Journalism, entrepreneurialism and failure

I’ve been following with interest some conversations on Twitter about entrepreneurial journalism. @josephstash wrote up his take on the debate, advocating the creation of an “ecosystem of entrepreneurial journalism” – he raises some excellent points about support for new startups and access, and suggests that good graduates should be innovative, should be avoiding traditional media and becoming entrepreneurs. A post on Wannabe Hacks continues that conversation, arguing that fear of failure is a major element holding people back – that it is because new graduates and young journalists are scared that they are not already building the ecosystem Jo talks about.

Failure is a legitimate concern. And fear of failure is actually a pretty healthy response to the statistics – depending on which stats you believe, the chance of a small business surviving for five years or longer is between about 30% and 50%. Add to that the daunting realisation that lots of very smart business people work for media companies, and they’re still haemorrhaging money – so it’s very easy to wonder what on earth you could know that they don’t.

Even among the best and the brightest journalism entrepreneurs in the UK, most do not seem to be making enough money from their journalism to sustain themselves. (I have no stats for this, it’s based on a number of conversations and observations, so if I’m wrong in aggregate please let me know.) That’s not to say that no one is doing well, but that those who do are in the minority.

And I sound like a doom monger, which is sad, because I do think innovative start-ups are necessary for the media to continue to exist. But I also think that fear of failure is absolutely fine; it’s no one individual’s job to fix journalism, and if the risks outweigh the rewards then it is foolishness to plough on regardless.

Perhaps we need to think about what success looks like – is it enough to be writing and doing something you love that gets out there? Or is it also important to not need to take on other freelance projects, or live in your parents’ spare room, or all the other things that entrepreneurs do to get by? How long before you break even, how much do you need? Because I know that what motivates some of my peers is not fear of failure – it’s fear of not enough success. Making something amazing but not being able to monetise it. Living the dream but not being able to pay the bills.

Successful entrepreneurs tend to be older (PDF report; Slate has a US-centred roundup of this point) – in part because they have assets they can put into their business besides themselves, and because they have experience they can draw on. The people currently carrying the can for innovation in journalism tend to be very young, with limited experience, and without assets (though in some ways that makes it easier to try; if you don’t have a mortgage then there is no house for you to be scared of losing). And not every unemployed journalist wants to be – or can be – an entrepreneur (I for one didn’t get into this game because of my business skills, and my startup is neither currently profitable nor a journalism business).

I don’t want to suggest that all entrepreneurship is doomed, or that those entrepreneurs who do fight through are not necessary – they are. We need innovation desperately. But in the process, businesses will fold, and young people will throw their hearts and souls into something they love passionately but that doesn’t have a business model, and some of those people will fail. That’s the reality.

And it is OK to be young and facing your finals and scared of sacrificing years of your life for things that may not work. It’s OK for the risks not to be worth it. It shouldn’t be assumed that being a young ambitious journalist must mean starting your own business or being self-employed, any more than it should be assumed that you’ll work for free for big media companies to get experience, or that you’ll end up with the one job at the Guardian. Everyone is different.

So yes, we need entrepreneurs. But we also need jobs. Jobs for graduating journalists. We need innovation from all rungs of the ladder – older journalists, media business people, people starting small enterprises as well as people going self-employed in self-defence. And we need to remember that we – the (relatively) young journalist types active on Twitter, blogging about journalism, getting excited about tech, talking about innovating, starting our own businesses, making stuff happen – we are still the minority.

Let’s fight to get support for small businesses, let’s encourage partnerships, and let’s try and break down the barriers between the old guard and the young sprouts. But let’s not pretend that becoming an entrepreneur is the only option, or even the best option, for most people; let’s not sugarcoat the potential consequences if it goes wrong. That way lies so much heartbreak.

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Mary Hamilton

I'm an operations specialist, analytics nerd, recovering journalist, consultant, writer, game designer, company founder, and highly efficient pedant.

2 thoughts on “Journalism, entrepreneurialism and failure”

  1. Good post Mary – in some ways, many of the points you raise are common to all industries.

    Fear of failure (not just lack of money or opportunity) is what holds many people back from risking all as an entrepreneur.

    Not everyone has what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur – or a good journalist, footballer, photographer.

    Being freelance doesn’t make you an entrepreneur. I’m a freelancer – I know I am not an entrepreneur.

    Entrepreneurs do more than ditch the regular pay cheque – in fact, though some don’t even do that, preferring to work from a more secure footing (hence your point about entrepreneurs tending to be older). Instead they invest time, intellect, energy and money in building a new business or a new way of doing business.

    Being an entrepreneur takes certain skills (financial, managerial, and operational). It also requires a certain mindset – being able to face the fear of failure (and “the fear of not enough success” – a nice point of yours) is just one aspect of that.

    Success in life mainly depends on the ability to delay gratification (“I want it all and I want it now” doesn’t usually work). That requires tenacity, self belief, and a willingness to make mistakes – to fail and start again and again. “I have not failed 1,000 times: I have successfully discovered 1,000 ways that will not work,” Thomas Edison (apocryphal).

    Vision also helps (though sometimes – often? – it can be turn out to be a delusion) – successful entrepreneurs see an opportunity to add value where most other people see risk or inconvenience. Specialising can also help – narrow markets where certain information, services or products are hard to find or use tend to attract premium paying customers.

    Most of us at some point have probably looked at an apparently simple business idea and thought – “Oh I could have done that.” The point is: we didn’t. Some businesses are complicated – like Dyson’s 20-years spent developing his cyclone technology. Others appear easier (Twitter – just 140 characters and very few bells or whistles – yet apparently worth $7.7bn). All of them required someone to actually take the plunge.

    You are right that success depends to a certain extent on how you define it – freelancing has risks, the financial rewards may not be as great or as secure compared with following a conventional careers but it has other rewards in terms of variety, freedom, flexibility. Your business might not be the next big thing – but a successful small thing can still bring a lot of personal satisfaction (and the chance to leave home).

    Final point – there are people making lots of money in journalism – they just don’t tend to be journalists (think Bloomberg, Murdoch, Huffington, Bill Ziff, Kerry Packer, Tony O’Reilly, Leo Kirch, and John Malone etc). There will be others – media will continue to evolve – someone will find a way to monetize the obvious or the obscure – it might just be you (but don’t lose sleep over it if it’s not).

    Best wishes

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