Can good journalist + good capitalist = possible?

By Steve Outing

This month’s Carnival of Journalism, hosted by Michael Rosenbaum, asks the provocative question: “Can a good journalist also be a good capitalist?”

I’ll probably open myself up to charges of being “ageist,” but here goes…

Working at a university journalism program (University of Colorado Boulder), I’ve come to the conclusion that the next generation of journalists will be better capitalists than older journalists. Because what I’m seeing on this campus, and I’m sure it’s similar at other university journalism programs, is a growing number of students who are interested in business-model innovation for news. No, certainly not a majority, but enough to feel some optimism.

More new journalism graduates will want to build new news businesses, because they’ve grown up to see lone bloggers starting on a shoestring build sizable media enterprises

That’s logical, since many journalism students (but not all, in my experience!) recognize that the old news institutions that try to cling to their old business models are crumbling, and they understand that to forge a career in journalism they will need to come up with new ways for news entities to be profitable, or at least sustainable — whether they go to work for an existing news organization or create a new digital news enterprise from scratch using today’s and tomorrow’s inexpensive or free digital publishing tools.

At the Digital News Test Kitchen, I’m working with two graduate students this semester who have business-model projects and research under way: one focusing on collegiate news media, the other on niche (music/entertainment) news media. One Journalism master’s student just asked me for a recommendation letter to support her application to CU’s MBA program, so she can work on dual master’s degrees while she’s here in Boulder. (That’s fantastic; I only wish that another 10 students would announce similar intentions.) A journalism student and Test Kitchen researcher who received his master’s degree in December now works for a national non-profit news service based in Boulder, serving as a digital-media and business-model strategist.

Looking elsewhere, we’ve seen a growing number of entrepreneurial journalism programs, like the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, run by Jeff Jarvis at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism; the Missouri School of Journalism’s interdisciplinary Entrepreneurial Journalism program; and at Arizona State, the Cronkite School’s Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship.

At many journalism schools and departments that lack that kind of commitment and devotion of resources, entrepreneurial journalism courses at least have been added. That’s the case at CU-Boulder, with a course called “Adventures in Entrepreneurial Journalism,” which has been co-taught by faculty from Journalism and the Business School’s Deming Center for Entrepreneurship.

I have to believe that today’s crop of journalism graduates will embark into the world of news (those that choose to work in journalism) devoid of the attitudes that were instilled in my generation of journalism graduates: that editorial and the business sides of news should be separated by a wall, lest the latter contaminate the ethics of the former. I think that more new graduates will want to build new journalism businesses, because they’ve grown up to see lone bloggers starting on a shoestring build sizable media enterprises (TalkingPointsMemo, PaidContent, the Drudge Report, etc.). And they’ve been exposed to the notions that entrepreneurship and journalism now do mix; you don’t have to start with a big pile of money to start a media enterprise; and it is ethically possible to seek both truth and cash.

Can older journalists who’ve crossed from print and broadcast into digital become successful capitalists? Of course there are the exceptions, but I’m less optimistic about my age peers than about the students I encounter daily. For every Nick Denton (a British former newspaper journalist who built the Gawker empire and is every bit the successful capitalist) there are probably a hundred former old-media journalists scraping by with their own news websites covering their communities and still doing the work they love, but not having much of a chance that their small media businesses will grow beyond small.

That’s not to denigrate smaller online news entities that have emerged and are filling the holes left by the many layoffs of journalists from old-media organizations. We might call those local news websites (the ones that are for-profit) capitalism with a small “c”; they can serve their communities well, create some but not large numbers of new jobs for journalists, and give their founders a non-extravagant earnings level.

But my suspicion and my prediction is that it will be the next generation that will include journalism entrepreneurs who, for the lucky ones, will create journalism-based enterprises that grow to be represent Capitalism, with a capital “C.”

Next month’s Carnival: Hosted by me, Digital News Test Kitchen

I’ve been wanting to host a Carnival of Journalism, and head organizer David Cohn has agreed to let me do it for February 2012. So watch for the announcement soon of next month’s question, hosted by the Digital News Test Kitchen at CU-Boulder and me.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!

