Q & A

With his gift, Andy Lack seeks to examine the effect of changing media on the economics of journalism.

By Patrick L. Kennedy
Above photo by Nigel Parry/CPi Syndication

“Understanding the business of journalism makes better journalists,” says Andy Lack (CFA’68), CEO, Media Group, Bloomberg L.P., and a member of the Boston University Board of Trustees. It’s a dictum borne of experience, and one that has encouraged Lack to endow the Andrew R. Lack Professorship in Journalism & the Business of Media.

This new COM faculty chair is reserved for a distinguished expert who will be not only a dynamic teacher, but also an active contributor to the public discourse about the economics of news media.

Lack began his career in television acting, then moved into TV news production, eventually becoming president of NBC News in the 1990s. Now, as CEO of Bloomberg, Inc.’s media division, Lack oversees 2,300 reporters in 146 bureaus around the world, producing content for television, radio, and web and print outlets, including the New York Times and USA Today.

Lack took time out of his schedule to speak with COMtalk about his hopes for the professorship in his name.

“You don’t want to think about how to make profits; you want to think about how to produce journalism that has an impact.”

COMtalk: What’s the purpose of the professorship?

Andy Lack: It’s journalism first. What journalists do is central to this position. The environment in which they do it also needs to be addressed, and the individual who occupies this chair will have to connect those dots. I want someone for this particular role who has the background, the experience, the passion and the love of this line of work. And only if you have lived it do you understand all of the business aspects that affect it. The Lack Professor will be able to speak to students about real life in newsrooms and about the issues that journalists deal with and the business environment that they’re operating in. So when they go into this fabulous line of work we love, they’ll have a richer understanding of what they’re going to face.

And what are they going to face?

There are many different mediums, new platforms and new technologies that are having an impact on how we report and how we find facts and then put them into a narrative that people can read or see or hear. They’re changing how we go about making and distributing a story. So how do you use your Twitter news feed? How do you use YouTube? How do you produce video that tells the story? How do you use the essentials that arguably go into every story—observation, research, going to the scene yourself? And then how do you use all of the journalist’s tools to distribute more effectively the work you’re doing? And what’s, ultimately, the business model around that? How are you going to support the organization or the individuals who are doing the work with you? These are all in play, in different ways now than they were a decade or two ago. How we navigate these various issues, and the impact that they’re having on the work we do, is what I hope the Lack Professor will engage our students in.

Will the Lack Professor challenge students to find the business model that’s going to make journalism profitable?

I don’t really think about it that way. I think that’s the wrong way to think about it. You don’t want to think about how to make profits; you want to think about how to produce journalism that has an impact. What does it take to do that? And, I suppose, what’s the cost of that? And what’s the return for the viewer, reader or user? How to make journalism profitable is not really a question that animates my interest at all. Whether journalism can be profitable in the future, the way it has been in certain periods of time in certain media, is worth studying and worth thinking about, and the new business models around new technologies are worth thinking about. But the focus of this job is storytelling first.

So the business aspect of the chair is really more about how to stay in business, how to keep journalism thriving.

That’s a good way to put it. I hope the Lack Professor and students have a vigorous dialogue about that.

You’ve spoken in other forums about how mobile and tablets fit in.

Those are new ways that people will consume news. People didn’t think until fairly recently about consuming information on their phone. Making stories for those screens and writing text for those devices are great opportunities. I actually think “new media” as a phrase is no longer even relevant, because the world’s moving too fast! I want the professor in this chair to be a journalist first, exploring all the ways the pace of change in the world that we’re living in affects the reporting we’re doing.

Most of the values that we teach in journalism schools today, and have taught—those values don’t change. But the platforms on which the journalism is distributed is, I think, having an impact on those values. And we need to examine that. What is the blogosphere producing? What is my understanding of what I’m reading? What is the difference between opinion and the context for opinion? What is aggregation doing to my understanding of real reporting, original reporting? That’s where the business of journalism is of interest in this discussion, and that’s what I hope the Lack Professor will help bring to light.

Will there be a research component to this role?

I think of research perhaps a little differently. I like looking at the daily, global journalistic output, and researching how it got to be what I’m seeing or reading. What was the process behind the information that I’m getting? What went into that story that I just read on my tablet of choice? How did it get edited? Where was the video for it? Did they edit the video? Who did it? How did it get done? Why did they do it that way? What was the purpose of it? How did I get it? Did it come through a link? Did it come from a website I knew? Did it come from a source that was clearly identified to me? Who’s the individual that shared it or brought it to my attention? In each of these questions, there are different sets of answers, arguably, and the better we understand the source, the better served we are by the information; we can then put it into some context.

What makes COM the right place for this kind of professorship?

I went to the College of Fine Arts, but I’ve spent the better part of my professional life in the news arena. I think the faculty and leadership of COM are looking at the new ways we should be teaching and examining journalism and communications, and that’s an exciting and healthy approach. Change is so exciting in our world, and COM is helping students to look at these changes and then move out of the University into great careers and leadership roles.

I think what I love about COM is whether you [alumni] end up in journalism or advertising or PR or mass communications, on the business side or the creative side, you come to it with a rich understanding of all the different sides of the equation. I think COM is one of the few places that’s pulling it all together. I like that: no boundaries, no walls, no silos—just an open, transparent look at this whole area.

For more on the Lack Professorship and BU’s efforts to save accountability reporting, visit the COM Department of Journalism.

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