Entrepreneurial journalism may not mean bootstrapping a single venture. For some journalists, it may mean building a personal brand that brings income from a variety of sources.
Craig Silverman is a great example. I can’t remember when I first learned about Craig, but I’ve followed his “Regret the Error” work for several years and was quite excited earlier this year when he wanted to interview me about some things we were doing at TBD. My recognition of him and the esteem in which I held him before even meeting him reflect his success in building his brand through multiple efforts.
When Craig was coming to Washington in October for the Online News Association conference, he offered to present an accuracy workshop for our TBD Community Network. We finally met and chatted about his various ventures. I shared his story with my entrepreneurial journalism class and decided to blog about it as well.
I want to do two things here: Tell a story about an interesting journalist whom I like personally and pull from his story some lessons for my students and other journalism entrepreneurs. The lessons will be boldface headings, scattered through the story at appropriate places.
See the possibility
Craig is able to make a living without a single full-time job because he succeeded in identifying and developing a niche and developing multiple avenues to serve journalism (and generate revenue) within and beyond that niche.
Craig was a little-known freelance writer based in Montreal when he came up with the idea of blogging about corrections in newspapers. It was a brilliant idea. Through the years I have clipped, shared and saved corrections that were funny, embarrassing, horrifying or all three. I think a lot of journalists take a perverse interest in such corrections, knowing that someday it will be us (again), but laughing nervously when it’s someone else. I have shared such corrections with colleagues, showing them around the newsroom in hard-copy days and emailing links around the world in digital times. But it never occurred to me to launch a blog about corrections.
Where I saw screw-ups, Craig saw possibility, and that’s one of the first keys to entrepreneurial success: the vision to see possibility.
Before many journalists were blogging, Craig was reading the early media blogs and thinking he should blog. He mulled this idea for about six months, then decided, “I’ll just do it.” He wrote his first post and tested it with some friends, who liked the idea and his execution. So he launched the blog Oct. 2, 2004.
Come up with a great name
Craig’s blog has maybe the best name of any journalism blog I’ve read (way better than The Buttry Diary, which is the fourth name this blog has had, unless I’m forgetting one). “Regret the Error” is a cliché of stating the obvious that appears in way too many corrections. It was available as a URL, no small matter, I learned as we considered names before deciding on TBD. Corrections.com was not available, but I think Regret the Error was a better name anyway. The name was catchy. And it tells you immediately what the blog is about.
Don’t be bashful in promotion
An important hurdle some entrepreneurial journalists need to overcome is our own reluctance to self-promote. Our instinct is to let our stories speak for ourselves and hope that all we have to do is produce great work and people will find it. That is naïve and misguided. To be a successful entrepreneur you have to make sure that people can find your work.
“You can’t just put it out there and expect people to find it,” Craig says.
He launched his blog and started spreading the word to Editor & Publisher, Romenesko, Jossip and Gawker. His first day, 10,000 people read his blog (I haven’t had 10K in a day yet). “I sort of trapped myself,” Craig said, realizing immediately, “I guess I have to do this five days a week now.”
Six years later, journalists and their errors and corrections continue to keep Craig busy and in business.
Craig didn’t stick just with the corrections that are his base. He also notes mea culpas when news organizations come clean about plagiarism. One of his most popular posts each year is his annual roundup of the year in plagiarism and fabrication.
Craig’s even trying to put himself out of the corrections business. He could have settled for a popular blog just noting all the stupid errors and funny corrections that journalists make. But he recognized that he was becoming an expert in how errors occur. So he has become an expert in improving accuracy.
Craig has studied error-prevention in other professions, noting how pilots and surgeons reduce their errors by following simple checklists. A checklist, Craig says, is the most effective error-prevention system ever developed. So why don’t journalists use checklists to prevent errors? Craig has developed a checklist for journalists and suggests that journalists and organizations use or adapt his checklist or develop their own.
If someone developed a piece of software that cost $500 that was proven to reduce errors, news organizations of nearly any size would invest in that software, Craig says. A simple laminated checklist (Craig shows his at his workshops) is a proven way to reduce errors. But checklists, for some reason, have not caught on yet in journalism. (I’ll blog sometime about the checklist I have developed, adding a few ideas of my own to Craig’s list (hmmm, craigslist, that could be a URL for a site devoted to the checklist; wonder if it’s available?).
Develop multiple revenue streams
As Craig has become an expert in accuracy, he has developed workshops to help journalists understand how they make errors and to improve their accuracy. Fees for his workshops provide another revenue stream, as do other writing opportunities. (Craig graciously offered to do his TBD workshop at no cost.)
When Scott Rosenberg launched MediaBugs, Craig didn’t see that as competition but as an opportunity to collaborate. They just launched the Report an Error Alliance, calling on media to prominently display invitations for users to correct errors. (TBD was an earlier member and I’m inquiring how to place their widget on my blog.)
Watch for opportunities
When the Columbia Journalism Review got a new managing editor, Craig saw an opportunity to expand his audience and his income. “A good freelancer knows that new editors are often looking for new features and contributors,” he explains. He pitched the idea of writing a Regret the Error column for CJR. The editor was familiar with his work, and they worked out a deal.
Know the value of “good free”
“The site itself doesn’t make any money, but it’s done all these other things,” Craig explains. Check out the blog. It has one strip of advertising. But the blog built a brand that brings Craig income from other platforms. “It led to a book which led to another book.” He eventually was asked to write paid columns for the Toronto Star and BusinessJournalism.org.
As Craig’s profile grew, he took other paying jobs, none of them full-time. He is Digital Journalism Director at OpenFile, a community news startup that launched in Toronto earlier this year and has already expanded to Vancouver and Ottawa. He’s managing editor at PBS MediaShift.
When I was training part-time, while holding a full-time reporting job at the Omaha World-Herald, I published all of my training materials online at the No Train, No Gain website. People frequently asked me how I could afford to give my handouts and exercises away for free. My response was that I couldn’t afford not to. The big bucks for me were in training, not in whatever trickle of money I might have made in selling the handouts. The handouts helped bring me virtually all of my training work, either directly or indirectly and built my reputation to the point where I made a move in 2005 to a full-time training job that paid more than my reporting job. I still make a substantial second income with roots in the materials I gave away free on NTNG.
“There’s good free and bad free,” Craig explained. “Bad free is just giving away free writing to an organization that is for profit. Good free is when you own it and you’re creating value for yourself either in a reputational kind of capital way or to it’s helping attract paying work.”
Craig did not charge a fee for a visit to Arizona State University earlier this year. The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism there covered his expenses and he talked to classes about errors and accuracy, at the invitation of Dan Gillmor. At a brownbag lunch with faculty, he met Linda Austin, new director of the Reynolds Center for Business Journalism. She later called and asked Craig to write the business version of Regret the Error. “Another example of how ‘good free’ can lead to paid work.”
He frequently talks free, especially to journalism schools, “as my way of giving back to the profession.” Those talks help “build my brand and network of contacts. You give, you get. It works.”
A note on how I wrote this blog post: I wasn’t planning to interview Craig when we met. But after we chatted, I thought he’d make a good blog post. Fortunately, they miked Craig early for the podcast American University produced of his workshop, so I was able to chat casually without taking notes, then listen later before AU edited the recording for the podcast, so I could quote him accurately (don’t want to misquote the Regret the Error guy). I ran a draft of this post past Craig to make sure everything was on the record, since it came from a personal chat, not an interview. Some quotes come from his email response.