Philip Ellis
News & Views
The journalist as entrepreneur

As the way people consume media continues to evolve alongside technological advancements, many journalists are looking beyond established publishing models, with some are even going so far as to create their own platform on which to tell their story. We’re entering the age of the journalism start-up.

Last week, Forbes ran the story of Justin Rice, a sports journalist whose independent coverage of high school athletics in his hometown of Boston gained the attention of the Boston Globe, the largest newspaper in the area, and ultimately resulted in a niche section of their website dedicated to Boston Public School Sports. Says Rice of his journey: “I knew I wasn’t going to get paid for it, starting the site… But when [the Globe series] happened, I realised that I had to jump in, to do this. I didn’t know if someone else was going to do it – I had to take that chance… Now I have two photographers to help out, and an intern who’s fully dedicated to the site.”

Rice is also full of ideas when it comes to expanding this venture while keeping it close to its scholastic roots: “I want to really ramp it up, have kids live tweet, or shoot video, or write stories. A lot of schools in the city don’t have their own newspapers, so there’s no outlet for them to do this kind of stuff.”

A prime example of creativity meeting entrepreneurialism is What Took You So Long, the nomadic non-profit we interviewed last month. Philippa Young, a writer and editor with WTYSL, believes that with the media industry “in crisis”, the onus is on journalists and filmmakers to branch out, diversify, and find new ways of telling stories.

As is the case with any industry, though, not all enterprises are entirely successful. The Kernel, a magazine covering the world of tech and start-ups, was the first entrepreneurial endeavour of British journalist Milo Yiannopoulos, and ran from 2011 to 2013 before ceasing publication. Yiannopoulos acknowledged in a closing blog post that The Kernel “has not been as much of a financial success as it has been an editorial one”, going on to eulogise the venture “a bold experiment”, albeit a short-lived one.

But while the practice of launching a journalism start-up might have been fraught with risks, Yiannopoulos’s rationale was sound – journalists-come-creators are on the up.  The City University of New York now even offers a Master’s Degree in Entrepreneurial Journalism, although blogger Jonathan Frost has criticised the entrepreneurial merit of “spending thousands on a Masters, when you could be investing that money into getting yourself and your idea off the ground”, pointing instead to professional mentoring networks like The Made Project and free e-learning channels as alternative starting points.

Adda Birnir is a member of this course’s first graduating class, and something of a poster child for the skills and insight that the programme can offer. Her online tech education company Skillcrush is a direct result of her participation in the M.A.; Birnir went into the course with a completely different idea. “One of the things we learned is that if you think something is a good idea, you have to validate it in the marketplace,” Birnir tells PBS. “The start-up mantra is you have to get outside your head or your office or your small group. There wasn’t a lot of interest or traction in our original business; it was only when I started talking about this side project that my professors got excited.”

Whether those pearls of wisdom were worth the price of admission will depend entirely on the future success of Skillcrush, but one suspects that common sense could direct a young creator in much the same way. Jonathan Frost certainly thinks so: “Entrepreneurship, by its very nature, is about seizing the moment and just giving it a try.”

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