Things to be thankful for: Creative insubordination

What kind of journalist can start his or her own news website?

The simple answer is “anyone,” of course. Fire up Blogger, and you are there. But which journalists will be able to build a site that grows into financial success and stability, one that secures an enduring source of funding, whether it be advertising or non-profit support?

That class of individuals, alas, is much smaller.

Some colleagues and I were talking yesterday about how to identify potential journalist entrepreneurs. The last folks on that list, I said, would be the “team players” whom corporate managers love to put in charge of important new projects.


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.

But when technology upsets monopolies or oligopolies, as the Web did with local information markets, those established businesses need a healthy does of creative insubordination, to help them learn how to compete.

Unfortunately, most successful institutions became successful because they evolved to employ and promote individuals who did things the corporate way. Market changes, unfortunately for them, is Darwin’s revenge. The workplace natural selection process that made great corporate employees leaves the organization unlikely to accommodate, much less promote, the very people the organization will need to adapt to the change, and survive.

And that’s why my Facebook and LinkedIn lists are filled with great people who can build great Web communities, while many newspaper companies are heading for the corporate graveyard.

The industry’s recent orgy of layoffs, while helping the bottom line in the short term, only make the problem worse. The best “team players” are the ones kept, and they are charged with doing even more traditional corporate work – more beats to cover, more Flash packages to build – with even less time to brainstorm ways to break away from the old rules of doing things.

So here is what I give thanks for, as we take a short break for the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States: Creative insubordination. And the bosses who not only tolerate it, but encourage and reward it, as well.

To heck with the old ways of doing things. Let’s try something new.

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. Thanks Robert for yet another great and inspirational piece.

    I have for a long time wanted to start my own news website, but the problem is, in Ghana, one can not easily find a good web developer who understands the concept of news websites. The very few that are available are too expensive. These make it very difficult to start anything.

    Reading your piece makes me hopeful, that the dream will not die. It is possible to do it!

    Thanks again Robert.

  2. For months now, I have been reading your articles, especially on the future of digital journalism, cameras and found them very inspiring. I am a print journalist turned 35/16mm filmmaker and then digital/HD videographer involved in global journalism. Through the kindness of two sponsors, The Bag and my work inspired them to set up two websites: and These focus on the future of digital/HD films, celebrating cultural diversity in America and worldwide.

    For some time now, I have been working as an ambitious entrepreneur on a brilliant global idea, but stand deflated by the greed of investors who have no idea about the power of film and TV … and enjoy destroying genuine creativity.

    Determined I created this incredible digital project where I negotiated with two to three major corporate investors eager to commit a $5 million investment to reach the global market place. But the ordeal was stifling. Their conditions in the final analysis was heartbreaking.

    The first investor loved the idea and during luncheon at a 5-star restaurant, wanted to hand me a check signed by an old grandmother in Columbia (South America). Surprised, I simply smiled and asked whether it was a matter of laundering drug money ? He replied: “What does it matter to you, as long as we give you the budget funding ?”. My team whispered “take the money and run!” echoing the humour of the famous filmmaker Mr. Woody Allen, who used to live in his New York townhouse, two blocks from my apartment.

    The second investor proudly stated:”We will bring in $10 million from our advertising client, but you have to keep double books. There will be $5 million for your project and the balance will be paid directly to us”. I nodded my head and thanked the party graciously, knowing I had reached a deadend. It was all a matter of upbringing and sacrificing my principles that I had inherited from my parents.

    The final multimillion dollar corporate sponsor demanded that I bring in major Hollywood stars to make the project more dramatic … which could have been possible … but the budget would sky rocket!

    Yes, there is plenty of money in America for creative film/TV and website ideas, but there is also the worship of the green dollar (especially the million dollar bills) that cannot buy true genius and pure creative success.

    I went passed the newspaper stand and purchased a one dollar lottery ticket with wishful thinking to win that 100 million dollars, so I can continue to focus on the future of producing digital/HD films for a global market.

  3. Very interesting article. I am in search of a programmer to help me build a simple news website. I am yet to get one. In the worst case I might have to go with free softwares like WordPress :(

    But I am hopeful :)

    Thanks for yet another great article. Keep it up. :)