Why journalists have always had an entrepreneurial streak

For this month’s Carnival of Journalism, Michael Rosenblum asks if a good journalist can be a good capitalist?

The question is timely, given the raft of new entrepreneurial programs at journalism schools.

There has always been an entrepreneurial streak in journalism, typified in the freelance journalist who makes a living by pitching and selling their work to a range of clients.

Journalists, by necessity, have to be entrepreneurial in finding and chasing stories.

The shift today is in the product and process of entrepreneurial journalism.

I recall when I was in the Middle East for the BBC in the early 1990s as a “sponsored stringer.” The BBC guaranteed a steady monthly income, but I was able to freelance for other outlets so long as they were not in direct competition with the BBC and I put the corporation first.

During my four years in the region, I ended up freelancing for a range of broadcast and print outlets. Remember, this was before the web.

One of the secretst to successful freelancing is having something of value to offer. I was fortunate to be based in Tunis, which housed the PLO as it recognised Israel and started peace talks.

At the same time, there was a military coup, presidential assassination and an Islamic insurgency in neighbouring Algeria. There was plenty of news of interest to UK newspapers and magazines.

But there was another reason for my success as a freelance: scarcity. In this specific instance, I was one of the few journalists who was a native English speaker with a broadcast journalism background. This opened up US and Canadian broadcasters such as NPR and the CBC.

When I was in the Middle East, I sold my product, the story, to a media institution, which then distributed it to the audience. The process involved going through an editor.

The product and process were controlled by the media institution. One time, a British Sunday newspaper commissioned a 1,200 word profile of an aspiring female Algerian politician. My editor loved the piece. But come Sunday, for reasons of space, the final product was a large photo with a lengthy caption.

The physical constraints of the product, print, and the editorial process in London, impacted on how the story was published. And at the time, the paper didn’t have a web presence.

What makes entrepreneurial journalism different today is the ability to reach the audience directly, retaining control of the product and of the process.

An entrepreneurial journalist does not need to go through an intermediary like a big media institution to provide a product or service.

While the barriers to entry may have fallen away, there remains the need to reach audiences and secure their attention. And there still needs to be something of value in the offering.