Entrepreneurial Journalism: It’s happening – what are you doing about it?

by Jason Preston on September 24, 2008

If you’re not reading Romenesko, you should be. He pointed to this article on Forbes yesterday, which talks about Philip Balboni and his plans to launch Global News Enterprises as a full-scale online news venture where he offers his staff equity in the company.

This reminds me of the recent exodus at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, where John Cook and Todd Bishop left to set up their own Seattle tech site backed by the Puget Sound Business Journal.

What, as a journalist, should you be doing about your personal brand?

What, as a newspaper, should you be doing to keep your brightest talent?

From the outside (which is really where I am), the Newspaper industry is starting to look more and more like startup space. I see huge business opportunities for people who want to adapt news to a web-native model, and I see gaping holes where existing papers refuse to innovate.

As it turns out, the almighty newspaper isn’t so almighty once you take away their distribution monopoly.

All this begs some important questions that are common in competitive landscapes but less common in a monopoly. Questions like, “what’s my competitive advantage?” or…

What is my most valuable asset?

That’s an easy one. As a newspaper, your most valuable assets are your reporters. As a reporter, your most valuable asset is your personal brand.

It turns out that on the internet, massive, faceless branding doesn’t work so well. Your brand needs to have flagship personalities—or, of course, the brand could be a personality, but only at the expense of legitimate attempts to be impartial.

As a newspaper that requires a big shift. Your most prized possessions used to be the printing contract and the distribution list. But when it turns out that your best reporters don’t necessarily need your press or your list to be successful, the leverage shifts to the other side.

If you are a journalist

You ought to be doing what you can to put your name online and develop relationships with your readers. I keep hearing that reporters like to “hide behind their bylines,” which to me sounds like the quick path to obscurity.

The more connections you have with your audience, the more people who friend you on Facebook, the more you turn up in top Google searches, the better for both you and your paper. Think about Robert Scoble and Microsoft.

Scoble did wonders for Microsoft’s public image, putting them on the forefront of blogging and social media, as well as humanizing the really amazing work and cool people that live and work in Redmond.

On the flip side, Microsoft gave legitimacy and scale to Scoble, and he was able to use that personal brand when he left to find good work at both PodTech and Fast Company.

If you are a newspaper

You’d better start identifying your key talent and treating them well. In the early days of Weblogs Inc, the blog network started by Jason Calacanis that was sold to AOL for twenty-some million dollars, Calacanis often said that his job as CEO was to give his bloggers the best resources he could and get out of their way so that they could really shine.

That’s a good attitude to have. Talented writers will always be able to find work, and their creative services are going to be more in demand as papers begin to realize how closely their top reporters are tied to their bottom line.

Start treating your writers well, which means a whole bunch of scary things like:

  1. Paying them a higher salary
  2. Offering them stock options or equity
  3. Encourage them to engage with their audience through social media
  4. Provide free workshops on new online tools
  5. Ask them what would help them write better, and then give some of it to them
  6. Allow them to innovate and own a piece of what they create

And you’ll find that you’ll not only keep the talent you have, but you’ll attract top talent from other papers as well.

Pretty soon you’ll see your traffic skyrocket and your engagement will go up, and maybe your own reporters will come up with a good monetization strategy or you’ll find financial success by metering your content.

Eat Sleep Publish is a blog about the future of publishing. To become more clairvoyant, subscribe to the RSS feed or sign up for the Official Eat Sleep Publish e-mail list and get a free mp3 recording of The Pitch.

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1 Monica Guzman 09.25.08 at 8:45 am

Thoughtful post, Jason. Newspapers’ best assets really are their reporters. The weird thing is that to keep them happy, you have to set them free. Hard thing to do when you consider how easily their personal brand, if successful, could pull them into other projects. But as long as they benefit from the brand and credibility of their publication and they’re happy in their work, there’s no reason for them to leave …

2 Jason Preston 09.25.08 at 8:51 am

Monica – Thanks! I like to think of it as being kind of like Baseball – the players are what makes a team successful, but you still need a team to play 😉

3 Curt M. 09.25.08 at 9:27 pm

This is all true but, for big media companies who are used to owning and controlling everything, it’s a huge change, something they may not be able to deal with.

I’m reminded of a story about the early days of the movies. During the early Silent era, movie actors were not credited by name onscreen. People knew them only by description (The Girl with the Dog, the Blond-headed Boy, etc.). Studio chiefs realized that, once the stars were named and known, they would have enormous popularity and clout … and that the studio bosses wouldn’t be able to control them and would have to pay them more.

You know what happened with the movies. The same thing is now happening with journalism. Smart companies will get it and embrace it and thrive; non-smart ones … won’t.

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