Journalists must emerge from a culture of failure in order to survive

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.

“The advertisers.”

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.”

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:

    Great write-up. Thanks for sharing.


  2. says:

    Um, so what HAPPENED? As an unemployed journalist, I read the article expecting to find out how to “emerge from a culture of failure” and make a living in the “new journalism,” and all I found out were platitudes about making pitches and being in the nicer surroundings of the Business School. So advertisers are expected to make a journalism website pay: if that has never happened in “real” journalism (i.e. the websites of well established and highly regarded newspapers), how is it supposed to happen in “new journalism”?

  3. says:

    From John Druckenmiller, editor-publisher,

    My compliments on an excellent article. Yes, journalists can be entrepreneurs. We’ve been doing Hometown Headlines serving Northwest Georgia for more than five years.
    -We have a daily audience of 1,300 unique visitors (30-day average including weekends and holidays). On key days, we’ll top 2,000 uniques.
    -We are regarded as our community’s go-to site for business, health and politics–and weather. Our reputation for fairness is unrivaled in the market.
    -We have more than 30 active advertising accounts. Each understands the traditional “wall” between news and advertising. In 66 months, we’ve never been asked to slant a story.
    -Our ad revenues have climbed by more than 25 percent each year; we hope to top $100,000 this year.
    -We’ve embraced crossmarketing efforts with local radio and, of late, Facebook and Twitter. Our Hometown Facebook page has 146 “friends.” Our Twitter follow list is slightly more than 100.
    -Hometown also administrates four Facebook pages tied to our local news Web sites. Total “friends list” for all four group: 2,500 plus.

    I’m a diehard journalist with 31 years experience, more than 25 of that in newspapers as well as some radio.

    Can a news person sell ads? You learn to do it if you want to keep your media alive. It gets easier each time, especially when you’re selling something you–and the client–believe in.

    This is an excellent environment for veteran, traditional journalists to become online media entrepreneurs. Our advice: Do it.

  4. Beverly Garland says:

    Very interesting posting.
    I am a fan of newspapers but I do see the change coming down the tracks: Soon I will probably only get my daily paper on a screen, not on my front porch! I think it is appropriate that so many smart people are thinking of ways to make the “on screen” publishing only become profitable. But I do not understand why every single story that I read about these “future of news delivery” conferences always only has white people and mostly MEN who are talking about the future. This conference you descibe here seems to have only one woman, and from her name, she appears to be of East Indian descent…nothnig against her obviously but really: How come none of these meetings include any smart ambitious entrepeneurial journalists or former journalists who are black or Latino? They do exists because my son is one of them and so are his friends! You seem to be overlooking another really big change that is also coming right down the tracks, the America of the near future where most news readers will NOT be white people!

  5. says:

    one of the speakers is latina. you may not gather that from the name, but that’s a common misconception of the latino/hispanic culture.

  6. Beverly, good points all, ones that informed our curriculum and our outreach to potential bootcamp fellows.

    As director of the Knight Digital Media Center, I can assure you that the 15 diverse (in all ways — age, race/ethnicity, economic, geographic) boot campers were selected from more than 120 competitive applications and included 8 women (at least three of whom appeared to be women of color or ethnically diverse).

    Our visiting faculty included two women (one hispanic), two men. As you note, our guest speakers included a woman of South Asian decent as well as two other women and a couple of men.

    Better, our experts were some of the best in the field and critical to the learning we wanted to have happened. In fact several of the projects in the group focused on serving communities of color or communities otherwise neglected by most legacy media historically.

    Our hope is that, as we host more boot camps, we will continue to get applications that are exciting, diverse and have potential for success. I hope you will watch for our announcements and pass on info to anyone you believe should be in the room with us.

  7. says:

    “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.”

    The death of American journalism, right here.

  8. says:

    Thanks for (tacitly) mentioning, Robert! The revised pitch that focused on paying customers helped me land a lunch meeting with a potential investor!

  9. Both my parents were small business owners, so I have some business instincts that I’ve employed with my own wedding-centric site. But this sounds like there was some very good, thought-provoking discussion! I may have to apply for next year!

  10. Welcome to my world. Glad to see the academics and the world of the daily media types are catching up with reality in the world of a small town weekly, where journalists must be entrepreneurs (it has ever been thus) while holding themselves to a high standard of integrity to protect their souls.

    Journalism will be fine as soon as investors figure out they can’t demand 40 percent returns and still keep the golden goose alive. If that can be done without paper, I’m all for it, but I’m not convinced that’s possible yet, or even a good idea. Plenty of people still need the ultimate in a portable media device: a newspaper.

  11. says:

    Excuse me. But can anyone direct me to the journalism site paying real salaries to someone for real news creation that actually makes money from ads?
    And puuuhhhleeeeeeaaaassseee do not cite NYT or something, where the print reporting is not costed.

  12. says:

    In order for print journalism to transition over and make money on the internet these big companies will have to eliminate a lot of middle and even upper management jobs, and we know their big egos are not going to let that happen. The print media is using an old business model that will not compute in this brave new world.

  13. Some of the toughest competition for journalists is twitter.
    And theres even talks of legal issues when a big news network cuts a twitterers grass by stealing their statments etc they broke first on twitter.

  14. says:

    Yes, people can make money charging for content online. The problem is, no one has yet figured out a way to make enough money to support the operations of a traditional, large-scale news-gathering operation.

    Running a successful consumer advice site is fine, but the thing many journalists are dreading isn’t (necessarily) that they won’t be able to make money writing stories. It’s that they’ll no longer have the infrastructure there to hold people accountable. If a major paper is covering a city councilman, there’s a sense of accountability you can’t get with a blog, no matter how big the readership. Because no blog or website can match the readership and reach of a major daily; indeed, they depend on papers for content.

    The disintegration of mainstream media may very well be coming about because of editors’ bad attitudes. That doesn’t mean the ensuing vacuum will be any less chaotic, that the loss of institutional knowledge will be any less of a shame.

    And on a side note: If you’ve ever met a reporter who doesn’t immediately find people claiming that an attitude adjustment is a fix-all to be unbelievable, then you don’t really know any reporters. We’re supposed to be cynical. It’s our job.

  15. [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.]

    Check out the J-School building at the University of Montana. The business school’s doesn’t even get close.

  16. Frederick Nevin says:

    Great article.

    I started a local newspaper in Feb. 2008 after enduring pay cuts, no raises etc. When things get rough, I recall the magic phrase: “You can do it.” It quickly puts things back in order. Journalists need to lift themselves from the culture of failure that too many have come to accept as normal. They must come to view their talent as a business asset that has value in the real world and then come up with a way to sell it via a print or online publication.
    Indeed, it is hard work. But that’s true when it comes to starting just about any business, particularly in today’s weak economy.

  17. Great article. My friend is a Journalist of the pre-internet era, he has embraced it as a tool to further his progression in the business. From his own personal blog / article site he even got offered a better job.


  18. good posting. but idon’t know how to expression my thought