10/25/09

JOURNALISM AS CHARITY AND ENTREPRENEURSHIP

Many journalists pursuing new online initiatives are learning that good intentions are not enough for providing news.

The latest group to do so is former Rocky Mountain News reporters who started rockymountainindependent.com this past summer using a membership payment and advertising model. The effort collapsed Oct. 4 with them telling readers, “We put everything into producing content and supporting our independent partners, but we can no longer afford to produce enough content to justify the membership.”

There problem is hardly unique. The conundrum facing many journalists is whether to pursue the noble work of journalism as unpaid charitable work or to become engaged as journalistic entrepreneurs with a serious attitude toward its business issues—something many despised in their former employers.

If journalists want pay for their work, if they want to provide for their families, and if they want to pay mortgages, they need to spend more time figuring out how to provide value that will extract payments from readers and advertisers. To do that they have to construct organizational structures and activities that support the journalism; they will have to ensure that startups have sufficient capital; and they will have to engage staffs in marketing and advertising activities, not merely news provision.

One of the most difficult issue for these new journalism providers—as well as existing print and broadcast providers—is that journalists tend to overestimate the value of news for the public. What the public actually wants is less, not more, news.

It is not that the public doesn’t want to be informed, however. It is just that journalists spend so much time, space, and effort conveying commodity news that provides little new and helpful information for readers and cannot generate sufficient financial support. By commodity news I mean the simplistic who, what, and where stories about what happened yesterday. Those kinds of stories are readily available from many sources and provides readers little for which they will pay.

Instead, in a world of ubiquitous commodity journalism, successful journalists need to be spending time exploring the how and why of events and issues and helping readers understand and cope with what is expected next. Effective journalism in the new environment needs to focus more on today and tomorrow than on yesterday.

Success in the contemporary journalism environment it is not merely about providing news, but about providing helpful and advisory news explanation based on solid values and identity to which readers can relate. It must be part of entrepreneurial journalism or new ventures will fail.

To get there, however, journalists starting up new enterprises will need to develop resources and entrepreneurial motivation to sustain their efforts more than a few months. Most new commercial and noncommercial enterprises require 18 to 36 months of operation before they develop a loyal audience and achieve a stable financial situation. Unless journalists are willing to work for free during that time, they will have to raise capital to survive; and if they want their new organizations to thrive and develop they will have to provide a different kind of news than most are used to creating. It will need to be unique and better than what is already available.

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