Short foreword: I am running a short course on Entrepreneurial Journalism as part of a special mix and match MA in Media at Bournemouth University. It starts with a two-day retreat in January 2010 followed by seven weeks of negotiated distance learning. The Entrepreneurial Journalism unit is worth 20 Masters credits.
Four decades have now passed since 1969, the year portrayed in Withnail and I. Back then Danny The Drugdealer, inventor of the infamous Camberwell Carrot, was counting down to the end of the Sixties and predicting, “there’s going to be a lot of refugees”.
Bruce Robinson’s brilliant script doesn’t tell us what the future was to hold for his two penniless hippy thespians, but we’re left assuming it might be rep for Marwood and emotional wreck for Withnail. But here’s a different ending to consider: spool forward to 2009 and Withnail and Marwood are both billionaire tycoons with Caribbean island retreats and they have both written bestselling books on making money.
Implausible? Well, maybe not. Consider two of their contemporaries, who might almost have been Withnail and Marwood’s neighbours. As fledgling journalists writing for teenagers and members of the so-called “counter culture”, Richard Branson and Felix Dennis were also learning lessons about the magazine business. Their magazines, Student and Oz, may have disappeared from the newsstands, but their books Screw It, Let’s Do It and How To Get Rich have replaced them. Both books prove that journalists can be entrepreneurs and very successful ones at that.
However, the transition from reporting, subbing and story-telling to a world of margins, turnover and selling may seem like a perilous journey into the unknown for many journalists.
For Tom Nicolson, 25, that transition came while he was travelling in South America after taking a degree in Multi-Media Journalism at Bournemouth University. He saw there was a gap in the market for an English language newspaper aimed at backpackers in Quito and founded the Ecuador Reporter in September, 2007. Tom found he was able to draw on many of his journalism skills.
“As journalists you should be looking around you the entire time, looking for contacts, for opportunities to find stories and for news angles,” says Tom. “That is essentially what an entrepreneur does; it’s just that it involves money as well.”
Tom sold the Ecuador Reporter in April 2009 and is now back in the UK preparing to invest in his next venture, an English language newspaper for Ibiza called The Ibiza Paper.
He finds that creating new newspapers satisfies his creative instincts. “Journalists have all the tools for creation; it’s what we do every day.” And Tom has very simple advice for anyone concerned about financial management.
“Are you taking in more than you are spending? That’s the only question you need to think about.”
Ali Wood, 31, was a staff journalist working for IPC magazines when she too came up with the idea for a magazine aimed at Gap Year travellers. However, her pitch to IPC management failed when they couldn’t see the “market in the Gap”.
Undaunted, Ali looked for inspiration closer to home and identified an opportunity to launch a listings magazine for the Bournemouth area.
She had been putting money aside for two years and invested her savings in her own publishing business in February 2007.
The first edition of Listed came out in April of that year. Two and half years later and the magazine is going from strength to strength, but Ali has learned some valuable lessons along the way.
“Before I started I did some market research and because my passion was always the creative side, I asked readers what they would like to see in the magazine,” says Ali.
“However, if I were to do it again, I would concentrate more on what advertisers and customers would like to see rather than just focusing on readers.”
Ali recalls that in her days as a staff writer, she had little idea of the commercial side of the magazines she worked for. As the publisher of a smaller magazine, she feels the sales and editorial teams need to be much more aware of each other.
“It is easy for journalists to forget that it is the advertising that pays for their publication to exist.”
However, as a businesswoman who owns a magazine, Ali feels she is still using her creative instincts.
“For instance, in the summer months, when many of our readers are away on holiday, we have to look for stories with more appeal to families and so we produce a Family Section as a way of attracting different revenue.”
Those family days out might well appeal to Mike Scott, who had just bought a house and become a father for the first time when he decided to leave a staff job as a sub-editor on the Financial Times to form Mike Scott Communications.
Like many successful entrepreneurs Mike, 40, had identified a niche. He specializes in stories about business and the environment.
With a mortgage and a family to consider, Mike laid careful foundations for his enterprise, studying part-time for an MSc in Environmental Science and gradually building up a freelance portfolio in the area during his last year at the FT.
“When I started out, I was writing pieces for the FT, which helped a lot, and it was also at a time when businesses were just beginning to get excited about the environment,” says Mike.
Mike recognised early on that it would be important to build up repeat business and he produces regular newsletters and editorial pieces for corporate clients on a monthly or weekly basis, as well as taking on one-off commissions.
However, he found it took some to adjust from freelance journalism to commercial work.
“When you are writing a piece as a freelance journalist, you tend to know what the rate is for a particular publication. However, in the commercial world, there is no accepted price and one of the most difficult things when I started out was knowing how much to charge.”
Mike has certainly found that his decision to work for himself has had a profound impact on the rest of his life.
“When I was at the FT I was working in London from 4pm until gone Midnight every day. Now, my office is close to home and my working week is more flexible. When my daughter started school, I was able to take time off to be around.”
So, as the clock counts down to the end of the Noughties, the challenge for many journalists is to shrug off the mantle of the reluctant entrepreneur and use their skills and instincts to find opportunities to carve out a new beginning. Who knows you might find you really enjoy it? As Danny The Drugdealer might have said:
“Change down, man. Find your neutral space.”