Focus on 'what,' not 'where,' in planning your journalism career

So you want to do journalism but are worried about all the change hitting the craft?

Do what digital pioneer and entrepreneur Elizabeth Osder has done: “I always tried to be about what I get to do rather than where I get to do it.”

But the economic models just aren’t working for newspapers online, lamented one student attending USC Annenberg School of Journalism Director’s Forum.

Not true, said Osder, fresh off consulting work with Tina Brown’s just-launched “The Daily Beast.” Plenty of people are making plenty of money online. (As if in confirmation, David Westphal, Annenberg’s executive in residence, noted that McClatchy right now makes more money online than it costs to pay all the editors and publishers in the company.)

Here’s how to think about it, Osder told the group:

“Start with the impact you want to have. Figure out how what audience you need to assemble to have that impact. And what kind of content is needed to do that. Then price it out: How much money do you need to do it?”

“If I wanted to do that, I’d have gone to Marshall (USC’s business school),” a student groaned in reply. Understandable, said Osder, but having to do this kind of thinking brings a needed discipline. “It forces you to be relevant and useful versus arrogant and entitled.”

Hmmmm. This nostalgia we’re feeling: Is it for The Wall, which guaranteed the purity of our journalism — or for the folks on the other side of it, who had to worry about whether it was read and paid for?

About Geneva Overholser

Geneva Overholser is director of the School of Journalism at USC Annenberg.


  1. Oh my goodness, I can’t possibly count the number of times that I’ve wished that I had a sales staff to handle managing, billing and supporting advertisers on my websites. Or that I had a travel office to book my flights. Or a promotions department to write and send out press releases, design and order award plaques, etc.

    So, yes, I would love to have “the other side of The Wall” working for me on my family-owned niche news webites.

    But you know what? I never, not once, felt that my reporting or writing was being compromised because I wear all the hats in my company, as opposed to just the one of “journalist.” In fact, when I land a new advertiser, or sign up for a new ad network, I more often say to myself, “Cool! Now I can afford to fly to [X] and cover [Y].”

    I don’t feel that I have sacrificed any “purity” of my journalism. At most, I miss not having additional time to report, but frankly, I enjoy the tech, business and administrative sides of this work as well. So, if I had to choose, I would cast my vote for Geneva’s second option.

    Ultimately, though, I don’t care. I’m having the most fun of my career right now. I work from home, with my wife, on a couple of profitable websites that reach more than 250,000 absolute unique readers a month. I don’t have to wear a security card around my neck; I can pick up my kids from school every afternoon.

    Keep your Wall. Give me these wide open spaces online.

    What do other readers think?

  2. Excellent post. I’m actually riffing on this in my Tidbits post for Poynter today.

    In a nutshell, what Osder said about being relevant & useful, rather than arrogant and entitled, is exactly the reason why everyone involved in the news business and civic/community information should have a strong awareness of and at least some involvement in the business side of media. It keeps you in touch with real needs, real people, and real opportunities. Essentially, it keeps you honest — especially with yourself.

    Being involved in the business side of media also keeps you in touch with what kinds of news and information people *really* value (that is, what they’ll demonstrably support with money or engagement). That’s often quite different from the kind of news and info they might claim — or even believe — is important to them.

    – Amy Gahran

  3. says:

    Thought this was a fabulous post. Then again, I’ve been a freelancer for the last seven years — which is to say, I’ve been a small business owner for the last seven years. It’s just great to hear someone else say it.

    I think newspapers are essentially getting forced into an ad-driven business model instead of a fee-driven one as they go online, since readers don’t like paying for news online. That’s all right, to a certain extent — there are lots of free newspapers out there that live off the ad-driven business model. The problem is that people aren’t paying the same money for online ads that they have traditionally for print ads (unless I’m mistaken — please correct if necessary). Once advertisers take online ads seriously, hopefully journalism will revive — but until then, we’re all stuck.

    Also, computers just aren’t as handy as newspapers in a lot of ways (e.g. the upfront cost, the battery and fragility and etc. issues with computers), which I think contributes to advertisers not taking online ads as seriously as they should. Still, if technical breakthroughs ever change that (e.g. the emergence of the subnotebook market where small powerful computers cost less than $500 [e.g. the Asus EEE], or e-paper, if that ever takes off ), bridging that technology gap could also revive journalism, IMHO.

