Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

The first question every entrepreneurial journalist should ask

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on February 21, 2011

So you want to create a news business? Awesome, you’ve arrived at just the right time.

One of the first lessons I learned was to make an important distinction early on – and I think it is the first question you should ask before you start your entrepreneurial adventure:

Are you creating a product or a service?

They are two different, but equally valid, types of business – both of which offer great opportunities for journalists. A product is something tangible – something you make and sell, which is distinct from you. A service on the other hand, is something you specifically offer yourself, in exchange for money.

Products

The world of journalism has a limited (but growing) number of products. A newspaper is a product. So is a magazine. In fact, you’ll often get the more managerial types of journalists often talking about ‘the product’.

The types of products have grown a lot in the digital age, and with that so have the opportunities. A book is a product, as is an ebook. A podcast, vodcast, blog, online magazine, smartphone app are also products. A TV programme is a product. A hyperlocal website is a product, so is a DVD, event and photobook.

In short, it is something you create and then try to make money from. And the people who buy your product are customers, or readers, or viewers.

When we think of business and enterprise, products are probably the first things that come to mind. The Dyson, the Macbook, the Prius: they’re all products. But, according to journalist and entrepreneur Nick Saalfeld, the service sector accounts for more than 70% of the UK economy, and in terms of the work and opportunities around, it’s a lot more varied.

Services

A service is a skill or craft you offer to someone, in exchange for money. Often, but not always, you charge for your time.

This is the most natural type of business for journalists, because essentially it is doing anything freelance: a copy writer, photojournalist, video journalist, blogger, infographic designer, SEO bod, sub-editor…they are all services.

You as the service provider are intricately bound to the success of the business. The people who pay for your service are clients.

Now you might say because of that, entrepreneurial journalism has been around for a long time. But it’s not quite like that. You see, only recently have people started to create full businesses out of their services – packaging their services into products.

For example, take this video production company in the US, called TVKevin. They are a service business: people hire them to make short films about their company or business etc. But take a look at their website, and you can see how they have packaged their service into products: they offer something called BizShorts, and something else called MyStory.

Scale it up, and throw in some hardcore journalism, and you have MediaStorm, one of the most successful multimedia production companies out there. They offer a service to clients: high quality multimedia documentaries; but they package their services into product type solutions: films, audio slideshows and infographics. MediaStorm also have a lot of by-products: training, DVDs, and even t-shirts.

So which should you do?

Before you start thinking of business ideas, or even if you already have one, you should work out whether you are offering a product or a service. Knowing this early on saves any confusion later on. And there’s nothing to say you can’t do both, or be clever and mix them up like TVKevin & MediaStorm.

To find out about the pros and cons of both Products and Services head on to myNewsBiz, where there’s more training in entrepreneurial journalism in video.

10 Responses

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  1. Nigel Barlow said, on February 21, 2011 at 11:37 am

    I think the first question is do they actually want to be an entrpreneur Adam.

    It is a massive step from working in the cosy world of having a regular salary which pays the bills and funds a lifestyle to becoming an entrepreneur which involves taking risk,working for a long time and possibly without a significant return.

    But back to your piece.I think that in journalism in the provision of news and information,the lines are blurring between what we would percieve as product and service.

    Many consumers of news,no matter what they may say about the need for the 4th estate aren’t prepared to pay for it.Thus the product and service concept is far less differentiated than once was.

    As we have quickly found at Inside the M60,you can in fact be both a product and a service and you need to position yourself strategically quite differently to serve both markets.

    • Adam Westbrook said, on February 22, 2011 at 4:46 pm

      There’s no doubt being entrepreneurial involves risk, long hours and the uncertainty of financial return.

      But is it more risky or uncertain than joining the 250 other qualified graduates applying for that one job at the Guardian? At least by being entrepreneurial you have control.

      And as the cost of digital production goes down the risk is lower than it ever has been.

      Thanks for the comment!

      • Mary Hamilton said, on February 22, 2011 at 5:00 pm

        I’m not sure that entrepreneurs have more control than those in employment (or not, as the case may be) – they perhaps have a different type of control, though. You give up control in some areas – including things like relative financial security and stability, sick pay and holidays, and work/life balance, which aren’t small things – in order to control others.

        For many newly qualified folks, the choice isn’t between the one job at the Guardian and launching their own business – whatever route they take will be hard, poverty-stricken and most likely bear little relationship to any idealised dream. Not that this type of journalism is bad, but Nigel certainly raises a question to consider and not to dismiss lightly.

  2. Patrick Smith said, on February 21, 2011 at 12:23 pm

    This is a very important distinction: more and more, big media players in the B2B world are packaging their expertise into services. UBM, for example, makes an increasing amount of its money in the tech sector from running websites for paying clients.

    On top of that, B2B groups make money from training (service), events (service/product), trade shows (a service that connects buyers and sellers in a market, very profitably) and consultancy (service). The products drive the marketing of this and in some cases make money too.

    Previously, UBM would have created an editorial (or advertorial) product, to be distributed with magazines or at trade fairs. But now they’re signing 12-month deals to run a website – it’s not publishing per se, but a marketing service.

    If you look also at how the Guardian is making its content available through an open platform API, it’s not thinking of itself as a product maker but a service provider.

    In terms of this challenge and what young would-be entrepreneurs should launch, they need to think about where the money is, what the business model could be. For professional-looking, well-run sites (which don’t have to be boring) there is an advertising model – but don’t expect display banner ads to feed your family. Think about sponsorship and long-term commercial relationships.

    And good luck.

    • Adam Westbrook said, on February 22, 2011 at 4:48 pm

      Some great examples of service and products – cheers Patrick. Consultancy is one lots of journalists are making use of.

  3. Nigel Barlow said, on February 21, 2011 at 3:05 pm

    Patrick,

    that last paragraph is spot on.I would just add the word partnerships to it as well

  4. […] paradoxical polemic: an entrepreneurial journalist taking issue with all the huffing and puffing about the “rise of the entrepreneurial […]

  5. Adam Westbrook said, on February 23, 2011 at 10:42 pm

    @Mary
    Control and security aren’t the same thing here; Firstly try talking about the security of a ‘proper’ job in journalism to the thousands of reporters/subs who got laid off over the past three years and those at the World Service right now waiting to hear if/when their jobs will be axed. It’s a sad thing, but the recession has proved the security many people based their career choices on in the past was a mirage.

    While being entrepreneurial is certainly no more secure than a full-time job, it is no less so. But you do have control, and I don’t mean over other people. It’s the control of your own situation, the control over what you do when you get out of bed every morning, and how you do it; I would rather have that control than supposed job security.

    Some sceptism about entrepreneurial journalism is valid, and it’s not right for everyone. But contests like myNewsBiz and all the information that is coming with it, will help people decide whether it’s for them. And if it is, then articles like this one are useful.

  6. requin tn said, on March 31, 2011 at 5:32 am

    While being entrepreneurial is certainly no more secure than a full-time job, it is no less so. But you do have control, and I don’t mean over other people. It’s the control of your own situation, the control over what you do when you get out of bed every morning, and how you do it; I would rather have that control than supposed job security.

    Some sceptism about entrepreneurial journalism is valid, and it’s not right for everyone. But contests like myNewsBiz and all the information that is coming with it, will help people decide whether it’s for them. And if it is, then articles like this one are useful.

  7. […] The first question every entrepreneurial journalist should ask – you’ll have to click to find out what it is! […]


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