Phillip Smith
covering

10 skills that journalists and entrepreneurs have in common

The case for journalists to consider starting something new instead of leaving the profession

I will be the first to admit that 2019 is off to a bit of a bumpy start.

With the Dallas Morning News layoffs, the Digital First attempt to buy Gannett, layoffs at BuzzFeed and Huffington Post, and buyouts at McClatchy, there are signs of an epic battle ahead in 2019: Can a bottom-up movement of journalism startups prove that they can meet the information needs of communities across the country before the traditional media completely implodes?

We’re living in a time where the watchdog function of journalism is being eroded. And the question we’re facing is: What happens to society, to democracy, when that happens? Burt Herman, Director of Innovation, Lenfest Institute for Journalism.

The implications of these shifts are really tricky because many newsroom staffers still see themselves as the victims (and they are) and not the saviours that they must become.

On occasion, I’ve overheard newsroom executives describe how the business-editorial divide in news companies has supported a “it’s not my problem” mentality among many newsroom staffers. When hearing of financial challenges at the company, a beat reporter might think to themselves “That was your responsibility, Miss or Mister. Management.”

It’s a mentality that’s not hard to understand from the outside: long left to deliver increasing volumes of reporting with fewer resources, and rarely invited into the business strategy conversation, reporters are often left in the dark about the inner workings of the companies that they work for. Reporters, might rightly say “let me focus on my reporting” and “it’s your job as management to figure out how to make a business out of it.” And they’d be right.

However, times are changing.

Times are changing because much of the news industry did not adapt quickly enough to the tsunami-like of shifts in technology adoption and rapidly changing consumer habits. Point the finger wherever you’d like, but those massive changes are impacting the jobs of reporters across this country. I believe that the days of “this is your problem” are over. It’s all of our problem, and journalists are some of the most well-positioned people to help at the moment.

Yes, that’s right, I believe that reporters are going to need to lead the way out of this mess. And I believe they can do it because they already have the skills that we look for in entrepreneurs – that mythical classification of people who breath life into new, novel, and often innovative ideas.

Here’s the really surprising thing: journalists and entrepreneurs – when you think about it – already have a lot of skills in common. Let’s take a look at just 10 of the skills that overlap:

Entrepreneurs Journalists
Judgement (deciding on the most important information to present) Judgement (deciding on priorities for stories, aka "news judgement")
Tenacity (Always be pitching) Tenacity (Pitching story ideas)
Getting rejected a lot (aka "resiliency") Handling rejection (aka "resiliency")
Getting outside of the building to talk to customers (aka "curiosity") Getting outside of the building to find sources (aka "curiosity")
Failing fast Moving on to the next story
Interviewing customers Interviewing sources
Storytelling (making the complex understandable) Storytelling (making the complex understandable)
Spotting business opportunities (aka "pattern recognition") Spotting a potential story (aka "pattern recognition")
Time management Time management
Finding customers Finding sources
Passion Passion

(As synthesized from several post in journalism and entrepreneurially-focused online forums.)

And this is just the tip of the iceberg! Add your suggestions for the list as a comment below. Or drop me a suggestion on Twitter.

The simple truth is that anyone can learn to think more like an entrepreneur. In the d.School at Stanford there’s a belief that anyone can “design your life,” which means, basically, applying the skills of design thinking to your personal and professional objectives. The same is true for entrepreneurship: the basic skills are both teachable and learnable.

Don’t just take my word for it, take it from the “the inventor of modern management,” Peter Drucker:

“The entrepreneurial mystique? It’s not magic, it’s not mysterious, and it has nothing to do with the genes. It’s a discipline. And, like any discipline, it can be learned.”

Let’s face it, if you can make it in the world of journalism today – cranking out stories with little editorial support – you can most certainly make it as an entrepreneur. You’ve already got the moxie and grit – as well as most of the other skills listed above – you just need to apply the skills a little differently when steering a business toward financial viability.

Last year I interviewed several dozen reporters who’d left newsrooms to start news businesses on their own. Overwhelmingly, there were only two factors that lead most of them to start something new: inspiration, or desperation. Desperation is easy to understand. There are fewer and fewer jobs, and more and more layoffs, as the traditional press shrinks across the nation – that’s a powerful motivator.

However, inspiration can be even more powerful, as reporters see the opportunities left in the wake of these dramatic changes. For example, as local newspapers shut down opportunities open up for digital upstarts, and as regional newsrooms shrink their coverage more space is created for new entrants. Perhaps most exciting is the wave of talented reporters who – seeing the lack of diversity in newsrooms as toxic – are starting to explore how to bring entirely new coverage to audiences that didn’t see themselves represented in traditional media offerings.

The opportunity has never been greater for a small digital upstart to grow and audience and make a mark with powerful reporting. The cost of publishing has dropped to almost nothing, the tools to build a news platform from the ground up are plentiful, and it has never been easier to put valuable information in front of the people it is meant to benefit. And, most importantly – as proposed above – you, as a journalist, already have the skills necessary to “pivot” into entrepreneurship, and to launch said digital upstart.

And it’s critical that you consider doing so because, as Tom Hanks so eloquently reminded us, “Knowing empowers us. Knowing helps us decide. Knowing keeps us free.” Never has society needed journalism more. And this is a problem journalists are in the best position to figure out.


Phillip Smith,
Journalism Entrepreneurship Training Company, Founder
Stanford JSK Fellow, 2017–18

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

About

Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.

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