Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Can we teach journalists entrepreneurship?

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

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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.

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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.