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Business content on MediaShift is sponsored by the weekend MA in Public Communication at American University. Designed for working professionals, the program is suited to career changers and public relations or social marketing professionals seeking career advancement. Learn more here.

He’s an entrepreneur, author and outspoken evangelist of entrepreneurial journalism, but Dan Gillmor wants you to know he doesn’t necessarily know what will keep journalism afloat in the digital era.

“Every time I answer these questions, people quote me as if I’m naming the silver bullet that’s going to fix everything,” said Gillmor. He’s the founder of the now defunct Bayosphere journalism project and the director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. We talked by phone in a wide-ranging discussion recently.

“There is no magic new business model that is going to begin to restore something that we should be really happy is disappearing, which is the era of the monopoly and oligopoly” in the news business, Gillmor said.

But, that doesn’t mean he’s disheartened. Quite the opposite. “It’s exciting to me, the experimentation that’s going on,” he says. “In the thousands of experiments, most of which will disappear in the next decade or two, some stuff is going to work, and we’re going to sort it out by waiting to see what they are.”

Nor is he reticent to say some things he think do make for a better chance of success for those trying to build a news business today.

For one thing, he’s heartened that journalists are recognizing “that they have to learn how to work with engineers.” He’s glad that journalists in general are seeing that “data is really important” and “that APIs matter.”

Journalists are increasingly learning programming skills, or how to work with engineers, to build new types of endeavors, such as mashups — software-driven combinations — of things like police crime databases and Google Maps, or new ways of ingesting and displaying information for everything from automated feeds to complex infographics.

They’re also learning to use APIs — application programming interfaces — which allow software programs to hook into each other. With an API, for example, you could put intelligence from Facebook or Twitter onto your own web pages, or have their information feed other databases.

Mainstream Is Not The Answer

Gillmor, a pioneering tech journalist who wrote a column for the San Jose Mercury News and one of the first blogs by a mainstream journalist, also believes that “the journalism of the future in general is coming from people who are new to it, or on the outskirts, rather than the big, mainstream news organizations.”

“There are fabulous people in the business at traditional companies,” he explains. “But from all appearances they’re still largely overwhelmed by the inertia of tradition in business models and in practice.”

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Everyblock puts data on maps

Some of the startups Gilmor cites that are “solving … small pieces in a larger mosaic” include Everyblock, which was bought by MSNBC and does some of the database mashups referenced above that help people in local communities find relevant information.

There’s Spot.Us, whose founder David Cohn writes for our sister site, Idea Lab. (Dan Gillmor also has written extensively for Idea Lab.) Spot.us has blazed a trail with community-funded, crowd-sourced journalism.

Gillmor also cites the New York Times’ Developer Network, the U.K. Guardian’s “commitment to APIs,” and says the not-for-profit world is “full of interesting experiments.” He also praises a raft of “place-bloggers,” people who may be giving of their time to blog locally and should not be discounted just because they’re not professionals or don’t make a living at it.

Pay Walls Are ‘Fine’

Gillmor co-founded the travel website Dopplr and recently released his second book, Mediactive, which was also posted online under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license. Gillmor also serves on numerous boards. He told me he’s fine with pay walls that force users to pay to access a publication, and with for-pay publications made for the iPad or other tablet devices.

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“Try everything,” Gillmor says. “I have my own biases about what I like and what I believe,” he says. “But we don’t have enough data on what works. I’m completely in favor of these experiments.”

He also encourages those with a belief that something will work to go for it, noting the oft-repeated story of the discouragement given to the founder of Federal Express.

“Everyone told Fred Smith his idea was stupid, and really pissed on it,” says Gillmor.

But there’s another lesson in the FedEx story that entrepreneurial journalists should heed, Gillmor says. It’s a lot easier for your competition to get into the journalism business than it is for them to buy millions of dollars worth of airplanes.

In other words, no matter how good your digital journalism business idea, the chances are slim that you’ll be able to keep a profitable market to yourself for long.

Coming Up with Proprietary Code

I agree, and have sometimes counseled those getting into the business to try to develop a technology platform or some sort of computer code that can be patented, something proprietary, or at least difficult to duplicate, into their model.

Two successful journalism entrepreneurs have, meanwhile, told me recently that they think the market has developed to where it’s more difficult than ever for a small operation on a tight budget to break in and do very well in anything but select niches. They said that mainstream journalism startups require a lot of funding to get off the ground and make a splash today.

I also like Gillmor’s intellectual honesty and ability to know that his opinions are only that, that his answers for any given moment or venture are quite possibly not the answers for anyone else. And that whatever he thinks, he could be proven wrong.

That, too, is the kind of thinking I’ve seen among successful entrepreneurs — a willingness to see what is, and what isn’t, working and adjust quickly without foolishly sticking to their guns.

A former award-winning managing editor at ABCNews.com and an MBA (with honors), Dorian Benkoil handles marketing and sales strategies for MediaShift. He is SVP at Teeming Media, a strategic media consultancy focused on attracting, engaging, and activating communities through digital media. He tweets at @dbenk.


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Business content on MediaShift is sponsored by the weekend MA in Public Communication at American University. Designed for working professionals, the program is suited to career changers and public relations or social marketing professionals seeking career advancement. Learn more here.

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