19 Responses to "Can good journalist + good capitalist = possible?"

  1. Debbie Galant
    Debbie Galant 5 years ago .Reply

    Most capitalist enterprise is small c. Restaurants, bookstores, dry cleaners, boutiques. We have to get away from the idea that the only form of success is a home run.

  2. Denise Cheng
    Denise Cheng 5 years ago .Reply

    Your entry and David Cohn’s complement nicely.
    I like that you see various entrepreneurial + journalism programs as having potential to contribute to a stronger journalism. I haven’t sensed that as a feeling that working journalists have shared in quite a while; working in experimental/entrepreneurial journalism, I felt zero excitement about journalism grad schools.
    In a few days, though, I’ll begin at the Tow-Knight program, and while classes have yet to start, I’m excited about what the pre-reading materials indicate, already covering areas that I did not grasp in my startup experiences.
    When I visited a prestigious j-school earlier this year, it boasted various cutting edge projects that blend journalism and civic media, implying that it was equipping its grad students. But being innovative in community information does not equate to being innovative in business, equally important.
    A worthwhile litmus for journalism schools may be whether the j-school can teach working journalists more than they have already acquired in practice or impart new knowledge throughout *the majority* of the education.

  3. Michael, Portland Afoot

    Though I definitely agree that not every success needs to be a home run, as the part-time proprietor of a journo startup that grossed $12,500 in its first year I have definitely concluded that larger organizations are much more efficient.

    The number of people with the right combination of skills to be part of a 2-person operation is probably at least 100x larger than the number of people with the skills to be part of a 1-person operation. And so on.

    My startup will either spend its second year adding team members one way or another, or dying.

  4. Howard Owens
    Howard Owens 5 years ago .Reply

    Steve, I’m disappointed in your lack of faith in me and my colleagues.

    Especially, since some fundamental lessons I learned from you in the days of online-news have underpinned The Batavian’s success and helping to chart our future.

    And I ditto what Debbie said.

  5. Steve Outing
    Steve Outing 5 years ago .Reply

    Howard and Debbie: Point taken about what defines success, and that it doesn’t have to be cap-C Capitalism to make an impact on our problems with community news and information needs. My thinking is based on how far traditional news organizations have fallen in terms of huge numbers of layoffs in recent years, and resulting lessened quality and lack of coverage of some issues and beats. Your respective online news enterprises make up for some of that, fill in some of the holes, but it’s also a really big job for community news digital enterprises to make up for all that’s been lost in terms of the bigger picture.

    Perhaps pessimism is a better description than “lack of faith.” We’re all old enough to have watched the attempts at making hyperlocal work, from Backfence to the many other ambitious attempts to create a community-news solution that scales across towns and cities regionally or nationally. Patch is the latest and best-funded of that bunch, but I’m not optimistic about its survival chances. Smart people have been trying to crack that nut for a long time now, and unless Patch makes me eat my words I don’t foresee a “big” solution to local/hyperlocal news succeeding anytime soon — especially with Google, Groupon and other Internet giants focused and making a lot of money from local markets.

    So if it’s up to the independent local sites to make up for what’s been lost and become the dominant and profitable news entities in their communities, please prove my pessimism unfounded! I sincerely hope that you do.

  6. Tracy in WS
    Tracy in WS 5 years ago .Reply

    Triple what Debbie and Howard said. The very tenet of success in what we are doing is “small” – though that’s relative. Between our main site and a smaller one we run as a nonprofit, we serve more than 120,000. And the way we do what we do here should not be replicated in multiple markets – that’s the failing Patch model, and the despicable DataSphere model. Corporatization ruined old media. It can’t be allowed to ruin new media, whether it is originated by a corporation, or by some up-and-comer. P.S. to Michael above – no, you don’t have to add a ton of employees to be successful. We’re in year five with two full-time people. Have paid a full-time salary worth of freelance fees this past year, but that’s for multiple disciplines – reporting, photography, tech, research, etc. To find one fulltimer who could do all that would be impossible.

