[Between the Lines] Can the rise of the entrepreneurial class save media?

Astronomer Carl Sagan once said, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”

I sometimes wonder if the future of our industry would be different if more media executives embraced the disruption caused by the advancements in society and technology with the free, unfettered and open-minded spirit as the famous American cosmologist.

But when one looks at the “who’s who” of publishing, one can’t help but wonder how some of these senior veterans, most of whom started at the bottom and worked (or inherited) their way up the corporate ladder, could ever envision a future with entrepreneurial eyes when they view digital disruption as more of a curse than a cure.

It’s not that publishers didn’t try to make money off digital, they just couldn’t let go of print model paradigms that would never work with today’s new breed of digital news snackers who refuse to “pay to play” inside their walled gardens.

So while traditional publishers continued to try and put the toothpaste back into the tube, one young visionary after another stepped up to the digital diamond to capitalize on the chaos brought forth by the World Wide Web.

Despite the fact that the majority of readers will never pay for digital news, most media executives continue to chase subscription revenue. Meanwhile the Titans of Tech are focusing on growing massive audiences through socially or algorithmically curated news, which they then monetize through mobile advertising. Last year 67% of mobile display ad revenue was monopolized by 5 companies ─ none of which were news organizations.

As media brand equity fades and big revenue opportunities slip through publishers’ fingers as fast as their stories hit Apple News and Facebook Instant Articles, it’s hard to imagine a prosperous future for an industry that has spent the last 16 years failing to “reinvent itself”.

But what’s interesting in these “interesting times” is that the foundation upon which publishing was built and flourished since the 16th century is the talented pool of journalists and editors who have chosen to make kings instead of being one themselves. Perhaps it’s time for that to change…

Let’s face it, most journalists are still considered replacement parts in an engine that’s about to throw a rod. They are treated as disposable commodities that can be replaced as easily as printer ink.

So it’s no wonder that while high tech, financial services, healthcare, construction, retail, hospitality, professional services and other industries are all working hard to make the “100 best places to work” list, not even the most respected publishing houses in the US have made the grade.  Looking at the publisher-journalist value equation…

1. If you remove the publisher from it, what will happen?

Journalists may temporarily lose the funding for investigative reporting, travel, etc., but capital will come from other sources:

  • Kickstarter has spent over US$9 million funding journalists from dozens of countries in 6 continents
  • Google is investing in News Lab – an initiative to empower innovation at the intersection of technology and media, creating a new platform for “media entrepreneurs”
  • Apple is hiring journalists for Apple News (curation is just the beginning)
  • LinkedIn relaunched Pulse looking for it to become the world’s first personalized business news digest
  • News aggregators are introducing channels to help journalists/columnists expand their audience, grow their professional brands and showcase/monetize their content/opinions

2. If you subtract journalists, what do you end up with?

Commoditized wire services.  The potential benefits for journalists to become entrepreneurs are enticing, including the:

  • Opportunity to grow brand equity for themselves rather than their publishers
  • Freedom to create content without editorial interference
  • End of Native/Brand Advertising assignments
  • Elimination of legacy baggage: printing, distribution, unions, etc.

It’s not easy being an entrepreneur, and not all writers will thrive as content tycoons, but the money, tools and technology are there for many of them to capitalize on their talents and the opportunities digital disruption brings to their profession.

Which is exactly why the publishing powers-that-be need to start finding, recruiting and investing in these young renegades of reformation and launch a whole new breed of publishing pioneers ready to create a future of “something incredible” instead of falling victim to Sagan’s law of evolution — “Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.”

If I were a publisher, I’d start knocking on a few garage doors.