News Leadership 3.0

May 26, 2009

Can journalists be entrepreneurs?

Knight Digital Media Center’s News Entrepreneur Boot Camp brings demonstrates that journalists have skills that will help them adapt to entrepreneurship. But the risk-averse culture of the profession also poses challenges.

Can journalists be entrepreneurs?
If last week’s KDMC News Entrepreneur Boot Camp is any indication, the answer is a resounding “Yes.”
The center brought together 15 journalists who are putting together news and information start ups for an intensive course of training and coaching in business, marketing and product development. There is no telling how many of their projects will succeed. But if willingness to march up a steep learning curve is a factor, these entrepreneurs should do well. (See Robert Niles’ ideas on the Boot Camp on the OJR blog.)

The sessions brought into relief some of the advantages that journalists bring to entrepreneurship along with a couple of drawbacks.
Here’s my short list (with apologies in advance for some broad generalizations).
1. Brains. Many journalists are smart and creative.
2. Persistence. Good journalists are persistent. The entrepreneur needs persistence, a lot of it. Virtually every entrepreneur who spoke to the Boot Camp mentioned at least one previous failed start up or years of wrenching twists and turns on the road to success.
3. Networks. Journalists may be able to tap into a wide array of useful contacts. Shoba Purushothaman, Chairman and Co-Founder of The NewsMarket, said that losing touch with her sources when she left journalism for business was one of her biggest mistakes.  “We don’t recognize the power of the network,” Purushothaman told the fellows, “Network, and network outside your own sector.”

1. Traditional thinking. Journalists tend to have trouble thinking outside the box of journalistic convention (the rules, not the princples, as Geneva Overholser recently pointed out).  Either way, the tried-and-true holds most journalists in a firm grip and, as we have seen in the news business, perfecting the familiar gets more attention than re-inventing the model. Breaking away from that grip requires a willingness to take risks, something that is not well developed in the culture of a typical news organization.

It’s especially challenging because no one knows what the new box or boxes are going to look like. Discussing the business model for news, media analyst Ken Doctor told the fellows: “We have some idea of the elements that are going to be part of it. We don’t know the proportions of each or how they’re going to fit together. ... It’s an ecosystem that we can’t see yet because it doesn’t exist.”

Another piece of traditional thinking is the idea that only newspaper newsrooms as we have known them can deliver good journalism. Most of the new ventures will start very small and build on success.

2. Business phobia. Journalists are squeamish about business. The attitude that news and information is a public good for which people should pay will hold many would-be journo-preneurs back. They must recognize instead that the job is to create a service that will sell.

3. Math phobia. Journalists are math-challenged and that weakness will cost them in entrepreneurial roles. As Doctor said: “A problem we have here is that if we don’t do math, other people do it for us.”


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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

Get in touch with Michele at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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Support is provided by:

John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

USC Annenberg School for Communication

McCormick Foundation

Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute


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