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.

On revolution.

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on February 11, 2011

Image Credit: monasosh on Flickr; taken Jan 29th, Egypt

Tonight, Egypt’s 30-year-old regime fell.

The hundreds of thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square showed the rest of the world what persistent, peaceful protest can really achieve – in a short space of time. If I were a despot in another part of the world, I’d be nervous, to say the least.

The revolution in Egypt follows (but is not necessarily connected to) a series of major revolutions affecting the world this century. Most immediately the similar political ones in Tunisia and Yemen; but more importantly the revolutions in society, careers, technology – and yes, journalism, which are reforging the way the world works.

The fact is unavoidable: we live in revolutionary times.

These aren’t the thoughts of a lone conspiracy theorist crackpot. I’m not the only, and certainly not the first person to write this. In fact, one of the smartest people on the planet – Sir Ken Robinson – has been saying it for ages. In this speech at the Aspen Institute he defines what revolution really is:

…we are living in times of revolution. And I believe this is literally true; I don’t mean it figuratively, like ‘it’s a bit like a revolution’, or what we think of as a revolution, or what we’ve come to call a revolution. It is a revolution.

A revolution is a time when things you think are obvious turn out not to be. Things you take for granted turn out to be untrue. Things you do habitually turn out to be ineffective. And I believe that’s where we are now, and the pace of this is picking up.

If you work in journalism, hopefully that last paragraph rings true.

If you’re under 30, I think revolution will be the gift, and perhaps also the burden, of your generation. It certainly sets us apart from the baby-boomer generation before us. It is not for us to choose this burden, but it is in our power – and our responsibility – to live up to it.

Before you close this tab and dismiss me as an anarchist, I am not calling for the masses to take up arms and head to the streets. Revolution is rarely about violence (the social-media revolution is the opposite of violence, right?) In fact, all you have to do this: accept it; relish it; embrace it. Revolution is messy, so be prepared to get your hands dirty and your feet wet. You’ll have to accept the conventional wisdom is wrong, and the things you might have taken for granted are untrue.

But whatever you do, don’t resist it. Don’t linger in the past, don’t yearn for things to be the way they were. In a revolution, the Mubaraks always lose. And the only person who suffers when you do that is you.

For the last seven years, this blog has been about a very specific revolution: the revolution in journalism; and about a very specific way of dealing with it: seeing opportunities where other people see threats; being entrepreneurial and creating your own luck…in other words embracing it. The revolution is why I quit my conventional job 18 months ago – and it’s been a wild ride since.

I genuinely think there are unique and extraordinary opportunities to reshape our craft (for the better) that our predecessors never had, if only we go for them. Imagine living in The Matrix – but only temporarily. For as long as the revolution lasts, it is possible to bend spoons if you believe it can be done. But to do so you need to take risks, make your ideas happen, create change, lead other people and start movements…but do it now, because it won’t last forever.

So seriously, jump in – the water’s lovely.

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