We are in a buyer’s market for news – and for journalists too

International Money Pile in Cash and CoinsFor this month’s Carnival of Journalism, Michael Rosenblum asks: “Is it possible for a good journalist to be a good capitalist?” My answer: yes, but the people who employ journalists tend to be a lot better at it than the journalists themselves, thanks to the state of the market and the laws of supply and demand.

Entrepreneurialism – while it can be brilliant and is a vital part of the ecosystem – is risky, difficult, sometimes soul-destroying, and the odds are against you ever making more money from it than you could from more traditional employment. Freelancing is, of course, not the same thing as being an entrepreneur, and while plenty of journalists go down that route the money is often scarce and the financial position insecure. At present journalism jobs – outside specialist markets like financial journalism – are few and far between, and even at their best the money pales in comparison to some other professions, as Michael points out in his introduction post.

Many journalists don’t want to be – aren’t cut out to be – technical or technological innovators, or freelancers chasing clients for cash. Some of us love digital production and want nothing more than to be playing with new ways to tell stories. Others want nothing but to be allowed to get on with their important investigatons, or their war films, or their pithy columns. I am unequivocably in favour of journalists learning new skills in order to do their jobs more efficiently and more effectively – but when it comes to demanding they move away from their specialism and into areas they may not enjoy or be good at, I get a little uncomfortable. Not everyone can or should be a jack of all trades.

This is a supply and demand problem. This isn’t an issue of journalists not wanting to make money – it’s an issue of there being an awful lot of very talented journalists, from new graduates to grizzled veterans, all of whom would like to be able to eat. Journalism right now is a buyer’s market, and content is very cheap. The people at the bottom of the rung who can afford to work for free will do so; freelancers who can undercut the competition will get the gig. Employers who want to employ journalists and cut costs at the same time can pay so little, because so very, very many people want a job in journalism, have sunk years of time and a great deal of money into the prospect of a job in journalism, and are willing to work for little cash because of their principles and desires.

Much like news online, journalists’ skills are devalued not because they are not respected, but because they are abundant. Much like an absolute paywall, unless you have unique content or the ability to ensure everyone adheres to the same pricing strategy, charging more for your work is likely to simply make people turn elsewhere. The macro issues affecting the industry hit journalists individually too. The solutions to both problems remain unclear.

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.

Directing the shambling hordes

Zombies at the doorI’m running my first social media campaign, and so far, it’s working.

Let me explain. I’m one of the two head organisers of a live-action simulation game called Zombie LARP (we wish we’d picked a better name sometimes, but it works) in which a whole bunch of people run around in the dark pretending to be zombies and taking it in turns to shoot the zombies with NERF guns. Think Left 4 Dead in real life.

It started out as a daft idea at university. We ran the first one on a wing and a prayer. It went so well – so blisteringly, terrifyingly, incredibly well – that we’ve been running one every six months since then. We got players initially by running something no one else was doing; then, later on, we started getting them by wor of mouth.

Last autumn 57 people turned up from my home town to a game designed for about 30. Many of them were regular players but many of them were new, buzzed because they’d been told about it by their friends.

We’ve grown up a little now, and we want to take it professional, and that means moving out of university buildings and a student mindset and tapping into the wider community around live gaming, NERF/Airsoft play, and zombies.

Which means an entrepreneurial mindset, learning web design, and running a social marketing campaign that opens us up to a wider market while maintaining our relationship with the core group who got us where we are now – our regular and most loyal players, the people who make our game possible.

In late September our website went live. In November we ran our most recent event, with bookings online. It sold out. Shortly after the event – while everyone was watching for photos – we made the move from a dying and mostly inactive Facebook group to a page, which had 50 fans within 24 hours. Globally, that’s not many, but in our niche it’s fantastic. Every one of those fans is a player, or a potential player. We are reaching the people we need to reach.

And more. In November our website had more than 80,000 hits.

Our fan page is slowly filtering through to friends of friends, people who are interested in the concept, people in that slightly wider niche who might come to the next game.

We ran a short-notice one-off event that wouldn’t have been possible without the forum and Facebook page as communication tools, and we backed that up with video.

We’re starting to get attention from German groups on Twitter purely by having Youtube and Facebook accounts feeding there. And a group of people are running a spin-off game in Kansas, suddenly. We’re international.

There’s a lot more work to do. We have video processing problems to iron out, insurance to negotiate, banks to deal with, applications to fill in, alternate reality games to create and venues to find.

But the next event will be bigger, better, more widely anticipated and more fun because of the community we’re building around the game. And, if we’re lucky and we work hard and smart, it’ll be in either an abandoned shopping mall or a fort.

I think that’s a success. What do you think?