Entrepreneurial Journalism in the Facebook Age

Every now and then, I meet someone idealistic and perhaps foolish enough to want to embark on a career in journalism. Until recently, my advice was largely the same as anyone had given for many decades: Find a gig where you can write — a small town paper, freelancing for an alternative weekly, a business trade publication (my route). If you’re good, the story went, you would find you way to bigger publications and forge a career.

Today, it’s hard to give that advice, when the economic underpinnings of all those places you were supposed to be trying to work for are so shaky. Is there any good advice other than to learn how to trade mortgage-backed securities? I’m not sure that that opening an account on Blogger and hoping for the best will pay the rent.

In fact, there may well be many more interesting options today for someone who has a passion to find and tell stories. The range of these were on display yesterday as I had the honor of helping jury a competition in Jeff Jarvis’s Entrepreneurial Journalism class at the City University of New York’s new Journalism School. Mr. Jarvis, the blogger and former editor of Entertainment Weekly, had been a rather entrepreneurial professor and gotten the McCormick Tribune Foundation to put up $50,000 as seed capital for some of his class projects. I spent yesterday afternoon, with a group of other media and Internet folks, listening to a dozen proposals and trying to dole out the money.

The ideas covered a wide range of topics — a hyper-local site for Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn to a global magazine for Muslim women — but what struck me was how much an aspiring publisher can now count on technology services to accelerate many parts of starting a business. Google’s Ad Sense, of course, was on nearly everyone’s plan as a source of advertising revenue. There are specialized ad networks too that were relevant to some ideas. One of the judges, Courtney Williams, who runs the interactive division of Radio One, a black-oriented radio station group, offered to include the Bed-Stuy site in his new black-oriented online ad network.

One proposal for a music site wanted a music blog search feature and figured it could simply count on Google’s custom search engine capability rather than embarking on the daunting task of building its own search engine. An idea for a site about how to live the eco-conscious life, planned to use Meetup to connect to users.

Social networking, of course, was high in everyone’s minds. Several people planned to use Ning, the social-network-in-a-box service started by Marc Andreessen. But the most discussion was about Facebook, and in particular whether today you could start an entire online service entirely within Facebook. Several ideas — including a concept on personal finance for young people, a service meant to match high school athletes with college recruiters, and a site meant for teenage girls — all contemplated whether they could piggyback entirely on Facebook.

Even the most old fashioned idea—the magazine for Muslim women — was accelerated by technology. The magazine, called Sisters, has actually started, run in part by Doaa Elkady, a CUNY student. She told the jury that the market Sisters is aiming for would prefer a printed magazine to an online site. What is interesting is that Sisters is starting by distributing a digital version of the magazine in PDF format, and it has 1,500 subscribers paying $20 a year already. She asked for $6,000 for advertising that could double the subscriber base and enable the magazine to start a printed version, its ultimate goal.

Indeed, most of the students asked for between $5,000 and $15,000, with which they felt they could get their ideas up and running. (Most figured they would have to work part time to pay their own rent.) Even if those numbers were wildly optimistic, the fact remains that in today’s world you simply don’t need to be hired by a publishing company with ad salesmen, layout artists, and printing presses to get your ideas into the world.

It seems to be a great time to be starting out in journalism. Just don’t ask advice from anyone who has been in the business for more than five years.

Epilogue: As I read this, I think about the discussion about whether Facebook’s recent problems with its Beacon service will scare off users. There are a lot of entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs who are rooting for Facebook’s continued growth. It’s not like you can find very many other platforms with tens of millions of active users that have such potential for building publications and other services that can be made better because of links between friends. There is a lot of experimenting to do on Facebook over the next two years (and on MySpace and Bebo, etc, of course).

http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com, 6 Desember 6 2007

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