  7. David Boraks
    David Boraks 5 years ago .Reply

    I’d add my voice to those of my colleagues Debbie, Howard, Tracy. … It IS possible to make the transition from journalist to entrepreneur. As a 30-year journalist who now runs a community news site that just celebrated its fifth anniversary, I believe there is a business model here. We’ve seen revenues and readership grow every year. We now have 3 FT and a half-dozen free-lancers and columnists, and just expanded into the next town over with our 2nd community site. The trick here is not for us journalists to get MBAs, but to learn even more basic business skills: bookkeeping and sales being at the top of the list. And Michael: Don’t wait to add another person. Best move I ever made was to hire someone in Year 2 to help manage the business and help with other tasks.

  8. Brandy
    Brandy 5 years ago .Reply

    What defines a “successful capitalist?”

    I know few journalists who went into the business “for the money.”

  9. Charlotte-Anne Lucas

    Entrepreneurial journalism and creating innovative business models for news is nothing new.
    When I was a business editor, I had to do a P&L for the Top 100 Companies section before it could fly, and that was way back in 1996.
    When I was ME at, we turned a profit nearly a decade ago (2003) using an innovative business model that combined subscriptions, ads, sponsorship and other revenue-raising ideas.
    Several independent political newsletters including Texas Weekly (predecessor of the Texas Tribune) and San Antonio’s Plaza de Armas have succeeded using the subscription/membership + advertising model.
    I was at the table in 2005 when, (privately held and jointly owned by Hearst + Belo) became profitable on a stand-alone basis thanks to an innovative business model that combined ads, sponsorships and partnerships.
    Today, I’m within spitting distance of sustainability as a local, independent nonprofit news business, using a combination of innovative revenue strategies, such as fees for services, along with ideas borrowed from my brethren at pubic radio and public television.
    If you define capitalism as the creation of wealth, every one of those fits the bill.
    Oh, and I am not young. I got in this racket back in ’75 when there were manual typewriters.

  10. Darren Hillock
    Darren Hillock 5 years ago .Reply

    Most of the people I know who are making it as online indie news sites are seasoned pros. Seems even us old dogs can learn new tricks.

  11. Denise Civiletti
    Denise Civiletti 5 years ago .Reply

    Big media coined the buzzword “hyperlocal” to describe something they somehow think they’ve just invented. They are wrong. What we’re doing is community journalism. Journalists have been practicing this craft for hundreds of years — as entrepreneurs. We are just delivering it in a different form now.

    Back in the day, big media companies and the elitists populating the newsrooms at large dailies never gave us the time of day. In fact, there was often outright disdain for the peasantry out there covering the trivial stuff we cover. Now that they recognize community journalism as, possibly, the last bastion of survival, our “turf” has been “discovered” and big media companies are trying to figure out how to impose an unworkable business model on this thing they’ve renamed “hyperlocal,” in the hope of sustaining themselves.

    I moved from print to digital community journalism. But it’s still community journalism. And instead of working for someone else’s family-owned business, I’m a small-business owner working for my own family. I’m not looking to build an empire, or have a staff of hundreds. I’m not looking to “scale.” I just want to keep doing what I love to do, in the community where I live, a place that I love — and to earn a decent living at it, to boot, as we are doing, well… how’d I get so lucky, anyway?

    While big corporations try to figure out how to crack this nut, and former big media employees lament about the big, empty voids they perceive as a result of their loss of salaried employment and/or debate the viability/sustainability of this “new” thing they’ve coined “hyperlocal” — and even as some refugees from their world try to figure out how to *do* this themselves, I and people of my ilk will continue to do what we do. And I believe we’ll be doing it long after the big boys and their capital Cs have trained their sights on other, no doubt easier, ways to carry their bloated payrolls and turn a profit for their shareholders.

  12. Elizabeth Larson
    Elizabeth Larson 5 years ago .Reply

    Agree with Tracy, Debbie, Howard and David.

