Meet Danny, Jack and James, of Little White Lies , Bad Idea , and London-Se1 . They are young journalism entrepreneurs, who recently shared their thoughts with journalism lecturers at the January seminar of the AJE . Delegates also heard about Goldsmith College’s East London Lines start-up, and about the way students are working with a hyperlocal news site in Newcastle. And the icing on the cake (more icing later) was a skype chat with Jeff Jarvis speaking from his desk at CUNY.
This is what I learnt:
We’re kidding ourselves if we think people have ever paid for news. It’s been subsidised, not only by advertising but also by people paying for other content which had news stuck to it. News was the icing on the cake. But not any longer – with bundles of content unpicked by the net’s search economy, news by itself struggles to find a buyer. People have changed the way they consume information, yet the way we sell it (or try to) hasn’t kept up. We don’t know where to put the icing.
So, if journalists want to keep doing journalism, they need more than ever (or for the first time ever) to seek that subsidy; know where the money can be made; know how that cake is made. They could leave that to the commercial department, but the new players won’t be big enough to have departments.
There are probably easier ways of making money, but journalistic entrepreneurs are odd ones – they want to do something (news) that people don’t want to pay for, and their mission is to find ways of subsidising it.
How do you do that? If I really knew, I wouldn’t be writing this. But I can relay the best of what I heard at the AJE.
Business plans etc are great. But the costs of entry (especially in the digital media) are so low that all you might need is a credit card. And a realisation that you might fail, because failing (and learning from it) comes with the territory.
Journalism is your shop window (in two of the above cases it’s in the form of a printed magazine) and it shouts about who you are and what you do best, even if it’s not what ultimately pays the bills. Be noisy.
Build communities. These used to be called readers, or audiences, but their relationship with you is more subtle than an immediately transactional one. Find them on Twitter – the power of which, as one of the speakers reminded us, is ‘astonishing’. We also were reminded by one speaker of what Robert Niles has said in the Online Journalism Review – “doing journalism in 2010 is an act of community organising”
Your revenue can come through all sorts of side doors. People need your news but perhaps it gets paid for by the commission from, for example, people reading a restaurant review and then clicking the top table booking link. Or by clients reading your mag and asking you to produce one for them. And so on. The sources of non-commercial revenue, from not-for-profit places, is another conversation.
In the era of digital abundance, people will only pay for what is scarce. Is what you do freely available elsewhere? Can you create scarcity? Think about what you are really selling, perhaps it’s an experience or a service rather than a product. When people buy bottled water they are paying for the portability, or perhaps the label, anything but the water itself. Journalists never needed to know this stuff. Now they should know how to reach and attract advertisers, even if they stop short of actually selling to them.
Will this work, and what are the downsides? If retreating mainstream media leaves news unwritten, then will entrepreneurs go to court and council and do the nitty gritty of reporting real news where it happens? I doubt it. They will only do what fits their niche, and the model of a ‘newspaper of record’ probably won’t be it. And even a combination of niches won’t replicate the blanket coverage and resources of a traditional local newspaper. So there may well be a democratic deficit. Another danger with small operations is that there’s no firewall between editorial and commercial, so coverage might get tweaked in favour of advertisers. But one speaker said his community is his conscience, letting him know via wide-open fora the minute he steps out of line. Transparency and feedback = reader as regulator.
In terms of job prospects for graduates so taught, there’s another worry – that the world isn’t big enough for all these start-ups, and that surely some people should expect to work for an institution rather than themselves. Jarvis was interesting on this, pointing out that his entrepreneurial journalism graduates often found jobs in the mainstream media. Big media needs, more than ever, people with ideas. And in a culture of change, these people can be young: “youth used to be something you had to get over; now it’s an asset.” I didn’t get a chance to ask him if a course like his might – by producing a new generation of innovative journalists – transform those old institutions into ones better suited for the new media landscape. Perhaps then the future could be institutional after all.
How can universities help?
By, obviously, equipping students with a wide set of production skills in the mainstream and social media. But also by fostering a mindset rather than just a skillset; encouraging behaviours that lead to innovation, risk-taking, and a counter-intuitive attitude. This might mean working more closely with other departments, and seeing what (for example) is on offer from computer science and business studies colleagues.
My own take on this is that a traditional arts and humanities education can contribute more than is first apparent to the entrepreneurial mindset. For example, I’m currently teaching a bit of journalism history, lingering on the media moguls who are the focus of my PhD. And what lessons there are to learn from them! What was Northcliffe if not an entrepreneur in the vein of Danny, James and Jack? He spotted a new niche (cycling) and wrote and published about it, eventually making enough money to launch a newspaper (the Daily Mail) for another niche (the newly literate, freshly urbanised and aspirational lower middle classes) and made his fortune. He even changed the size of a newspaper so it could be folded into a chap’s pocket and find its way into the home where the lady of the house would spot the adverts. Go back further, and find the one-man ‘printerly’ operations – why not study their mission, their revenue streams, their distribution strategies? The history of the mass media is a business history as much as it is a cultural or social one. So, one doesn’t only learn about entrepreneurialism only by studying a module called entrepreneurialism.
Universities can also help by emphasising to applicants and students that journalism is by its nature entrepreneurial, since it involves: having an idea, researching it, fronting people up in pursuit of it, packaging it well, and delivering it in a form best suited to the consumer. Jarvis said, for example, that a journalist’s ‘elevator pitch’ should be the best intro they’ve ever written. Learning how to do that, and learning to think deeply and critically in the less ‘practical’ modules, and of course acquiring a multi-media skill-set – all these add up to three years well spent. For journalism educators, there’s an excellent paper on this theme by David Baines and Ciara Kennedy in Journalism Practice, available here.