service.”

Riley emphasized that journalism done properly helps individuals better manage their lives, but to achieve this, “knowing” the audience is essential.

“That’s one of the things in the digital world,” Riley said. “That’s a huge advantage. We can learn a lot about our audience and we really should. But not many people are doing that well.”

Riley said “data rules,” and he adamantly urged students to find a way to get involved with classes or labs that teach digital skills. Being what he referred to as, “masters of technology,” makes one a prime candidate for jobs down the road.

“When I go out hiring people now, that’s one of my questions,” Riley said. “If they haven’t done anything or don’t really know much about it, I’m much less inclined to hire them… It really is the tool to story telling in multiple dimensions.”

Cronkite student Jacqueline Padilla said Riley’s advice about finding jobs struck a chord with her.

“I think we’re all so set in our ways of reporting the news and getting to the right publishers that we forget about how important business is or business model is to start or innovate a new company,” Padilla said. “Recently, I was really focused on finding a business class or at least a journalism business class that I could take because I’m thinking, five years from now, how marketable that would make me. I think for Mr. Riley to say that was kind of reassuring.”

Another Cronkite student, Emily Antuna, said her favorite lesson from Riley’s speech followed a similar vein.

“I like how he said we need to know ourselves, know our strengths as well as our weaknesses,” Antuna said. “He brought up the fact about knowing what you bring to a job because that’s your value and I think it was a really important thing to hear, especially at our age.”

Infusing the three aspects of journalism — the editorial, the business, and, now, the technology tiers — is the way to reinvent the industry, according to Riley. This is a task the next generation of journalists must take on.

“If you care about journalism, learn about the business model,” Riley said. “We don’t have a journalism problem today. We have a business problem. If you don’t have technology, business, and editorial working together at the same table, you’re not going to be able to build the future.”

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