Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Can we teach journalists entrepreneurship?

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on May 16, 2011

I

This is the question I’ll be asking lots over the coming months. I am carrying out research on behalf of Kingston University into entrepreneurial journalism. We want to find out whether we should be teaching it, and if so – how.

Other journalism programs in the UK and US, including UCLAN, BCU, City and CUNY have all introduced (or are planning on introducing) enterpreneurship into their courses, and all in different ways.

Personally, I am very excited by the possibilities and opportunities that entrepreneurship provides – especially to young journalists and creatives.

In a brilliant and inspirational commencement speech at Berkeley this month, the NPR journalist Robert Krulwich summed it up superbly:

It’s not easy. It’s not for everybody. Just something to think about.

Suppose, instead of waiting for a job offer from the New Yorker, suppose next month, you go to your living room, sit down, and just do what you love to do. If you write, you write. You write a blog. If you shoot, find a friend, someone you know and like, and the two of you write a script. You make something. No one will pay you. No one will care, No one will notice, except of course you and the people you’re doing it with. But then you publish, you put it on line, which these days is totally doable, and then… you do it again.

The people in charge, of course, don’t want to change. They like the music they’ve got.  To the newcomers, they say, “Wait your turn”.

But in a world like this… rampant with new technologies, and new ways to do things, the newcomers… that means you… you here today, you have to trust your music… It’s how you talk to people your age, your generation. This is how we change.

II

In the last two years I have dragged myself from a reluctant biz-novice to someone who has produced and sold books and started a business: like Robert says, it’s tough, it’s not for everyone…but it’s addictive.

Thing is, I don’t think its got much to do with the nuts and bolts of business itself (sales, spreadsheets, business plans) – although they play a part.

Entrepreneurship is an attitude: a way of looking at life, perhaps as a playground full of opportunity and not (as most of us do) as an assault course of pitfalls and hazards. I never used to have this attitude but I’ve ‘learned’ it in some way over the last few years.

And the attitude we need to instill in the next generation of journalists is simple: start things. And then finish them. That’s all. Sounds simple, but it requires a lot: the ideas, the initiative to marshall the all the forces to bring the idea to life, and the dogged determination to see it through to something that ‘intersects with the market‘.

Beyond that, you need the thick skin to deal with the inevitable failure of your idea. Then the balls to repeat the whole thing again. And again.

On Wednesday last week I was invited to chair a panel of digital journalists at We Publish in Leeds. The Guardian’s Sarah Hartley, Nigel Barlow from InsidetheM60 and Emma Bearley, founder of The Culture Vulture discussed a whole range of things – and entrepreneurship was a hot topic.

The feeling from the audience, and some of the panel, was that this attitude is rare, especially among young journalists. And blame was placed partly on the education system – at all levels.

III

If you get time, you should watch the marvellous Sir Ken Robinson talk about education in this TED Talk. The education system we use is the same one the Victorians used: and it was designed for a Victorian world – an industrial world.

Schools, says Ken, are like factories: we batch children by age (why age?) put them through a machine, a system, and churn out identikit office and factory workers at the other end. This was fine for our military industrial complex but as offices go digital, and factories go east, we don’t need identikit workers any more.

We need risk takers, creatives and entrepreneurs.

The world has changed. But education hasn’t.

And so, as great as it is that more journalism educators introduce entreprise as a part of their training, they’re still very much rooted in the Victorian tenets of education: failure is bad, risk leads to failure, so stick to the rules and do as you’re told.

How do we make people less risk averse? Can we? Should we? I’d love your thoughts.

17 Responses

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  1. Craig McGinty said, on May 16, 2011 at 9:25 am

    Observation, allied to action, is a key skill and I think that is something that can be learnt.

    And it is easier if you ‘own’ a location where such observations can take place, be that a blog, forum, network etc.

  2. Amy Charles said, on May 16, 2011 at 10:11 am

    How fucking revolutionary. You know, I’ve been doing this for 20 years. For a living, I write things that aren’t what I’m most interested in, but make money, and I live cheap so I don’t have to do them more than part-time. Have done many other jobs too.

    The problem is the ones who’re likely to do this don’t bother with j-school, or any grad school unless they’re getting paid to be there. They just go write.

    It’s nice, anyway, to read a reaction to the idea that’s not howls of “But you can’t do that! It’s impossible and demeaning!” No, it’s not demeaning. You have a gift, you get to use it, what else do you want? Oh, lots of money and a business card and drinks at the right bars, I forgot.

