Why I don’t think journalists need business skills

There’s tons of talk around hyperlocal and local media at the moment and some of it is about the kind of skills journalists need*. Not being a journalist, I’m looking at it from a business perspective.

We have a good system with The Lichfield Blog. Ross is the journalist, that’s what he does – he writes a large proportion of the articles and works with the contributors. I deal with the technical, behind the scenes stuff and the advertising that we’re trialling.

In my view it’s the best way for it to work; Ross is left to do what he does best without having to worry about anything other than serving his community and doing what he feels is his responsibility as a local journalist.

I worry that if journalists are taught or expected to be entrepreneurs as well we risk distracting them from that core purpose of reporting. Just think of the to-do list they’d have;

  • Reporting
  • Distribution (printing, web site development)
  • Sales & marketing
  • Business admin

Okay, so it doesn’t look like a big list but there’s a lot there. Creating and maintaining a web site can be hard enough, selling advertising to local businesses is going to be very hard without a unique proposition or sales skills, and business admin can be a whole minefield if you haven’t got business experience.

Expecting journalists to effectively run a business, I feel, would just soak up time and energy that they need to be journalists, threatening their ability to actually be journalists. Not to mention whether or not those journalists would even have the drive to commit to all that extra work.

I know plenty of people in the hyperlocal space won’t agree with me, so what’s the alternative?

As good as the role split with The Lichfield Blog is, it’s not sustainable in the long term. There will come a time when I can’t afford to spend so much time on it and I’m sure Ross’ wife will want him back on evenings and weekends eventually.

So imagine this; a network of journalists all working off the same platform. This platform would provide a range of tools and resources to help them deliver news in their community out of the box. It would save the need for the journalist to set up their own web site and all the costs and pitfalls that come with it.

Imagine this platform was part of a service that provided training. Traditional offline journalists could get training in online news gathering. All the journalists would get training on using the publishing platform and training on how they can use other platforms to interact and engage with the community. Training on audio and video production could be given for beat reporting. Journalists who sign up would receive legal guidance on issues like comment moderation.

Meanwhile, in the background the service would be providing revenue streams on the back of the journalist’s content by engaging with local businesses. The journalist would take the revenue, earning (hopefully eventually) a living from it. As the network grows, the combined content production could begin to serve existing regional media, opening up opportunities for more revenue streams.

Another benefit of such a network would be the economies of scale that it would give to independent hyperlocal journalists. It could be that the network eventually brokers relationships with content providers like the BBC, ITN and the Press Association.

I would really love thoughts on this, especially from those already engaged in the hyperlocal space and considering where it’s going. Agree, disagree, sit on the fence, have an alternative? Let me know in the comments.

*Although I’ve been thinking about this for a while, this post was inspired by the C&binet Forum and the following thoughts from attendees;

13 thoughts on “Why I don’t think journalists need business skills”

  1. Philip
    Mostly agree with you about separation of journalism and business-side — apart from anything else, it’s pretty much impossible to write good stories to people you’ve just (or will soon) be speaking to re advertising.

    C.

  2. I think you’re right, Philip. I just launched my site, cvilleblotter.com, about five months after I left the local daily paper, which was and is headed in the wrong direction.

    I’ve got the journalism covered, but running my own web site is a challenge in itself. I’m still learning (ins and outs of maintaining the site; figuring out how to sell ads … etc.) while also competing against my old paper and two weeklies.

    The catch to what you propose is this: I may be willing to take a chance on a new venture like this, but who else is? So far, I haven’t found anyone.

  3. @CountCulture – that’s a good point, as soon as you offer advertising both advertisers and readers ask about the possible conflicts that causes. Outsourcing could help to answer that.

    @Scott – I like your site, especially the arrests. Very insightful. I’d be interested to know what factors would put you off taking such a chance, and what would make you more comfortable?

  4. My experience is similar to Scott – I would love to dedicate all the time I spend on my site to just doing the journalism bit, but until I find someone who wants to voluntarily take over the business side of things it is all up to me.

    Your tripartite team running The Lichfield Blog seems like a perfect sharing of elements needed to make a hyperlocal blog successful. But many sites start as a one-man band and it is a simple fact they will have to pick up a few tech skills and maybe some business skills if they want to expand.

    If journalism students want to start web enterprises which have a bigger vision than a local news website (something like Ground Report for example), at least having access to some teaching in how to do so will help and work in tandem with traditional reporting skills.

  5. @Hannah – Good point about those journalists who may want to start bigger enterprises. I’m thinking the same could be said about any profession. Should law students be taught to entrepreneurship and business to set up their own law firm and should my housemate, currently studying to be an actuary, be taught those same skills so he can set up his own actuarial firm?

    I’d drift towards answering no. *If* students feel they want to create their own enterprise, there are various ways for them to learn the necessary skills.

    Obviously journalism is a different bag because of the current situation. Jobs are hard to come by so the only alternative is to go it alone. Speaking with Jo Ind on Twitter today, she said she taught herself web skills because there was no alternative. That lack of an alternative is forcing journalism students to have to learn to be business people as well. I’d like to see a situation where they don’t have to because they have an option when they leave ‘J-school’. Just like they did when jobs weren’t hard to come by.

