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The Entrepreneurial Journalist

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Last week I had the opportunity to attend the Carnegie Corporation’s two-day summit A Way Forward: Solving the Challenges of the News Frontier, held at the Paley Center of Media in New York. Deans, faculty members, students and journalists gathered to discuss how “journalism education should transform in order to best prepare students for careers in the 21st century.” A tall order, to be sure. One moderator joked about the seemingly presumptuous, or at best overly ambitious, task of “solving the challenges” in the course of a two-day gathering. But for the most part, the event’s speakers earnestly tried to address how this generation of journalists will need to adapt their skills and enrich their knowledge base to compete in the digital media age.

Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Comm faculty and grad students at the Carnegie Corp. and The Paley Center for Media’s Summit on the Future of Journalism Education

It’s a topic we grad students at Cronkite examined at length last fall in Professor Tim McGuire‘s course on 21st century new organizations and entreprenuership. (Unfortunately, the blizzard caused Tim’s flight to be cancelled and he couldn’t attend with the rest of us.) From early in the semester, Tim stressed that the days of a journalist spending his or her entire career with one organization were a thing of the past. More likely, he said, journalists will be identified by their names rather than their association with a particular news outlet. Our task will be to strategically cultivate a personal brand, with a distinctive voice and unique subject-matter expertise, which will allow us to create our own job opportunities. This career strategy, which incorporates blogging, tweeting and using social media to develop professional contacts, seemed like a reasonable approach to the majority of us in his class.

Yet during a panel discussion on entrepreneurial journalism moderated by Jeff Jarvis (who spoke to Tim’s class via Skype last fall,) Geneva Overholser, director of Journalism at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, acknowledged just how radical a shift this is:

“Five years ago I’d rather have cut my tongue out than tell a journalism student, ‘Be your own brand.'”

Nonetheless, there she was, urging us to accept the reality, evolve our craft and create our own career paths. Clearly these are revolutionary times in media.

As John Thornton, chairman of the Texas Tribune put it, “Things are fuzzy. People who aren’t comfortable with ambiguity aren’t going to make it in entrepreneurship.” (We’ve heard this from Dan Gillmor and CJ Cornell in our Digital Media Entrepreneurship course.)

Still, those who have gone before us into the new media frontier, such as POLITICO editor-in-chief  John Harris, offered reassurance to the students in the audience that respecting time-honored principles of journalism, such as reporting credibility and authority, can still guide us and lead us to rewarding experiences.  “I’ve always thought that you can be loyal to enduring values of journalism while still finding your voice. Focus on your distinctive value and learn how to market yourself, and you’ll have more fun, and probably get more pay.”

More fun and more money. Sounds good to me.

That may be counter to everything the current climate of layoffs and upheaval seems to suggest, but if these journalism educators and industry leaders can adapt and optimistically embrace what the new media realities offer, we entrepreneurial journalists surely can, too.