For a generation, journalists have been steeped in a culture of failure. Even during boom years, newspapers laid off employees, offered buy-outs, froze the hiring off new employees and cut the pay of the ones they kept. When the Internet brought unprecedented competition into the news business, and Chicken Little’s sky really did fall, the industry amplified its toxic narrative: “No one can make money online.” “Journalism is doomed!”
But it isn’t. All that’s doomed is the reactionary management philosophy of monopolists who could not adapt to world where people, not papers, controlled the narratives of their lives. Good riddance, I say. 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.
That was my message to the participants at the Knight Digital Media Center News Entrepreneur Boot Camp this week. We met at the USC Marshall School of Business for five days, working through a curriculum outlined by myself, KDMC’s Vikki Porter and Tom O’Malia of the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at Marshall. We brought in a team of four faculty to finalize the camp’s curriculum and instruct the campers: Mary Lou Fulton, Susan Mernit, Ken Doctor and Vin Crosbie. And we supplemented each day with expert speakers, including SEO expert Danny Sullivan, Dan Gillmor, entrepreneurs Shoba Purushothaman and Staci Kramer, and attorney Michael Overing.
Every day, the campers started by giving us their “elevator pitches” for their projects. Over the week, the pitches sharpened from rambling four-minute speeches to tight engagements of 20 seconds or less. At the same time, they learned how to flesh out their pitches into five-minute multimedia presentations, which they presented Thursday morning to a panel of business finance experts, including Lloyd Greif.
The camp wasn’t just about pitches, however. 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.
To that end, we held the camp at the business school, not the journalism school. At USC, like on every other campus I’ve ever visited, the difference between the journalism school building and the business school’s is like the difference between a Ramada and the Ritz. Environments can change attitudes. The physical building is one part of that. The company ones keeps the other. We aimed to change both.
Did we succeed? We’ll have to wait to discover how many, of any, of the projects developed by these 15 campers become financially self-sustaining. But we did see the campers’ attitudes change. They talked less of the past, and more of the future. Discussion turned from excuses to suggestions.
They smiled more.
Following morning presentations and discussions, led by the faculty, we broke after lunch into small groups, with individual campers meeting with the day’s instructor, O’Malia and me, by request. Those sessions were the most exciting, engaging and fulfilling of the week, for me. That’s where we got the opportunity to fine-tune ideas into concepts that had a real chance to succeed in competitive information marketplaces.
I’m not going to get into specific detail in describing individual projects – I’ll leave the campers to debut their own works. One moment stood apart for me, though.
One of our news entrepreneurs was pitching her site, “Do you have enough money?” she asked. It was an engaging, exciting pitch, one that would entice any reader to visit her consumer advice website.
But I told her she was doing it wrong. Citing O’Malia’s admonition to “target the customer,” I asked her how much money her readers would be paying for the site.
“Nothing,” she replied. “The site is free.”
So they’re not writing the checks, I responded. Who is, then? I asked.
So who is your customer? I asked.
At that moment, she changed her pitch. “Does your business have enough customers?” she then began. With her business focus broadened from building audience to building audience to attract advertisers, she’d learned how expand her concept from that of a journalist-editor to a publisher-enterpreneur.
Before any old-school journalism purists protest, let me assure you that audience remains paramount. A website has no value to anyone, not advertisers nor the public interest, if no one reads it. In my experience, and the experience of many others in this field, publications built solely to appeal to advertisers often fail to catch on with readers. Without a loyal audience, those advertisers soon lose interest in the site and withdraw their support.
Kicking off the camp, USC Annenberg’s J-school director Geneva Overholser warned that journalism has been too bound by rules from previous era. “We need to keep the principles, not the rules,” she told the camp participants. Obstinate devotion to an old-school advertising/editorial wall that keeps journalists from understanding enough about the business side of the industry to make a living on their own is one example of a rule that needs to go, she said.
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.
USC executive in residence David Westphal (Overholser’s husband), tweeted during the final pitch session, “KDMC bootcamp presentations are at the intersection of great public-interest aspiration & the marketplace. (Good place to be)”
One of the industry professionals on the Thursday morning panel that heard those final pitches sent off the campers with a strong endorsement.
Angel investor Bob Aholt, a director at the Pasadena Angels said, “Before I came here today, I was concerned about the future of journalism” in this economy.
“But after hearing these presentations today, I see the fate of journalism is in good hands.”