    Maybe that alternative is the network I described above.

  6. [A bit of background as a preface to my comments: I own/run a hyperlocal site in a small resort town in Idaho started about 5 years that is one of the emerging set of sites that have had modest success – i.e., nice audience, six figures of revenue, enough to support 3 team members. We did this before having lots of tools that are available today. Full disclosure: I’m now Chief Revenue Officer of GrowthSpur — a startup geared towards making hyperlocal sites economically sustainable.]

    Just as those still at newspapers or those who have been laid shouldn’t spend time wishing for what was, I don’t find it’s worth spending anytime on wishing for a reality that doesn’t exist. Starting one of these local sites isn’t easy. It probably won’t pay the bills for at least 18 months. One would benefit from reading the posts Mark Potts did at http://recoveringjournalist.typepad.com/ geared towards recently laid off which gives many ideas on ways to pay the bills in the meantime.

    While I said it wasn’t easy, I didn’t say it wasn’t fun. It can be incredibly fulfilling. We have been a cross between the community’s Speakers Corner (at Hyde Park) and the water cooler. Countless non-profits and community groups rely on and appreciate us. I get stopped all the time by people expressing appreciation for what we do.

    Some journalists may be daunted by doing sales but from my experience the best person to do sales in the early months/years is the founder of the site. At that point, you are selling promise vs. track record. The business people you talk with are just like you — they started a business and appreciate the early struggle. Our early advertisers are almost all still with us and over the 4-5 years, each one has contributed between $20,000 and $75,000 over that time. They made a bet on us and we ensured we delivered.

    No matter what product you are developing, it is always good to have direct customer contact. The startup hyperlocal entrepreneur can’t spend enough time with advertisers and others in the community to learn their true needs. If you have your ears open, they will give you valuable insight.

    Every startup has a stage where the founder does everything from building the product to emptying the garbage. Over time, there is specialization. Eventually the journalist will likely go back to their strength as there’s enough money to support extra staff.

    As for a ready-made platform, I would suggest taking a look at neighborlogs.com. It’s purpose-built for hyperlocal sites and comes with some of the hoped-for features listed above (e.g., self-serve ad system) but they still won’t preclude the need to do direct sales in the early years.

    Let me reiterate what I said about entrepreneurs of any business. If you aren’t willing to do every job in the early years, you won’t be happy as an entrepreneur whether you are selling widgets or a web advertising. For many of us, that jack-of-all-trades phase can be very fun (and a lot of work). Jump in the pool with us. You’ll never work harder or have more fun.

  7. Thanks Dave, great insight. It sounds like part of what you’re saying is that having to sell advertising could be a benefit for journalists creating their own community site.

    Neighborlogs looks good too. Hmm certainly opened my mind a bit more.

  8. Seems to me that the comments from Scott and Hannah betray a fundamental structural problem here: being a journalist is a ton of fun, as jobs go. So much fun that most of us are willing to work pretty hard for mediocre pay.

    So much fun, too, that growing numbers of us seem willing to work on our personal startups for next to nothing, in order to keep doing the work. The joy of journalism is part of our compensation package.

    But if we’re going to find partners willing to take on the business side, they either have to feel the entrepreneurial joys Dave describes, or they need to be compensated with actual money for doing work (sales, accounting, tech support) that isn’t so unique or thrilling. And actual money isn’t plentiful at most startups, especially journalistic ones.

    The result: the few journalists whose skill sets happen to include the grand slam of reporting, distribution, sales and administration have a shot at startup success. Most others will fail unless they can build partnerships with entrepreneurially motivated businesspeople.

  9. Thanks for the compliment, Phillip … and this is a really good conversation going on.

    As to your question, I certainly was/am excited about taking this chance; this step has reinvigorated me after several stale years with a local paper that was doing everything wrong. There are so many new journalistic possibilities with the Internet that I am happy working twice as hard as I did as a reporter/editor.

    The problem is, of course, I have to help pay bills (2 young children are not cheap) and salesmanship has never been a strong suit for me. The good thing is, I believe in my product, so it won’t be hard to sell it. Still, I’d be much more comfortable just focusing on journalism and creating new things for my site and let the ads take care of themselves, but that’s no the reality of the situation.

    @Dave: I have read Mark’s blog for some time now and have been keeping up with growthspur, which I think could be a godsend for people like me.

    @Michael: You’re right, to a point. I am willing to work for next to nothing, at present. Along with my love of journalism, though, my mindset going in was certainly focused on making as much money as I can with this venture. I just lack a strict business sense for now, but am learning as I go.

    Hopefully sooner rather than later.

  10. Came across this in the wake of debate at #newsrw Some very good points to counter what it in danger of becoming a flawed consensus. Journalists have always been entrpreneurial to some extent in that they have to consider their market and get them to consume what they produce. It is the question of extent that is important, and which you address well here.

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