    Steve, why does there need to be a “‘big’ solution to local/hyperlocal news” at all? Isn’t that the problem? Big corporations got too big, too cumbersome, bought up properties all over creation, stopped caring about them and cut the quality back even before the changes wrought by this digital revolution we’re a part of now.

    Small is beautiful. It’s working for a lot of us, but just like any business, it takes a lot of time to build it up. I’m very concerned that there is this idea out there that if a news site doesn’t suddenly start generating tons of cash within a few years it’s not sustainable. That’s just not reality in any business, and that expectation shouldn’t be pinned on news, either.

  13. Howard Owens
    Howard Owens 5 years ago .Reply

    Steve, seeing so many of my indie colleagues join in makes me think, perhaps you should join us in Chicago in the fall for the next Block by Block and see what real entrepreneurial journalism is all about.

  14. Joe Michaud
    Joe Michaud 5 years ago .Reply

    Here’s a concept that I believe connects Steve’s post and the indies’ responses: These are the last days of journalists who operate as if society owes them a living.

    Whether journalists work in a newsroom or own a startup, their role is fully integrated with the larger enterprise. I doubt all journalists will be entrepreneurs, just like any other profession. But all journalists will need to understand how their decisions and actions affect the enterprise, for better or worse.

    Not everyone is on board now — and frankly I blame J-schools for perpetuating the fantasy until just the past few years — but someday the idea of the insulated journalist will seem like an IBM Selectric — useful once, but not anymore.

  15. Howard Owens
    Howard Owens 5 years ago .Reply

    Great comment, Joe.

  16. Polly Kreisman
    Polly Kreisman 5 years ago .Reply

    Yes Howard I agree. And I think these comments themselves speak to the intelligent thought around the future of journalism what ever the size of the c.

  17. Kathy Gill
    Kathy Gill 5 years ago .Reply

    +1 for Debbie’s comment (and all the others who did the same).

    My heartburn with the seed for this month’s #jcarn was the focus on big C capitalism and the insistence that making lots of money should be the primary goal. I don’t think this is the route to either monetary success or happiness.

    Michael’s point is VERY important.

    The reason we have information monopolies in the first place is the nature of the good: high fixed costs to produce, low marginal costs to distribute. Today the gap between the two is as wide as possible as the distribution cost is almost zero and the production cost is extremely low relative to newspapers and TV stations. I went on a bit about this on G+ and my blog last night/this morning (depending on your point of view; to me it’s last night when I have not yet gone to bed!).

    That does not mitigate the need to be cognizant of the appearance of favoritism (I’m assuming above board ethics) — which was the original reason (I think) for the separation of church and state. It wasn’t so much that journos didn’t need to understand the business, they needed/need for their work not to be influenced by who pays the bills — if we want to continue a model of public service (speak truth to power) journalism.

  18. Steve Outing
    Steve Outing 5 years ago .Reply

    Kathy: Thanks for the comment. I tend to think of this issue as: Can all the small-c journo-entrepreneurs add up enough to make up for what we’ve lost with layoffs of so many journalists in recent years? If we have a big-C success among the upstart digital news entities, that could go a long way toward that goal. And a big-C success could be ProPublica really hitting it big and hiring a boatload of journalists, not necessarily a commercial entity. Or NPR. Or public radio outlets succeeding in becoming a dominant force in local news with many more reporters on the ground. But whether for- or non-profit, the people running these news operations need to balance journalism and business while maintaining ethical equilibrium.

    You could argue that in the new news ecosystem, leveraging cheap and often-free technology, social media, eyewitness news, wikinews volunteers, et al won’t require as many professional journalists as we had in newspapers’ heyday. But I think we need more professionals than we’ve got now. We’re still at the point where there are plenty of “news deserts” in the U.S., which means that there’s plenty of room for unchecked corruption. I’m not sure that an army of local journo-entrepreneurs, succeeding in small-c fashion, will be enough to right the ship without some big-C success happening as well.

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