The future of news is entrepreneurial

Posted on 02. Nov, 2009 by in News Ecosystem

The future of news is entrepreneurial.

There’s a lot in that statement. It says: The future of news is not institutional… The news of tomorrow has yet to be built…. The structure – the ecosystem – of news will not be dominated by a few corporations but likely will be made up of networks of many startups performing specialized functions based on the opportunities they see in the market…. Who does journalism, why and how will change…. The skills of journalists will change (to include business)…. We don’t yet know what the market will demand and support from journalism…. News will look disordered and messy…. There will be more failures than successes in the immediate future of news….

That statement also holds many implications for sectors of the economy and society: investment (put money into the new, not the old)… public policy (don’t protect and preserve the incumbents but nurture the startups by creating a fertile and level playing field)… education (how do we train journalists when everyone can do journalism? – how do we train everyone?)… marketing (advertising won’t be one-stop shopping anymore and that means it may support news less)… PR (influence will be no longer be concentrated)… technology (there are opportunities here)…

Finally, that statement does not say some things. It does not say that the incumbents’ institutions will necessarily die, only that they have proven not to be the source of innovation and growth in news.

One more point: The statement is essentially optimistic. It says there is a future to be built.

This is not the discussion we hear about the fate of news journalism. That discussion defaults too often to current models and old realities, to protection over creation, to fear over opportunity.

Columbia’s Reconstruction of Journalism report, in my view, gives up on the business prospects for news and resorts to what I believe are desperate measures – namely: the public option for news. The Washington Post has run two opeds lately endorsing tax-supported journalism (pardon me for asking, but are things that bad there?). Alan Mutter reported on a Harvard confab last week that “gravitated to the predictable yadda-yadda: foundation funding, federal subsidies, subscription schemes and a smattering of random ruminations about revenue.” That’s hardly uncommon; it’s all we hear.

Bit by bit, I’ve separated myself from that worldview, first by teaching a course in entrepreneurial journalism at CUNY, then by directing the New Business models for News Project to research and propose sustainable futures for news. But I didn’t boil down my essential worldview to this – the future of news is entrepreneurial – until now.

If you buy this view – and, I know, many won’t want to – then it affects so much, as I’m learning myself. Last week at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism, I presented to my colleagues our New Business Models for (Local) News (the segment of the project funded by the Knight Foundation, which we’re also presenting at a Nov. 11 event here that will be streamed) and the discussion turned afterward to one aspect of what we do: what we offer students in career services. No longer is that just about getting job interviews at big publications – though, of course, it still will include that as long as it can! – but it now should expand to giving students who are starting businesses the services of an incubator (which we are doing for my entrepreneurial students who are now launching businesses) and perhaps to giving them the training they need to be proprietors of journalistic businesses: We’re teaching them in our January intersession how to build their own brands online. Should we give them a workshop to help them with billing and business? I’ve asked the heretical question about teaching hyperlocal blogging: How will they learn to sell ads? These are questions raised by the entrepreneurial worldview.

The public policy implications of this view for government are many. Last week, I gave a Skype talk [I’m still not traveling, post-surgery] to a session assembled in London by MP Sion Simon looking at government’s possible role in the future of news – what it should and should not do (see posts here, here, and here). Here in the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission is holding sessions starting in December (where I’ll appear on a panel with folks who don’t agree with me about all this) and the FCC appointed Steven Waldman to continue the work of the Knight Commission looking at the information needs of communities.

As my Guardian column this week makes clear, I get hives at the notion of government interference in news – in speech of any sort. I especially fear government taking a role as a nonmarket player competing with not only the weak incumbents but also with the tender sprouts of entrepreneurial ventures. I also fear talk of governments – in the U.S. and Germany – extending copyright just to protect incumbents. What should government do? Broadband for all. I’d start – and stop – there.

For investors, the entrepreneurial worldview says not only that it’s time to get their money out of old media companies – that, given their market caps and bankruptcies, has already happened – but also that it is time to invest in new and innovative ventures. That requires investors to believe, as I do, that there is a robust and growing market demand for news and that there are new opportunities to meet it efficiently and profitably. But until we start proving that, investors will be shy. This is why I wish that the capital that has gone into not-for-profit news ventures in cities across the country had gone instead into creating for-profit enterprises: so we can prove the market, so we can learn how to make news sustainable. That is god’s work.

For other industries that work with news – advertising – I would have scouts, laboratories, and pilot projects staying on the forefront of entrepreneurial developments in news and even encouraging it with marketing dollars. Ad agencies and sponsors have tremendous opportunities to build relationships with customers in new, more targeted, more effective, and more efficient ways but they must shift spending to online to learn what works and create it; their old habits of one-stop-shopping with big media only leave them behind.

