Career Advice for Journalists: To Thine Own Franchise Be True

Nobody really knows what the future holds for media companies. But the various deep thinkers assembled at Manhattan's Paley Center for Media on Friday morning had a pretty good idea what it holds for journalists, and it involves learning to view themselves as business-savvy entrepreneurs and free agents rather than as loyal, oblivious worker bees."A Way Forward: Solving the Challenges of the News Frontier" was the theme of the conference, but the grandees on one panel seemed to think that too lofty a goal. "News is a really crappy business," declared John Thornton, chairman of the Texas Tribune, a not-for-profit regional-news start-up.

But crappy as that business may be, the journalists of the coming era will need to understand it better than their predecessors did to thrive in the workforce. "One of the great promises of journalism, in my view, is that we will have journalists who need to care about where audiences are and how they're going to reach those audiences and how to sustain themselves," said Geneva Overholser, director of the journalism school at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communications. "We become marketers."

Jeff Jarvis, the panel's moderator and director of the City University of New York Journalism School's interactive program, put a question to the crowd: "Does anyone in the room think we should not be teaching business to a journalist?" No hands went up. "That's a huge change from a few years ago," Jarvis said. "A gigantic change."

John Harris, co-founder of, argued strongly that journalists who want to earn decent incomes need to start thinking of themselves as proprietors of their own businesses rather than as workers-for-hire. "The only way anyone's likely to have a career in journalism after about age 30 -- the only way you're going to have a life that's fun and that anyone's going to pay you for -- is creating a franchise," he said, citing Politico writers Mike Allen and Ben Smith as successful examples of this approach. "You need to focus on your distinctive impact."

"If you work hard and play by the rules, you're going to get screwed," Harris added. "You've got to build your own path."
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