How journalists can develop business, entrepreneurial skills in the newsroom

Believe it or not, there are ways to make money in journalism. One of them is by crossing from the editorial to the business side of the industry.

While some journalists have launched their own news sites, others have found lucrative business-related opportunities within the newsroom.

Familiarizing yourself with the business side of journalism

When Evan Smith was editor-in-chief of Texas Monthly, he made it a point to learn about circulation, advertising, marketing and other business aspects of the publication. “I found it made me better at my job,” he said by phone. “It gave me a more well-rounded picture of the magazine as an entity.”

That came in handy when he co-founded The Texas Tribune and became both its editor-in-chief and CEO. “I wasn’t just another journalist who thought he could run a business,” he said. “I actually had some experience with the guts of the news business.”

Smith suggests that editors make a point of understanding what motivates colleagues in advertising and circulation, and take an active role in figuring out how to get their content in front of as many people as possible. “It does not make you less of a journalist to be more savvy about the business,” he said.

Smith says journalists interested in the business side of news should look to the Web, noting that it’s “the 21st century springboard to greatness.”

Longtime recruiter Joe Grimm, who now teaches at Michigan State University, often chats with journalists who have developed entrepreneurial skills to launch their own sites. “Journalists have opportunities every day to learn about the business operations of their companies,” he said via email. “It is smart to do this kind of reporting, even if one is not planning a move to the business side.”

Joining task forces within the newsroom

Rebecca Baldwin took advantage of business-related opportunities while working for the Tribune company. She started her journalism career as a copy editor at Florida’s now-defunct Palm Bay Post and eventually moved to the Chicago Tribune, where she edited the Arts & Entertainment and Style sections. She then began her climb to the top of the leadership ladder at Tribune Media Services’ TV news and listings site Zap2it.com.

While at the Tribune, Baldwin joined a newsroom task force aimed at revamping the legendary publication.

“That opened my eyes to what the other parts of the newspaper did,” she said over coffee in Chicago. The experience introduced her to the marketing, advertising and financial sides of the news business. It also guided her toward positions in product development and eventually to her current position as general manager and vice president of Zap2it.com. It also helped her shift her professional focus from content creation to product strategy.

Baldwin said joining the Tribune’s task force helped her make her career interests and potential clearer to the people who eventually hired her out of the newsroom. “The fact that I have the editorial background has made me the perfect solution to a lot of problems,” she said. “Being able to get inside an editorial person’s head has paid off for me time and time again.”

Moving from the newsroom to the boardroom has given her more job stability than many of her colleagues at the Tribune have enjoyed in recent years. It also has improved her work/life balance and her bottom line. “My salary and hours are much better than they were in editorial,” she said.

And it helped her get a Tribune-paid five-figure MBA from a top business school, a valuable perk she concedes is far more rare these days.

Taking advantage of opportunities in product development

Earlier this month, Forbes Media Chief Product Officer Lewis DVorkin wrote: “I often say I used to be a journalist.” He now describes himself as “a product guy.”

DVorkin’s first job was as a copy editor for the then combined AP-Dow Jones News Service. Now instead of editing copy, he focuses on shaping the Forbes consumer experiences. It’s a job with a paycheck sure to trump any newsroom copy editor’s, and one that offers DVorkin — who launched and sold the site True/Slat to Forbes — the luxury of straddling the business and editorial sides of the news.

To better understand the intersection of the business and editorial sides, Baldwin suggests journalists interested in the business side of the news look for opportunities in product development.

When she was director of product development for Tribune Interactive, part of her job was to help the Los Angeles Times figure out how to use an events database that had been created for a new online entertainment product, Metromix, to power the paper’s print listings.

“We were dealing with some pretty senior editors at the Times who were very concerned about every aspect of how the listings would appear,” Baldwin said. “Having been in that position at the Chicago Tribune, I knew exactly what their concerns were and was able to make them understand that we were committed to the quality they desired.”

Baldwin also suggests journalists become as intimately acquainted with their products as possible. Skills such being able to understand audience analytics and analyze a cash flow statement can be particularly handy.

“As news organizations come up with new stuff,” she said, “understanding your product better than anyone else can be a real benefit.”

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