As for technology, there is much development of news already occurring in startups (I’m a partner in one such effort, Daylife, and I advise others; we are seeing some sprout already alongside our New Business Models for News Project). But the technology giants can also play a role. I’ll write more about this another time, but I believe Google should be packaging what it already has to help create a framework for anyone – anyone – to build news enterprises (and it should stop wasting time trying to make friends with the dinosaurs who only want to find enemies to blame for their problems). I also want to see it help support labs to develop its tools – especially Wave and Marissa Mayer’s notion of the hyperpersonal stream – for news; this, I believe, will force us to rethink our fundamental assumptions about what news is and that, in turn, will lead to new opportunities.

Where does this leave the incumbent institutions when I say the future is not theirs? I’m no longer the only one holding them accountable for their lack of innovation in the last 15 years – even Ken Auletta is. But what’s done is done and looking back, I now see it was probably my mistake to think they could have reinvented themselves. I talked with someone recently at an old, large media company who said he believes it is impossible for them to remake themselves for this new, much smaller entrepreneurial world. There’s just too much shutdown cost and pain involved and the people inside these towers don’t think like people in garages. Still, I see opportunity for them. That’s why, on this blog and at the Aspen Institute this summer, I pushed the idea that when journalists leave those towers, their companies should invest in their futures as entrepreneurs: Set them up with blogs, sell their ads, promote them, and continue to reap the value of their experience and brands (without the cost). The Washington Post should fund the next Politico in town, not see its talent walk out the door to start it elsewhere.

And what of these journalists? Well, that’s why I’m writing this. That’s why I teach what I teach. I believe journalists must become entrepreneurs. They don’t all need to be sole proprietors of hypersomething blogs. But they need to make smart business decisions when they decide where to put their effort. They need to sense and serve the market. They need to work with innovators. They need to see a future for journalism that looks different – better, even – than its past.

The future of news is entrepreneurial.

* * *

Most people use their blogs as the laboratory to try out ideas. Lately, I’ve been using appearances and columns to test notions, leading up to this blog post. Here are a few instances lately when I’ve talked about news’ entrepreneurial future.

I gave a talk via Skype-video to Medientage München (my talk, in English, starts at 22 minutes in) in which I tried to be tough and tell the audience of 500 German media machers that the old models won’t work in the new world and that it is time to face this reality bluntly, leaving politeness behind. (The talk lasts about 25 minutes; I’d listen to the last 10 when I’m questioned by the editor of and the audience surprised me with its reaction to tough love.)

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I also talked about this last week in Coventry University’s session that asked whether journalism is in crisis:

And here is a link to my Media Guardian column today, in which I used this line and it was, I’m glad to see, promptly tweeted. In it, I said:

The future of news – and there is a future – is being built by entrepreneurs who in change see opportunity, not crisis. . . . Instead of declaring surrender to changing market forces, we should embrace them. Crisis? I see no crisis, only inexorable change.

* * *

Based on all this, you’d think I’d disagree with a post headlined Why I Don’t Think Journalists Need Business Skills. But I don’t. In it, Philip John argues the need for networks and services to perform business services for journalist entrepreneurs. I agree. That’s why we projected such a framework in our New Business Models for News Project. That’s what Mark Potts plans to build with his startup, Growthspur. And I think Philip proved my point by writing a post that’s very business-savvy.


6 Responses to “The future of news is entrepreneurial”

  1. David Vogel

    02. Nov, 2009

    Hi Jeff, I am hoping to speak at the the upcoming TEDx event in Amsterdam about this subject. Am curious what you think about my take on this: My Big Idea for TEDxAMS: Newspapers = iTunes for Changing the World

  2. Anne Nagel

    12. Nov, 2009

    News has always been entrepreneurial. Most newspapers were founded by people who owned presses and had excess capacity. As an entrepreneur and not a reporter or journalist, I’m fascinated by your industry’s discussion of entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship is not for the weak.

    I listened to the November 11th new business model discussion at CUNY. At some point I realized that the conversation was not how to communicate information in today’s environment, but instead how to save the newsroom in a smaller form. The conversation was directed on how to fix the sinking ship. Entrepreneurs grab life jackets (their skills at communicating through the written word, etc), jump ship and figure out either how to find land or how to live in the water.

    Entrepreneurs are not going to save journalism. This is a wonderful time to be a journalist entrepreneur since the barriers of entry have dropped and the old players are weak. Entrepreneurs succeed when they learn from their failures and then leave past behind. Are journalists ready to leave the past behind and develop something new?

    As a business person who is invested in a hyperlocal venture, your field is wide open and that is exciting. It is going to be fun to watch what happens. It is that excitement of change that feeds us entrepreneurs. While many will spend countless hours, energy and resources on how to fix their boats, entrepreneurs are learning how to adapt to their new environment in the water.


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