    It’s helpful to recall that these are market economies, and you’re trying to sell things that very few people want and almost nobody needs. Intrinsic worth doesn’t come into it. And the market economy is a good thing. The very last thing a writer needs is a government that cares what writers do.

  3. Amy Charles said, on May 16, 2011 at 10:21 am

    It’s depressing to me, btw, that there are all these j-school people running around saying how brilliant Krulwich’s speech is. No, it isn’t. It’s blindingly obvious, and I think parents could have been forgiven for wandering away to the snack tables and coming back when it was time to snap pics of the beaming grads. The fact that we’ve got influential people oohing and ahing says something’s gone badly wrong.

  4. Pascal Lapointe said, on May 16, 2011 at 1:03 pm

    You are saying: Entrepreneurship is an attitude: a way of looking at life, perhaps as a playground full of opportunity.

    Not true. What you are defining is journalism. Journalism is an attitude, a way of looking at life. Entrepreneurship is rather creating a business. And here is the mistake that promoters of “entrepreneurial journalism” are doing since 10 to 15 years: they are forgetting that FREELANCE journalists are doing a lot of these things since 10 to 15 years: finding ideas, experimenting things, being creative.

    Except freelance are not really entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs are creating jobs. And the day some freelance journalists become real entrepreneurs (some started a multimedia business producing information), the day they become a real entrepreneur, searching for financing and with employees that they are paying for doing things (like, writing articles), they are not themselves a journalist anymore, but something else, something different.

    What you must not forget is if so much people prefer talking about “entrepreneurs” rather than “freelance”, it is simply because the word “entrepreneur” seems more dynamic, more modern. But changing a word does not change the fact that universities should have been teaching freelance journalism since 10-15 years now. Good thing that Krulwich is discovering it now, but freelance journalists association are saying the exact same thing since two decades.

  5. Craig McGinty said, on May 16, 2011 at 1:48 pm

    Not sure if Amy is aiming her language at my comment or Adam’s piece in general.

    But to expand further, by observing it is not only possible to generate story ideas, it is possible to generate revenue sources that help fund ongoing journalism.

    When you begin to see people ‘itching’ with a problem you can start offering a solution, at a price.

    So for example, when we saw on a site for landscape gardeners and designers the cost of fuel was causing them problems, we looked to track down a fuel card service.

    It was promoted through the site and each sign-up earns us a small commission, and there is the potential for bigger ticket items that would earn larger commissions in the future.

    I think it is something that Pascal alludes to, the progression from journalist to publisher.

  6. amy c. said, on May 16, 2011 at 2:18 pm

    At Adam’s piece in general. You can sell enterpreneurism classes to the world’s least entrepreneurial people. My take on them is that they work well when the students are rich and well-connected; then the classes function as a sort of professional-social club with a stiff one-time membership fee. Otherwise…I really think they’re better-served by being turned around, pointed at the door, and told, “Go find out what people want. Then deliver it and charge money.” If they insist on paying you for this advice? Grade = F.

    Pascal and Craig are right; there’s a big difference between writing what you want to write and building a business. Either takes some balls and steady nerves, but not that much. If the prospect of unemployment and/or doing it on your own is that alarming, I’d suggest that maybe journalism is the wrong field to start with. It’s a rough biz. Which is a pity, because writing, editorial, and entrepreneurial talents are seldom found in the same person, and I’ve seen very good editorial people sidelined for want of entrepreneurial drive, instinct, bone in their body.

  7. Pascal Lapointe said, on May 16, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    Yes, from journalist to publisher, or web publisher. Or from journalist to communication consultant. Or public relations people. When you are seeing a need in a group, like gardeners, and you are proposing them a solution, if this solution is so successful that you are creating a business and searching to finance this business and hiring people to write articles, or booklets, or facebook pages, for gardeners. You are indeed becoming a successful entrepreneur, and you are searching for more and more ways to finance your business. Which is a very good thing for you, but it is not journalism anymore. Which is one reason why I think we must not confuse freelance journalism and entrepreneurs.

  8. Tina Remiz said, on May 16, 2011 at 9:23 pm

    I don’t think you can exactly teach entrepreneurship, as this is a talent people either do or don’t have. However, as in many similar cases, the talent actually doesn’t play crucial part in being an entrepreneur. Perhaps you need an extra spark to be exceptionally brilliant, but there is a lot you can do with a set of skills that CAN BE TAUGHT. Moreover, I think it’s incredibly important to 1) introduce students to the opportunities that are out there 2) show them places to look for even more opportunities 3) explain what can be done once the right ideas are found.
    University is a relatively safe environment when a lot of creative (and risky) ideas can be played out with a very limited risk. The only way a person can learn that nothing is impossible is by stepping out and making the bravest idea real.

