2021 Visions: How Should Media Entrepreneurship Evolve?

Instructors and coaches working with the Professional Development and Executive Education programs at the Newmark J-School share what they hope to see in media entrepreneurship in 2021.

By Elise Czajkowski

This is the final post in our four-part “Visions 2021” series. Here, we’ll focus on media entrepreneurism.

In this series, we asked members of the Newmark J-School community what they hope to see in newsroom leadership, media entrepreneurship and product development in the new year.

Here are the other posts in the “Visions 2021” series:

How should media entrepreneurship evolve in 2021?

Michelle Young — Instructor, Entrepreneurial Journalism Creators Program

We need better tools to support new entrepreneurs in media, and to do that we need investment in this space. Anything beyond a basic website requires an advanced knowledge of code and tech, and likely has to be outsourced. For example, many tools for memberships that are marketed as turn key require expensive customization in the end. Reporting between multiple business activities is not easy, which is key to acting strategically. We also need to better inform those interested in media entrepreneurship the risks and challenges and to start their journey thinking of their business model.

Jeremy Caplan — Director of the Entrepreneurial Journalism Creators Program, Newmark Graduate School of Journalism

Independent journalism creators in 2021 will craft many of the most valuable new sources of news and analysis. Because these small teams and solopreneurs will be increasingly crucial in filling coverage gaps in our evolving news ecosystem, particularly for communities that existing publications haven’t served well enough, creators will need a robust ecosystem to provide more and more support for reporting, writing, editing, distribution and monetization.

It’s great having control, flexibility and freedom as an independent journalism entrepreneur. But as you build a venture, you need support to be sustainable. If the journalism creator ecosystem doesn’t provide that support, we risk setting the stage for massive future burnout and flameouts when individuals realize they can’t handle so many responsibilities indefinitely.

That means in 2021 we need to see the emergence of an expanded ecosystem support structure that provides a broader array of opportunities for editing, marketing, distribution, tech and monetization support for Substack writers, Anchor podcasters, YouTube producers, Medium publications and Patreon community managers.

Journalism creators will increasingly focus not just on their subject matter, but on developing a sustainable workflow that includes support from collaborators and partners who ensure they can do their best work.

Amanda McLoughlin — Instructor, Entrepreneurial Journalism Creators Program

For all independent creators, owning your work and your relationship with your audience is more essential than ever. Companies pivot, merge and fold all the time, but a strong and lasting relationship with your audience will outlive all of that. Consider what they need, what they love about your work, and how you can incorporate direct audience support into your business.

Anita Li — Instructor, Entrepreneurial Journalism Creators Program + Executive Program in News Innovation and Leadership

To successfully address systemic inequity and financial precarity in journalism, we must diversify media ownership by encouraging people from underrepresented communities to pursue media entrepreneurship. Specifically, industry stakeholders should set these entrepreneurs up for success by providing them with the necessary connections and resources (e.g. funding, business frameworks, etc.) to build a solid foundation for their news product.

Although newsrooms should prioritize hiring more editorial staff from underrepresented communities, diversifying content production alone isn’t enough to address the lack of representation and the issue of dwindling revenue in journalism. It’s essential that leadership is part of, or at least has a strong connection to, the underrepresented communities they want to serve.

Given that there’s been an industry-wide embrace of subscription and membership models, consumer revenue is a growing revenue stream for journalism outlets worldwide. To successfully tap into it, however, outlets must have authentic, reciprocal relationships with the communities they serve because that’s the foundation of great journalism — not to mention a key component of financial sustainability.

Publishers create the company mission and drive the company ethos, so if they don’t genuinely understand their target audiences, the outlet won’t be able to effectively serve and ultimately monetize them. Authenticity is key.

Styli Charalambous — Instructor, Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms

Revenue diversification can lead to new and interesting places, but it can also pull us into wayward directions. The pursuit of revenue should be closely aligned to mission and be a result of progress towards achieving that. Not the other way around.

