An assignment for journalists and students: Talk with an entrepreneur

Last spring, OJR helped present a boot camp for entrepreneurial journalists at the University of Southern California. We selected and brought about a dozen journalists to USC’s Marshall School of Business, where they spent five days learning some of the skills – and the mindset – necessary to start and sustain their own online publishing businesses.

But we put those campers, and a second group of finalists, to work before they came to Los Angeles. Today, I’d like to tell you a bit about the first assignment we gave them, because I think it could help any journalist, or journalism student, who is anxious about their place in journalism’s future.

It’s a modified version of the assignment that Tom O’Malia, Director of the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies in the Marshall School of Business, for years has been giving his beginning MBA students.

From the assignment:

Entrepreneurship is network dependent. Just like a journalist without sources, an entrepreneur without a strong network could not function. So how do you build a network? How do you attract a mentor? How do you get first-hand information about how someone successfully built an online journalism business?

Well, the same way you’ve gotten any information as a reporter. You ask. You will interview a successful news entrepreneur and, through the interview, learn about his or her journey to success. This exercise allows you to use your existing journalism experience and expertise to take the first step toward building your entrepreneurial network.

I believe that all journalists, and journalism students, would benefit from sitting down and talking with someone who’s started their own business – ideally, someone who’s started a business involving intellectual content, such as a fellow journalist, or an author, artist or publisher.

But the conversation shouldn’t be directed toward producing a feature story. Instead, the conversation should explore the person’s “entrepreneurial journey,” as O’Malia calls it, from the moment the individual saw an opportunity, how he or she recognized and assessed that opportunity, what struggles were encountered along the way and how they were resolved, and where the entrepreneur turned for help and guidance.

There are many different paths to income beyond the traditional of working full-time for an employer. With its strong tradition of freelancing, many journalists have begun to explore those alternatives. But wider exposure to different journeys can help journalists, and journalism students, develop a different mindset about their potential role in the field.

Ultimately, that’s what entrepreneurship demands – an ability to see a different path toward an end, one that’s not been taken before. And that’s true whether one is starting his or her own for-profit news website, a non-profit local information community or even trying to reform and re-engineer a business from within.

Exposure to different mindsets and different journeys is essential to good journalism reporting and writing, as well. Not everyone in your community, mush less the world, thinks and acts the same way as you. One needs to understand their journeys, and their mindsets, to tell their stories.

Why not, then, start with an entrepreneur’s?

Allow me to suggest that journalism instructors find a place for this assignment in their syllabi this year. And that mid-career journalists add this assignment to their tickle files. Journalists who want to ensure a future for themselves in this field need sources and career role models outside the world of corporate employment.

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:

    This is excellent information and insightful observations connecting the two fields. I am a former radio news director and reporter and started my PR firm nine years ago. You are right on target with the network comparison to sources for reporters. The key here, regardless of what your field or buisness is, is you must be able to sell in order to succeed. Knowing your “former business” is fine, but sales is key —or you won’t last long. Great information. Thank you!

    Susan Young, Get in Front Blogging (@sueyoungmedia)

  2. Yes, i’d agree that your right on target with the network comparison to sources for reporters.