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Do journalists need to become entrepreneurs?

I’m especially fascinated by essayist and venture capitalist Paul Graham’s model for a good journalism start-up: Pair up a writer/reporter with a supersmart programmer and a graphic designer.

Other combinations are possible, of course, such as having a videographer on the team. Or, as Charles Pelton has proposed in a different context, putting an events/marketing/conference-organizing/listings-service businessperson in direct collaboration with a journalist.

Bauhaus MoMAThis small team effort makes me think of the Bauhaus movement, in which a skilled artisan was paired with a fine artist to school students in how to meld good design with well crafted creations.

Anyway, the Journalist as Entrepreneur isn’t a new concept, though it’s not widely adopted either. Perhaps the most successful example is Andrew Ross Sorkin. In 2001, when he was an early twentysomething business reporter for the Times, Sorkin came up with the idea for DealBook, “an online newsletter he would e-mail to a list of Wall Street executives and other major players every morning with a roundup of all the major merger news of the day.” Brooks Brothers signed on as the inaugural sponsor. Within a few months, the NYT had attracted 80,000 subscribers. In 2006, it spun off into a blog, which now draws more than 2 million unique visitors a month.

In travel journalism, Elliott.org is the leading example, mixing syndication partnerships with web portals like MSNBC and CNN as well as newspapers nationally, a print column in National Geographic Traveler, a blog and e-mail newsletter, and TV appearances on the Fine Living network.

Among team efforts, Tnooz looks like it’ll make huge leaps this year as an innovative, cross-platform travel industry news platform, with likely conferences and mobile apps.

Chris Guillebeau

The most easily copied and demonstrably effective way of how to be a journalist entrepreneur that I’ve found is Chris Guillebeau. He’s not exactly a journalist, but Guillebeau has landed a book deal for his help-yourself, lifestyle design advice. And his site has laid out a blueprint for how nearly any content creator, including visual artists and journalists, can create a mini-audience (which he calls a “small army“), to 1 to 4 percent of whom you then successfully sell premium priced content, just as he sells his reports-plus-email-updates on becoming a frequent flyer master.

The less imitable but most impressive way to be a journalist entrepreneur is to follow Tyler Brûlé’s example. His new magazine Monocle does two things: identifies a precise demographic (namely, anyone who has had reason to fly business class on Lufthansa or Cathay Pacific) and caters assiduously to offering upbeat content that they’re likely to find useful (even if nothing else than as fodder for cocktail conversation with their business contacts).

Monocle is a model of consistent branding. It distributes the content stylishly, whether it is with articles printed on hefty paper stock or with videos viewable only in high-definition against a black background on its website (as opposed to against the clutter of YouTube).

Lastly, Monocle requires that every one of its initiatives has a sponsor before embarking upon it. Monocle’s podcast series, for instance, was bankrolled by BlackBerry before the series began in earnest.

To be sure, after three years, Moncocle isn’t profitable yet. But the key word is “yet.” Any new publication takes time to break even, and its revenue growth rate is on track to overtake its expense growth rate in short order.

Of all of Brûlé’s lessons that are most relevant to an individual journalist entrepreneur, I think the marketing/branding lesson seems the most commonly neglected. Be consistent and stylish, and your audience will grow. Yet no major Web content publisher I can think of, except perhaps the WSJ, is consistent in observing that rule.

My hesitation with all this talk of the Journalist As Entrepreneur is that being an entrepreneur requires different skills and attitudes to being a journalist. My father attempted being a software entrepreneur, and we had hours and hours of long talks over years about starting a small business. I worry that I’m not cut out for the skills required of the new world.

Malcolm Gladwell recently summarized the common mistakes that entrepreneurs make, according to researcher Scott A. Shane.

New-business success is clearly correlated with the size of initial capitalization. But failed entrepreneurs tend to be wildly undercapitalized. The data show that organizing as a corporation is best. But failed entrepreneurs tend to organize as sole proprietorships. Writing a business plan is a must; failed entrepreneurs rarely take that step. Taking over an existing business is always a best bet; failed entrepreneurs prefer to start from scratch. Ninety percent of the fast-growing companies in the country sell to other businesses; failed entrepreneurs usually try selling to consumers, and, rather than serving customers that other businesses have missed, they chase the same people as their competitors do. The list goes on: they underestimate marketing; they don’t understand the importance of financial controls, they try to compete on price. Shane concedes that some of these risks are unavoidable; would-be entrepreneurs take them because they have no choice. But a good many of them reflect a lack of preparation or foresight.*

For Journalist Entrepreneurs, the most relevant critique, I think, is this one: Failed entrepreneurs usually try selling to consumers, and, rather than serving customers that other businesses have missed, they chase the same people as their competitors do.

Anyone trying to offer their content to compete with, say, the Financial Times, is trying to serve the same customers as an established brand. It’s not exactly rocket science to point that out, but consider the thousands of people blogging for free on sites like Huffington Post, essentially feeding off of, and competing with, mainstream commodity news sites.

Sigh.

The other most relevant “sins” are to underestimate marketing and to compete on price. If you’re selling your content, have you marketing yourself successfully, and are you putting a high enough price on your work? (If you market your brand successfully, you’ll persuade people to think that an outrageous price is a sign that your premium content is especially valuable. Brûlé is charging about $120 for a 10-issue subscription to his magazine.)

So should journalists act like entrepreneurs? I’m not sure. Feel free to post your thoughts in the comments. I’m all ears.

*(Note: Shane defines “entrepreneur” as anyone who is self-employed, such as mom-and-pop operations selling baked cookies, someone running an eBay shop, a podiatrist or an attorney, not just companies that employ more than one person to launch a product or service that didn’t exist before, which is something that annoys some reviewers of his book on Amazon. But in the case of Journalist Entrepreneur, Shane’s definition is just fine.)

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