Passion fuels entrepreneurial journalism

The biggest challenge facing the journalism industry today is not declining readership, the economy or even the Internet – it is the increased competition that the Internet has made possible.

People are reading, offline and on. People continue to demand information about the communities and their world. Despite the crashing housing market and turmoil in credit markets, billions of dollars are flowing through the American advertising and media industries. (See OJR’s link last week to the latest Pew Report on the state of the news media for support for those statements.)

So why are so many news companies in a panic? Competition.

It’s something almost no newspapers had to face just 10 years ago. Discussion communities, blogs, wikis and other websites are drawing readers’ attention from old media information sources. And advertising dollars are following them.

I teach at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism, in addition to editing OJR for USC Annenberg. My job is to prepare our students for a career in journalism. But it is also clear to me that teaching them how to report, write, edit and produce news stories, even in multiple media, is not enough to do that.

These students need to learn how to compete, and it is not enough to teach them how to compete for internships, jobs and assignments, as we always have. Today’s students need to learn how to distinguish themselves not just in front of hiring editors, but in front of the reading and watching public in the information marketplace.

That’s what prompted me recently to write to a few journalist entrepreneurs I’ve met over the years. My question: What do journalism schools need to be doing to prepare their students for a more entrepreneurial industry?

One response changed the way that I approached this issue. It promoted me to trash what I had planned to write and instead simplify my advice to other journalism educators.

Blame Nick Denton. (And, I know, many of you probably have blamed the Gawker Media publisher for a great many things….) In a public response to my query on his Gawker blog, Denton replied: “I can think of no answer except this: close.”

Okay, that was a bit harsh.

But so is the industry.

So let’s accept Denton’s skepticism, and start from nothing. What’s the first thing that its beginning journalists will need to succeed in the field?

I’m going to turn to Brian Storm, whose response I found most compelling: “A passion for the craft of journalism.”

Why? Passion fuels the desperation which prompts journalists, in this case, to find something, anything, that will allow them to keep doing that which they love to do. Without passion, journalists find it easier to give up and look for another way to make a living when jobs with impressive titles and solid wages are no longer easily available.

That makes passion the foundation upon which a career can be built, regardless of business environment. With passion, journalists look for new, less expensive ways to collect and publish information. And they look for topics and communities to serve for which their lesson passionate competitors have little demand.

I’ll take Storm’s answer one step farther. A successful writer in the new media era needs not only a passion for the craft of journalism, but a passion for the topics that he or she covers.

Take Markos Moulitsas, founder of DailyKos, as an example. “I used my healthy disdain for the state of contemporary traditional media to motivate me to fill a market niche (‘strong progressive voices’) left completely empty by those media gatekeepers,” he wrote to me.

Kos, whom I interviewed for OJR once before, isn’t simply the partisan publisher of DailyKos. He’s founded a slew of websites driven by reader content, from a network of pro and college sports fan sites to one examining the role of faith in modern life.

I acknowledge that many veteran journalists, including many OJR readers, might blanch at the suggestion that Kos is a role model for young journalists. The respect for the industry’s tradition of objectivity and impartiality remains strong. But if objectivity leads us to disconnect from our readers, our communities and our personal interests, it leaves us in danger of losing the passion that we need to remain in the field and to innovate.

So Kos is a partisan. At least he gives a damn. He went to j-school, served in the Army and built a community, from nothing, that’s now swinging elections in the U.S. House and Senate. That is the type of passion, and influence within a community, that more journalists ought to exhibit.

So how do we bring that spirit into the classroom? Kos suggested that journalism “courses should make clear that in today’s world, capital is the last thing you need to build a successful news model. The tools are cheap and easy enough that anyone can create new ways of gathering and disseminating information with sweat equity and a little motivation.”

Storm wrote that we should teach students to be make better use of available tools in learning about and responding to our readers.

“With the Web, we have access to an incredible amount of data about how people use our publications,” he wrote. “Learning to mine that data to see what’s working and what isn’t is important. Looking for trends and trying to identify future opportunities is something that should be integrated into the educational process.”