Nancy Wang and Jeff Mignon — Instructors, Entrepreneurial Journalism Creators Program

We are in a network economy. Everything is connected, and those connections are increasing by millions every day. This is a huge opportunity for media entrepreneurs. The opportunity is to create a distributed media company. We call this approach the API or the programmable company. How do you give access to your assets for others to use and build up around them?

In this network economy, blockchain and AI are two key technologies — blockchain to track content usage and offer seamless payment, and AI to customize, adapt, and smartly distribute content in the network. It is key for entrepreneurs to understand those technologies’ potential, particularly blockchain, which will probably become the new OS of the internet in the next 5 years.

Mariano Blejman — Instructor, Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms

Improve the ecosystem of innovation in media, and knowledge will flourish. In many countries, media entrepreneurship is practically an oxymoron. The sources of income, financing and the possibility of generating large volumes of audiences are difficult. I have seen dozens of projects flourish from scratch, reach a peak in productivity and audience, and then find it very difficult to make a leap that puts them in a relevant place.

In the last four years I have worked on the digital reconversion of Grupo Octubre, a media group that today has around 1,000 people. Even after almost a decade working to improve the innovation ecosystem, it has been incredibly difficult to build teams, retain technical profiles and maintain them over time.

Philanthropic organizations, large players and innovation networks have to contribute to generating spaces that improve the quality of the innovation ecosystem, allowing entrepreneurs to access new knowledge, financing channels and contacts.

Jan Schaffer — Coach, Entrepreneurial Journalism Creators Program

Media entrepreneurs need to seriously rethink what kinds of new value propositions they can create for tomorrow’s news consumers. Chronically repetitive, he-said/she-said reports of incremental developments are squeezing all the oxygen out of the news space. It’s time for the next generation of media entrepreneurs to hook up their content to new ventilators and increase the flow of oxygen. Part of this involves putting more resources into meaningful reports

But another place to look is not just in content alone, but also in new kinds of collaborations. News leaders and media entrepreneurs should build bigger tents for new alliances, including more large and small, national and local, and on-air and online partnerships.

Ned Berke — Coach, Entrepreneurial Journalism Creators Program

It’s past time for publishers to shed their notions of competition, embracing collaboration as a business model. We know the pandemic has illuminated and deepened inequities in American society, but reporting resources are ever thinner as the story grows larger. Coordination and mutual support are the only way forward.

The coming year will be a difficult one for news media, but there’s a bright spot. The growing army of journalists who’ve been pushed out of traditional newsrooms are embracing turn-key tools to launch their own enterprises. At last, the generation of digital-native, independent media creators that came before them has matured enough to begin spinning off a reliable template for growing from solopreneur to newsroom. Adjacent services are evolving to fill in the gaps of that transition, providing meaningful assistance in product development, audience development, branding and marketing previously only available to top media brands.

The threat, however, looms larger than the opportunity. It’s not just the enormity of the stories that need to be covered, it’s the narrowing path to audiences and revenue. In the last few years we’ve seen a withering of access to new audiences. Algorithms that were once benevolent to emerging news media have become hostile, and since the advent of blogging it’s never been more difficult to successfully bootstrap an audience.

As another generation of news entrepreneurs emerges, those who work with them to uplift — through promotion, innovation and journalism — will be among the ships that rise along with the tide. In 2021, collaboration will need to evolve and be built directly into the business model. It is the only way to overcome what newsrooms truly compete with — apathy, distraction and distrust.

Andreas Gebhard — Coach, Entrepreneurial Journalism Creators Program

Try more, take more risks, think bigger — but try to not just cater to one slice of the market, possibly on one extreme side of the audience spectrum. Try to think bigger but aim for the wide middle of the market.

Elise Czajkowski is a writer/editor who regularly writes about the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism’s executive and professional education programs. Based in New York, she was previously a Tow Knight Fellow in Entrepreneurial Journalism at the Newmark J-School. She launched a non-profit called Sidewalk News, which uses outdoor advertising to distribute local news.

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Training journalists and media leaders to navigate the intersections of product, editorial, business, and technology.

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