    — Charles Choi (a former Mizzou student under Geneva)

  4. Like Amy, I was struck by Osder’s advice to be relevant and useful. I’ve long felt that this evolution is about people and mindset, not technology.

    If today’s journalism students can open their minds and be part of the digital information ecosystem, they’ll find plenty of opportunty.

  5. As Geneva was posting about Elizabeth Osder’s sage advice last week, I was telling a group of young aspiring journalists that they must develop their own personal “journalistic brand” if they are to succeed and thrive.

    The journalists who survive and thrive will have a solid foundation in traditional skills of fact gathering, verification and contextual story-telling and analysis. But they must also be able to use those skills across all platforms.

    What must be added to this alchemy are flexibility and versatility, along with entrepreneurship and innovation.

    Failure to understand the business models and arrogance when it came to the audience’s needs were much more detrimental to the disintegration of traditional news organizations than the wave of digital competition that swept both away revenue and audience away.

    A smart journalism student (and a smart unemployed journalist) would benefit from a dose of business school acumen mixed with passion for the power of making an impact on the world in which they live.

  6. says:

    As I read this comment, I’m developing curriculum for graduate students interested in this new news ecology…while also sitting in a lab in the evenings learning digital video editing techniques.

    To stay relevant, no matter what point in your career, requires that you continue to learn, stay open to opportunity, be relevant to your audience (who BTW are your partners as well), build relationships/partnerships with your advertisers, and be clear about why you are doing what you are doing. Then you know when you’ve done what you came to do and get out before you ruin it.

    Michelle Ferrier
    Managing Editor
    Twitter: mediaghosts

  7. Enjoyed reading your “focus on WHAT not WHERE in planning your journalism career”.
    Speaking from I am a writer-turned-business development/PR Media Director for The Indian American magazine catering to a target readership of South Asian readers in USA and Canada: population growth from 1,678 million in 2000 to 2,719 million in 2005, not to mention the exact figures for 2008.
    They represent nearly 5% of all U.S., Physicians (America’s largest foreign-born physicians’ group),including 50% ownership of all economy lodges in the USA and 36% of all hotels in the US, with a combined value of nearly $40 billion.
    I plan on taking your advice and approaching mainstream American advertisers to offer advertising space in our Thanksgiving Xmas/New Year Edition offering them exposure to this demographics of 25-54 with nearly 4 million across the board and a buying power of over $88 billion.
    The Indian American comprise of one of the most affluent and well-educated ethnic communities in America, representing 75% with bachelor degrees or higher; with the highest household income ($61,322) among US ethnic groups and prefer to read ethnic magazines and newspapers, and Bollywood music and movies, as the media of choice.
    The magazine is a bimonthly (with plans of becoming a monthly from January 2009), with offices in New York, New Jersey, Florida and California, and by January 2009, we will be distributed across the sub-continent of India catring to over 100 million English speaking educated readership from a population of over 1.3 billion.
    More information can be found on our website
    Our advertising rates are reasonable during this financial recession.
    We invite mainstream America to take advantage of our advertising prices in the Thanksgiving Xmas New Year edition at our Advertising Rates:
    4 color glossy pages: Back Cover $7,000 Inside Cover Page $6,000 Full Page $3,500
    More than 2 million Indian Americans can boast of being their own businesses as CEOs and part of the Fortune 500 companies, cutting-edge inventors, best-selling writers, Hollywood filmmakers, award-winning journalists and recipients of Oscars, Emmys, Grammys,Pulitzers, Obies, Spelling Bees, Rhodes Scholars and a couple of Nobel Prize winners.
    The Indian American Magazine is a glossy publication with top journalists and production values that illustrate the lifestyles of the rich and famous, tracking Hollywood and Bollywood celebrities in movies, music and multicultural entertainment, identifying with the youth culture of 2nd, 3rd and 4th generations, including the American campuses’ trends – seeking to be the print barometer of the mood of the Indo-American model.
    It is a magazine that serves not only successful profiles, but analyzes what are the criteria of success behind stories from “rags to riches.” The Indian Americans have accepted the social and cultural challenges in assimulating into mainstream America, while retaining their cultural heritage and identity.