  9. Adam Westbrook said, on May 17, 2011 at 11:24 am

    Thanks very much for the interesting comments everyone.

    Pascal makes a good point about entrepreneurs and creating jobs. Do you need to generate jobs to be an entrepreneur? Or just greater wealth. If for example in starting a new online magazine, by paying for web hosting/themes you are supporting the work of designers/coders etc; you are paying freelance writers – even if you’re not providing them with full time jobs.

    I don’t think entrepreneurship is something you have or don’t have (would you say some people are creative or not creative?); but the ability to turn – as Craig says – observations into action takes some drawing out.

    • Pascal Lapointe said, on May 17, 2011 at 2:57 pm

      No, when I’m saying “creating Jobs”, I am not talking specifically of full-time jobs. The day some freelance journalists become real entrepreneurs, searching for financing and with employees that they are paying (full time or not, it doesn’t matter) for doing things (like, writing articles that they don’t have the time to write themselves), when this day come, these people are not themselves a journalist anymore, but something else, something different.

  10. Amy Charles said, on May 18, 2011 at 8:43 pm

    Adam, yes, some people are creative and some are not. Left to themselves, some will figure out ways to do, make, get whatever it is they want; ideas will occur to them; others tune to sitcoms and movie plots and can’t think of anything new. It’s not a matter of practice; you can’t badger them into it. If you try, eventually the bulb starts to glow faintly, and then they realize it’s just an ordinary variation on some movie plot. They just don’t have it in them. No fault of their own. It’s why rich people are nice to you and find you engaging.

    You can train people to think in terms of “where are the opportunities”, but that doesn’t mean they can see them without your pointing them out and underscoring them. Entrepreneurial talent involves the ability to see opportunities others miss; realistically gauge the potential; and quickly marshal forces to take advantage. You also have to be interested, be a decent salesman at some level, and have a head for numbers.

    Your journalism guru, whatever his name is, he’s not talking about entrepreneurship. He’s talking about being a writer and/or journalist. He’s saying “Just fucking do it already. If you want to write, go, and stop waiting for someone to hire you, because there’s hardly any jobs and most of them are sewn up by the better connected. If you’re really all that talented, and you post your work around and network and make a bit of noise, your work will in fact sell itself. Odds are decent someone will try to pick you up, although they won’t pay you anything like real money, so either get a job or prepare to be poor.”

    And this is true. If you’re talented, and you’ve built a portfolio of real work, and you know how to network and aren’t afraid to do it in the least seemly situations, you will get work. Editors are always looking for people who’ll make their lives easier while boosting circ and improving their publications. Look, my boyfriend died last winter, and in the midst of an hysterical call to his major-city alt-media editor — I mean I was out of my head, hadn’t eaten or slept in over a day — there was networking going on on both sides. The guy invited me to keep in touch, I took the opportunity, and within three hysterical grieving emails he was asking to see my work. I obliged. Result: Apart from new friendship, an offer of freelance work and a professional connection. I took them.

    The problem, frankly, is media/writing programs. You guys take the kids’ money and leave them with the idea that this is a viable profession. A profession in the first place. That may have been true in the debt-fuelled 90s/00s with media corps expanding like mad and trying to figure out what the internet meant. That game’s over. I would not at this point recommend that anyone spend a dime, or a week that could be spent making real money, on a writing/journalism program of any kind. Instead I’d say, “Go find stories. Write and report. Figure it out. Read. Talk to people. Ask. Compare your work to others’ and see where you’re lacking. Ask others. Find that editor with the heart of gold and work your ass off for him or her; that’ll be the best teacher you ever find. And do it again, and again, and again. Make friends along the way and be nice to them. Don’t get sick if you’re American, and don’t have kids you can’t afford.”

    That’s really it. If a writer or journalist can’t make it on that…well, that’s not a writer or a journalist; that’s an employee.

  11. Simon Morice said, on May 22, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    When Jethro Tull wrote the manual for his seed drill, the Agricultural Revolution truly began to lift Britain, and the world, out of subsistence farming. Tull’s ‘The New Horse Hoeing Husbandry’ was truly a system for massive farming efficiencies and the world looked bright for farmers. On introducing his technology, the consequent redundancy of many workers fostered a line of thinking. In less than 100 years this thought matured into King Ludd’s hopelessly quixotic stratagem of loom wrecking.

