What Comes First? “Entrepreneurial” or “Journalism”?

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I just read a book called Entrepreneurial Journalism (by Mark Briggs, SAGE Publications, 2012).

The phrase “Entrepreneurial Journalism” raises the question as to which part of the phrase should be prioritized. The term obviously comes from the journalism field. That industry is desperately trying to find a use for their buggy whips by thinking of ways to use them as engine cranks.

So that means they’re thinking “journalism” first and how to apply entrepreneurial tactics to the trade. This, of course, presupposes the “trade” remains intact, that the only obstacle between today’s ominous decline and long-term financial sustainability is the holy grail of the business model. And probably technology. But mostly the business model.

What if, instead of thinking like a journalist and overlaying entrepreneurialism on it, why not think like an entrepreneur and overlay journalism on that?

Here’s what I mean.

As a journalist, your first thoughts go to the nature and structure of the reporting. The story is sacrosanct. It is the reason for being. It is the whole of which all else derives. It is the necessary lubricant within the engine of democracy. It represents the ends by which all means must be embraced.

But, is it?

To answer this, we must answer “from whence journalism?”

Newspapers have a well-documented tradition in America. And they’ve been wrapped in the entrepreneurial aura since before the beginning of our country. In colonial times, pioneering individuals dared place their fate on the printed page, whether it be the pamphlet or the broadsheet. They wore their advocacy on their sleeve, and some paid for their ink in blood.

The spirit of the partisan paper carried through well into the second century of our nation. Ad hoc pamphleteering gave way to weeklies and dailies. The protection of our first amendment spared publishers, editors, and reporters from both the wrath of despotic government to the ire of plebian pitchforks, the former by formal law, the latter by cultural consensus.

Newspapers, then, were supported by their respective political parties. That’s why we see the name “Republican” and “Democrat” in so many long-time publications. These represent the legacy of an era where the local newspaper boldly wore the politics of its patron on its sleeve.

The Industrial Age ushered in the need for a new business model. This push didn’t come from the press association. It came from the chambers of commerce. With mass production came the need for mass markets; hence, an even greater need for mass media.

It wasn’t until the turn of the nineteenth century that everything came together. The fledging advertising industry suddenly understood its long-form copywriting role. Print, then, became the optimal advertising medium, and newspapers (more so than magazines) became the cauldron for this budding experiment.

Suddenly, politics was out. Yellow journalism gave way to commercial journalism. Yes, reporters could still write salacious stories because advertisers were interested in audience and the audience was interested in gossip and inuendo. But, because advertisers wanted audience, it didn’t pay to alienate half of the potential buyers by writing in a manner that provoked partisan anger.

Over time, “fair” and “objective” replaced “Republican” and “Democrat,” not in the titles of the newspapers, but in the spirit of the newsroom. The fact we spent most of the twentieth century in one global war or another (whether hot or cold) only emphasized this philosophy.

And the advertising supported this effort. No longer were newspapers beholden to partisan patronage. They could roam freely, unbound by political shackles. Writing only for the amusement of the audience and the pleasure of their new commercial overlords.

This was the heyday of journalism. When raw writers spewed prose that rivaled the best authors of their age. Indeed, the best authors either cut their teeth first in the newspaper business, or offered their linguistic art to the periodicals once they established themselves.

Reporters were writers first, investigators second. This is why the best writing was often on the sports pages, when scenes of glory and conquest could be painted literally everyday on every field and arena across the nation.

This isn’t to say there weren’t other popular forms of reporting. Gossip columnists thrived (remember salacious) and Americana writers, often with a humorous bent, drew large followings. While those on crime beats and the city desks often found their characters central to dramatic productions, they earned less name recognition outside the industry than, say, the Hollywood reporter who wrote about the actors portraying those fictional journalists.

Alas, all good things must come to an end. Some would say the wounds were self-inflicted. First by the reporters who took participatory journalism to the extreme by forgoing “fair” and “objective” in favor of niche markets. Ultimately, it was the publishers themselves who allowed upstart business models to hammer the final nails into the newspaper coffin.

Like Kodak, who shunned the digital photography technology it had invented so as to not cannibalize sales of its bread and butter film processing business, they allowed their own cash cow to prevent them from seeing and acting on where the trade was headed.

When they finally lifted their collective heads from the sand, it was too late. They made a deal with the devil and allowed social media platforms free access to their most valuable asset – their proprietary content. Finally, the recession of 2008/2009 hit and advertisers pulled back out of financial necessity. Those advertisers discovered something they (and the publishers) didn’t expect. Newspaper advertising didn’t present the value promised by the investment.

Since then, the slow decline of a once flourishing industry has accelerated into a steep descent. Not only advertisers, but readers have realized substitute products exist. Newspapers aren’t necessary anymore. Not to sell products. Not to provide news and entertainment.

And yet, what does the industry do? It presumes “journalism” is the priority over entrepreneurialism. Worse, it seems to believe the public needs to know about the latest White House (or City Hall) “scandal.” The fact is, the mass market – where journalism originally provided differentiating value by cultivating it – doesn’t pay attention to, say, voter fraud, unless it involves, as they used to say, “a dead girl or a young boy.”

Here’s an idea: put “entrepreneur” first. Media companies shouldn’t think of themselves as media companies. They must recognize themselves for what they really are: sales nurturers.

They’ve got to stop thinking about ways to build the audience. That horse is out of the barn. Instead, they need to come up with a proprietary mechanism that will directly – not indirectly like they’ve done in the past and like social media platforms still do today – and immediately bring the sale of their product and service to the “advertisers.”

Note how I’ve placed “advertiser” in quotes. I don’t think advertising will be the same as it has been since the dawn of the Mad Men era. Copywriting isn’t dead. It will be repurposed. But copywriting always has been and will always ever be an indirect sale.

What companies need aren’t brand awareness ads. They don’t need slick sales pitches. They don’t need eye catching headlines and graphics.

Nope. What companies will want is a shopping cart. They may need to tweak their product or delivery system (or both), but they see an audience that wants and desires instant gratification. And companies need a platform to satisfy that customer want immediately, not by clicking through to the company’s website, but by clicking once and placing that product directly into the shopping cart.

I’m not, however, merely talking about an electronic mall. These already exist in some way. I’m talking about a commercial hub. A civil engineer might refer to it as a “City center.” Ancient Rome might liken it to the Forum.

It is therefore more than a store, but a meeting place. A real meeting place, not Facebook or any of these other superficial online meeting places.

Such a place does not exist.

Yet.

But I will be dollars to donuts it will an entrepreneur that creates it, not a journalist.

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