The evolution of an entrepreneurial journalist

Do you have what it takes to be a journalist entrepreneur? Robert Niles of the Online Journalism Review profiles his ideal candidates, and says that the folks who fit this bill the least are ” ‘team players’ whom corporate managers love to put in charge of important new projects.”

Music to my ears!!

Yes, I’ve always thought of myself as what he terms a “creative insubordinate,” (or more precisely, a general insubordinate and an inveterate crab!) and the rapidly changing world of the Web and online journalism virtually demands that we think and act this way.

This is one of the leading factors that fueled my decision this summer to take a buyout from my former newspaper. Three months after striking out on my own, I’ve done a hell of a lot more than I thought I would have by now (started this blog, accepted a number of freelance assignments, took a website-building class and attended a terrific multimedia and career transition workshop at the Poynter Institute). I’m just getting cranked up!

The sabbatical has been rewarding as I shift gears away from a mindset that governed my 25-year career in newspapers, one that hasn’t been easy to shake, despite my eagerness to do so. Niles underscores the absolute necessity to break free from what has been burnished in the habits of journalists working in traditional newsrooms:

“Successful entrepreneurs bring something new to the market, whether it be a new product, new approach or simply a new promotion. They challenge existing market options. They are, therefore, by definition, not “team players,” but team challengers, destabilizers or ever destroyers.

Niles writes this a few days after Jeff Jarvis laid out a compelling, thoughtful and well-reasoned “scenario for news” that details new business models and delved a bit into the role journalists will play in this future. Sometimes I think Jarvis doesn’t spend enough time on the latter, and some of his critics in a new profile of him in the New York Observer allude to it as well:

“I think he and I part company on a number of points that he makes. One of them is the reliance on whatever the phrase of the moment is — citizen journalism or pro-am journalism — and I think that in his enthusiasm for a new newsroom model he undervalues the worth of good old-fashioned reporting.”

Jarvis (who offers his retort to the Observer piece here) says this about how future newsrooms may be composed:

“Some will be former staff journalists now on their own. Many people will operate independently. Some will be bloggers. Some will be freelancers. Many will need to be paid or they won’t join.”

Well, yes, professionals do like to get paid for their work, even those in a profession that demanded they take a vow of poverty to join. And now are confronted with the possibility they may have to do it again for the privilege of remaining in it.

To suggest that they start businesses and become entrepreneurial, living a freelancing life, makes sense given the declining economics of the news industry, which is going to contract further.

But even my eventual move in this direction is a longer-term objective. And I don’t think there will be many of my generation (I’m 48) or older who will be attempting to do this at all. They’ve got family, health care and retirement issues. They need to replace some, if not all, of the income they lost through layoffs or buyouts.

The excitement I feel as an evolving entrepreneurial journalist is tempered by the reality that it’s just that right now: evolving. Meanwhile, there are bills to pay and other obligations of middle age to consider.

Still, I am thankful that I’m positioning myself at a crucial time in the transformation of the news, and that, unlike thousands of journalists laid off this year, I had a choice in doing so. I’ll find out soon enough whether the moves I make will be the right ones, and if I’ve got the chops to be one of those “creative insubordinates.”

But I do love the sound of that phrase!


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