Beyond cheerleading about journalism’s future

Online journalism advocates are brimming with plenty of “can-do” optimism about the future of the profession, and for the most part I concur that better times are ahead. However, we’re in the midst of a very hellish present, with no way of knowing where the bottom of this transition period may be, and whether it has been reached.

So the lack of “how-to” ideas to accompany this enthusiasm — even a few generalities that go beyond the abstract — has me a bit chastened right now.

I’ve long enjoyed Robert Niles’ posts on entrepreneurial journalism at the Online Journalism Review. Blogging this week off the Knight Digital Media Center’s News Entrepreneur Boot Camp, he states that “journalists must emerge from a culture of failure in order to survive.” And this certainly sums up how many of us feel:

“Telling journalists ‘you can’t do that,’ when they seek to find a way to make their work profitable, or at least economically sustainable, is an example of the culture of failure from which we were trying to extract these 15 journalists. I want more journalists to get the message — you can do it.”

Well, I do believe I can do it, too. I’m glad not to be in an environment (aka, a newsroom) where being told “no” is commonplace. But I’d like to get a better understanding of how to go about pursuing “yes.” After nine months of my post-newsroom life, I’m finding the Great Wide Open more daunting than I first imagined.

I’m not asking anyone to hold my hand or offer step-by-step instructions, because as yet there are few certifiable models for journalists to “make their work profitable” in an entrepreneurial setting. At least in this stage of journalism’s transformation to the Web.

A period of grand experimentation is just underway, and I am taking the long view that it might be after my working days are over that we’ll have better answers as to what will pay off. And pay.

However, I’m growing just a bit weary of the rah-rah that is difficult for newspaper-hardened journalists to absorb right now. I realize staying relentlessly positive is a vital component of the entrepreneurial spirit, and that the “culture of failure” that feasts in newsrooms, and that shaped my habits for many years, isn’t helping me here right now.

But I’m finding as I have dabbled with new ways of doing the news — and I’ve been doing this from almost the first day since I took my buyout — is that the lack of capital isn’t the biggest concern. Interestingly, there’s a myopia at work that supposedly is the province of “old” media.

I write this at a quirky time in my career reinvention process. I just received word that a news startup I’ve been involved with is on hiatus because it could get no one to pay for the journalism we have been producing for some months. I’ve been told that this is merely the end of the “first phase” of the project, and I do hope this is correct. I sincerely wish that this service does take off someday, because the concept is good and the work is needed.

But starting an ambitious venture with no capital in a woeful economy, then blaming the economy when something doesn’t pan out, doesn’t sound very “can-do” to me. Using the economy as a crutch comes right from the script of newspaper executives justifying the latest round of layoffs.

Some editorial and business models won’t work regardless of the economy, and despite how good and right an idea may sound at inception. Someone who’s had me work up the outlines of an editorial model for a media startup he’s convinced will work now wants to hash over details. I do agree it is a great idea, but much remains to be discovered through market research, sizing up the competition and identifying a viable audience. Even before we get to the possibilities for generating revenue, this is going to take more than a “jump in, the water’s fine” approach to make it happen.

Because this person is someone who truly values my best judgment, I’m not going to hesitate to offer it if I think he’s wrong. Or if the idea just seems to be a non-starter. This is new terrain for me, and the greatest challenge is working with ideas people who are convinced theirs will work. Even when they’re told they won’t. They don’t take “no” for an answer very easily, which can be good. Or bad.

Niles is only partially right when he writes that:

“Journalism is not doomed; people can make money publishing online. All that needs to change to make that happen is journalists’ toxic attitudes toward themselves and the value of their work.”

It’s not as simplistic as journalists shedding self-defeating ways of thinking, I’m afraid. And I wish Niles would elaborate on where these online revenue streams might be tapped. Because even the most learned new media cartographers are having trouble detecting these lucrative waters.

And I wonder what he would say to media sages who’ve been kicking journalists when they’re down. The Knight boot camp took place just as media economist Robert Picard argued that what journalists do doesn’t have very much value. That prompted Jeff Jarvis to pile on gleefully that those newsroom vermin are even overpaid to boot.

This is total disconnect from how journalists really live. Picard’s under the assumption that workaday journalists can “become more involved in setting the course of their companies.” Jarvis clucks that the days of “inflated paychecks” for journalists are over. I think I missed the memo somewhere: When did they ever begin?

It’s easy to vivisect the value of journalists from the comforts of the Oxford lecture circuit. And it’s even easier for a journalist-turned-consultant and Davos junketeer to pontificate from the comforts of his own echo chamber. To this gimlet-eyed sportswriter hell-bent on saving democracy, these disquisitions are little more than theoretic twaddle.

Ideas are great, and Picard and Jarvis do have some compelling thoughts on how journalists have to rethink their value. But it’s harder to put ideas to the test than it is to state them. And it’s harder still to offer journalists a tangible framework on how to break free psychologically from the ravages of a decaying industry. Putting simple faith in a “can-do” philosophy isn’t enough.

Still, I do hope the folks at Knight continue to encourage budding news entrepreneurs this way:

“It was about changing minds. We wanted the campers to see themselves not as beaten-down employees in an ailing field, but as sharp thinkers, entrepreneurs in a thriving marketplace.”


2 thoughts on “Beyond cheerleading about journalism’s future

  1. I’m in a similar boat and often just as lost. It’s a wearying challenge (especially in this climate, both economic and meteorological), and I so hope better days are ahead for us all. Thank you. This entry means a lot to me.


  2. Well I’m flattered you took the time to read, and to comment. Trying to stay optimistic while being realistic. It’s a tough balance to strike.


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