Can You Have Entrepreneurial Journalism without Entrepreneurs?

In the latest chapter of its ongoing critique of AOL’s hyperlocal news network, Patch, Business Insider last week took aim at the marketing and sales-prospecting efforts the corporation expects its editors to undertake. AOL, BI’s indignant headline says,”Requires Patch Editors To Drum Up Ad Sales Leads.”

You might object to the ethical aspects of combining editing with marketing or sales, or to the excessive workload. I don’t. It’s what entrepreneurial journalism requires. But what I do object to is this—AOL expects its editors to be entrepreneurial without actually being entrepreneurs.

As Howard Owens puts it, the problem AOL editors face isn’t the workload, but the payoff. As salaried employees, their only incentive to work as hard as AOL expects is the chance to keep their jobs. “They are expected to do all of the things they would have to do if they owned their own web sites, but merely in service of building wealth for AOL shareholders.”

I suspect this will be an ever-larger issue for trade publishers trying transition into the new-media era. Most trade editors I know already complain about their steadily increasing digital workload. To some extent, their complaints are based on distrust of digital media. But they’ve correctly identified the problem: Like AOL Patch, as Ed Pilolla has noted, their employers want them to behave as if they are working for a startup without any of the upside rewards.

I’m not sure traditional publishing businesses have any choice, though. Digital revenue has not increased to the point where they can afford to pay their editors more, let alone cut them in on growth potential that may not exist.

The future of online trade journalism may not lie with large independent publishers. For B2B journalists, the most promising options appear to be either small-scale startups where they share both the risks and rewards, or content marketing groups within those companies formerly known as advertisers.

Though I hope they can, trade publishers may not be able to find a way out of this dilemma. But there is at least one positive step they can take: vow not to misuse the concept of entrepreneurial editors.

One thought on “Can You Have Entrepreneurial Journalism without Entrepreneurs?

  1. Very thoughtful post. I’d also add that, with companies like AOL/Patch, a big part of the problem is not just that they won’t take part in the rewards, but that the strategy seems to be to have these entrepeneurial non-entrepeneur editors be entrepeneurial-without-end: There doesn’t seem to be an end-game where Patch staffers are ever not overworked, underpaid, and generally living the life of an early startup.

    That’s ok for a startup, because eventually they are supposed to settle down after a period of stressful but constant growth and scaling. The Patch model doesn’t really get better at scale, unless AOL has something up its sleeve.

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