    During the 20th Century the human population increased fourfold. In the 1990s, corporates began shedding peripheral departments; photography and design led the rise of the bedroom enterprise. The impact of technology on most industries had been to drastically reduce the security of employment. It has become increasingly apparent that the requirement for labour is reducing.

    It goes on, and in the early part of this Internet century ‘outsourcing’ has been the word on every trendy accountant’s lips. And yet again history prepares a lesson on change that we shall nor learn. The lower the wage you will accept, the more likely you are to find employment. Sweat shops in the east and internships in the west amount to the same thing.

    Even though I had a prize-winning career in broadcast TV, I can’t get back in after a major sabbatical and being older than 50. Luckily I don’t want to. Who’d want to be plucked from the water by a post-iceberg Titanic? Nope, hindsight would suggest you’d want to be an early adopter of a life-raft. So I built my own. Even limited success suggests that an entrepreneurial approach is useful.

    I reluctantly agree with Amy about media courses. Degrees in English, History, Philosophy, Theology and the hard sciences are all far more valuable to those who would explore and explain the world in words and pictures.

    I get several calls a month from graduate filmschool hopefuls wanting work. Sadly they have few enough useful skills and too much experience of indulging themselves. Many can produce reasonable eye-candy, but little of substance.

    And yet we are left with the problem of how to prepare people entering an industry which fails to train them any more. But this is against the backdrop of my two opening observations. Our technology reduces the requirement for labour, yet our primal nature causes us to massively increase our numbers at every opportunity.

    Douglas Adams had a great metaphor going, his B-Ark, filled with telephone sanitisers and marketing executives, attempted to solve a population problem. So, are there too many people trying to get into industries that just don’t need the manpower any more? Or, is the real problem that there are just too many people now?

    • Adam Westbrook said, on May 23, 2011 at 9:22 am

      Really interesting points Simon. I agree with your overall narrative, and I think we have too many people doing too little work in lots of big organisations.

      I studied history initially on the advice from a well-known journalist that I should get a degree in something wider before specialising in journalism, which I think helps.

      The more time goes on, I think there’s value in having a whole other career in something else before moving to journalism with your skills and knowledge. How much better would reportage of the recession have been if journalists had just the slightest understanding of how the economy works?

      • Simon Morice said, on May 23, 2011 at 3:13 pm

        Arguably, the primary purpose of journalism has been to keep everyone informed. Do you think that what we have come to call journalism might be better defined as a set of rules for facilitating Gutenberg’s invention to circumvent the old limitation in spreading the news?

        Technology can bring benefit if, and only if it mitigates a limitation. Before the technology came along, people had a set of rules to allow them to live with the limitation. And to get the benefit you will probably have to change those rules.

        Now, we have an array of technologies for keeping everybody up to speed with what is happening. Practically anyone can afford to be part of a global or local conversation which is no longer constrained to be broadcast. http://ntmojos.indigenous.gov.au/ is fascinating to me because it combines very new cultural artefacts with extremely old ones.

  12. […] was reading an article on Adam Westbrook’s blog, that made me […]

  13. Bob Rosenbaum said, on June 13, 2011 at 7:52 pm

    Interesting dialogue. The big issue, as it strikes me, is that roughly 50,000 high school students matriculate each year to the nation’s journalism schools. They don’t, as a gross generalization, do so because they’re interested in starting their own business. And yet, most of them will have to figure out how to use their journalistic passion for something other than traditional journalism jobs – because the number of journalism jobs continues to decline (albeit far more slowly than a couple years ago).
    Being a journalist and starting a business are two very different things. But if journalism schools hope to continue serving their students, then one of the things they need to do is help those students see and understand the less-than-traditional career paths available to them (and I’m not just talking PR or marketing). Journalism schools should absolutely teach entrepreneurship. How they do it is what will set one school apart from another.
    (I believe that freelancing is one of the most entrepreneurial career paths a journalists can pursue. Unfortunately, the economic value of content has been declining for the past decade – a circumstance that I believe will eventually turn around – which means freelancing, like other kinds of journalism, is not a growth business right now and may be unappealing to people who haven’t spent the last 10 or more years becoming proficient at the non-reporting aspects of the work. In my own practice, I don’t call myself a freelancer, which tends to reduce the pay scale. I generate content – a semantic distinction that seems to put me to work for people who are willing to spend more money on the information I produce).

  14. […] Can we teach journalists to be entrepreneurial? – I argue we must teach journalists to be entrepreneurial – for their own sake, and for the profession. […]


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