Monday, July 5, 2010

Now You Have to Be an Entrepreneur, Too?

There's a growing expectation that videojournalists need to embrace and master a dizzying array of skill sets.

There used to be a time when newspapers and TV news teams would consist of at least a reporter/interviewer and someone behind the lens of a camera -- and each field unit would have the support and input of editors back at headquarters. Now all those duties -- finding and researching a story, conducting interviews and amassing facts, shooting and editing audio and visuals -- are expected to be accomplished by the same person.

The likelihood of that individual excelling at such a diverse set of journalistic and technical tasks is exceedingly slim.

Now add to that an entirely new expectation.

Given the miserable state of the economy, the downsizing and collapse of media institutions, nobody is hiring journalists. Those starting (or trying to piece together the shambles of) their careers are being advised to not even bother jobhunting. Instead, they're being instructed to redefine themselves as "journalism entrepreneurs" and create their own economic opportunities.

So in addition to being able to interview, report, write, shoot, and edit (text, audio, stills and video), you need to be able to master product development, sales, promotion, advertising, marketing -- and all in a digital context, which implies scaling the heights of social media, conquering search engine optimization, and slaying 'em in the aisles with your tutorials and seminars on the workshop/lecture circuit. Oh, and be sure you can write killer applications for foundation grants.

Any one of these pursuits had traditionally constituted a fulltime career unto itself. Now if you can't bat, catch, throw, run, and exude enough charisma to be a commercial spokesperson -- well, don't look back, because everyone else is gaining on you.

Understandably, journalism schools are in a funk trying to figure out what exactly to teach students to prepare them for the workplace. While it's always a good idea to get a well rounded education that acquaints you with multiple aspects of a profession, students and professors alike naturally wonder whether it's better to focus on mastering one thing well -- and worry whether that one thing will even exist in the future.

Our stance is that technology will always evolve -- and it's vitally important to stay abreast of those changes -- but the fundamentals of excellent journalism and great storytelling will remain as constant in the years ahead as they have for the centuries preceding us.

What we're less sure about is how critical it will be that reporters, writers, editors, photographers and videographers become entrepreneurs. Arguably, many of the "brand name" stars in each field have taken that route -- though it's unlikely they thought of themselves in those terms. Unfortunately, the skills and activities that make you shine in one arena don't necessarily translate to the other. Still, if your traditional jobhunting quest is not going well, it couldn't hurt to consider the advice of those who are successfully pursuing the entrepreneurial path.

In the vanguard is Adam Westbrook, a British videojournalist who last month published an ebook on that topic, Next Generation Journalist. He was recently interviewed by Andy Bull, UK author of Multimedia Journalism: A Practical Guide, for his Write, Edit, Blog blog. The topic: How to make money from a range of journalism activities and enterprises, by developing what Westbrook calls "a portfolio career."

We'd like to hear your thoughts. Do you think it's practical for most journalists to repackage and giftwrap themselves as entrepreneurs? Does this sound like something that would suit your skills and sensibilities? Does the prospect of being an entrepreneur enhance or diminish your enthusiasm for being a journalist?


Rosenblum said...

Where in the world did the notion of the glorious poverty stricken 'journalist' come from. Ink stained wretch with patched elbows 'fighting the good fight' against 'power'?

If we're poor it's our own fault for embracing this nonsense.

Take a look at how we're portrayed in Hollywood movies like State of Play. Russell Crowe as the driven 'reporter' - unwashed, unshaven, hung over, drives a crap car, lives in a dump. Yet 'fighting the good fight'.

And we embrace this? What are we, crazy?

Who wants to live like this?

The Internet Revolution happened on our watch - it happened to OUR industry. We were there first. We should own the damned thing. We should all be billionaires. But we aren't. Instead we're getting pink slips and left behind. And why?

Because for some strange reason we decided to embrace the image of poverty as a good.

It was not always thus.

American journalism has a long history of successful journalist/entrepreneurs, from Benjamin Franklin, one of the richest men in the colonies yet a printer to Michael Bloomberg or Rupert Murdoch. These should be our heroes - not ragamuffin mess Carl Bernstein.

The Internet Revolution was and is about gathering and processing information. Well, what do you think it is that WE do?


So time to stand up, get aggressive and take control of the business instead of waiting like sheep to the slaughter.

So hooray for Adam Westbrook and other who extol a new generation of aggressive entrepreneurial journalists. Better late than never

Deborah Bonello said...

Thanks for this post - made for interesting reading and brought up a lot of issues close to my heart. I agree that as journalists now, we're required to do more than we ever have. I don’t agree with Mr Rosenblum about how we as journalists aspire to dishevelled, worthy poverty, but I get the point he’s making.

I set up when I was working in Mexico as a freelance multimedia journalist and then a video journalist for the Los Angeles Times. The idea was to use free web software to publish journalistic content of my own making. When I arrived in Mexico, I began filing to the site in words, videos and pictures as if it were an editor, and went on from there. was an essential independent platform for my digital storytelling. But it was also a vital route to editors in the UK and the US that I was pitching to and attracted a lot of traffic from both readers and editors wanting to commission me. It wasn’t very complicated to have a presence on Facebook and Twitter, and it still isn’t. Video editing and photo slideshows can be produced by non-rocket scientists. And as more social networks and technologies become widespread, it’s just a question of staying on top of those.

When I think about this need for journalists to be more entrepreneurial I see an exciting but necessary challenge rather than a tedious extra to take on. Those journalists who are graduating now and expect to be taken on by a newspaper or broadcaster are going to be very disappointed. Although I think there are still jobs out there if you are multi-media skilled in traditional media organisations. But importantly, I think the point is that major media outlets aren't the only way to get your work out there now.

By the end of my three-year stay in Mexico, I was getting emails from people asking to do work experience on To my audience it clearly looked like an online newspaper, not just a portfolio site. The challenge, now, is to make that pay, and as the reach of the media giants (especially abroad) continues to shrink, there is a huge space to develop independent editorial businesses in this space. That is a business challenge, but it is also a journalistic one, and if it doesn’t excite journalism graduates or experienced professionals, then maybe it’s time to get out of this ever-changing game.