And we must not forget to remind our students about the importance of balancing the books.

“Basic business classes would be a welcome addition to journalism education. Knowledge of supply and demand is as important as understanding copyright and emerging distribution opportunities,” Storm wrote.

Ultimately, though, we start and end with passion. In my class this semester at USC Annenberg, I have assigned my online journalism students to publish a blog on the topic of their choosing. I felt it was important to allow the students to choose their beats to help them retain their interest as I swamped them with a lot of tech work that, experience has shown me, intimidates some students.

Several students could not believe the assignment: “You mean we can cover whatever we want?” Yes, I replied, but they are expected to conform to the journalism standards they have learned. They will have to interview sources and examine and cite documents. They can’t just write whatever comes into their mind.

So my students are covering dance, fitness, cooking, gender identity and hockey. And I hope that, as they apply their emerging journalism skills to these topics for which they are passionate, some of that passion will rub off onto their practice of craft of journalism itself.

One of the frustrations inherent in teaching is that students often go away before you can find out how your instruction has influenced them. Sometimes, it can take years before a lesson makes a noticed effect upon a student’s life.

But, from time to time, one gets early feedback. Last week, during USC’s spring break, one of my students took time from her vacation to e-mail me that one of the videos she had shot for my class had been linked to from a much larger website in town. “I love blogging!” she wrote.

That’s the passion that people need to survive in what has become a brutally competitive industry.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. says:

    Robert Niles wrote:
    March 25: Today’s students need to learn how to distinguish themselves … in front of the reading and watching public in the information marketplace.

    Two weeks early, he wrote:
    March 12: The market for good journalism — engaging, relevant, accurate and enduring information — lives.

    Having worked in a couple of the most competitive newspaper markets — back in the day — I agree that engaging, relevant,accurate information is the key. I would add original and revelatory.

    The skills to achieve that range from high-end critical thinking skills to the dogged techniques of good reporting and editing. How to connect seemingly unconnected bits of information. How to see and make a case through the fog of disinformation and bureaucracy.

    Journalism and journalism schools today too often confuse medium with form, comment or reaction for information. If journalism schools don’t teach the skills and values that produce good content, I think we will see a long, dark period of low-value noise, the “sea of irrelvance…” from Neil Postman’s foreward to his book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” Postman wrote:

    “We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

    “But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

    “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny ‘failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions’. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

    “This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.”

    Appetite for distraction is already killing the republic.

    — Doremus Jessop

  2. I wholeheartedly agree that instilling students with passion is our first charge as educators, and related to that is confidence. The feedback that I receive from employers is that they are looking for recruits who are enthusiastic and can speak confidently about current issues and topics, in addition to any technical skills they might possess. Students are happy when they feel confident about their performance in interviews and in dealing with employers in other networking situations. This includes the ability to answer questions and speak intelligently about the current technological state of media. I have found that teaching new media topics re-invigorates students’ passion for the communication discipline and gives them confidence that what they are learning is relevant and valued in the workplace.

  3. “Passion fuels the desperation which prompts journalists, in this case, to find something, anything, that will allow them to keep doing that which they love to do.”

    That’s my new favorite quote when it comes to journalism. I was just telling my husband the other day (and we happen to be a journalism couple) that journalism today seems to have lost the passion of the days when reporters were a hard-scrabble bunch, always struggling to get more stories, meet deadline, and get more stories. One of my favorite books ever is Edna Buchanan’s biography and I almost feel like that book should be required reading for young journalists.

    For if you have no passion, what’s the point?
    *edited to sub in the name of the journalist I actually meant – sorry!

  4. Robert:

    Until I read your column, I thought I was the only person using the term

  5. says:

    Interested in entrepreneurial journalism? Interested in connectioning with community? Are you a self-starting and a great reporter/writer? Learn more about our competitively paying Representative Journalism fellowship in the college town of Northfield, Minnesota. Be part of our groundbreaking experiment.