By Dave Lieber
Fort Worth Star-Telegram Columnist
[The following is an abridged version of Dave’s talk at the 2009 Ventura conference.]
Originally, this workshop was going to be called “How to have the best writing year of your life.” Then as the economy crashed, we billed this as “Keeping your columnist voice alive.” But in the months since, with the sudden historical changes in our business, Suzette Standring and I realized that self-preservation trumped self-improvement.
We’re not so much interested in working with you so that you can win awards next year or write a great blog. Now we want to make sure you can feed your family and still pursue your creative dreams.
The biggest way I can help you now, I believe, is to talk to you about a subject that has been verboten in our world for so long: the dirty subject of making money. In the 15 NSNC conferences I have attended, that subject has never been on the agenda. Until now, why should it have been?
So let’s call this “Awakening the Entrepreneur in You.”
For as long as I’ve been going to writer’s conferences, we’ve always had stars tell us how they hit the big time. Our 2009 conference stars, Steve Lopez and Jeff Zaslow, worked for decades to enjoy the events of this year. They are overnight successes that took 30 years.
The entrepreneurial model that Steve and Jeff followed is the traditional path for top columnists. A book, then a movie. Maybe a Pulitzer or a NYT bestseller. Or in Jeff’s case, two bestsellers at the same time with a third soon to come.
But what about the tier or two below Jeff and Steve? What about the columnist or writer who is still working toward the dream? The one with real aspirations to create great works of art and also make a difference in the lives of others. Well, the good news is that tier has plenty of room for you.
My thesis to you today is that you, the columnist, probably have thought in traditional terms about your post-newspaper career path — public relations, freelancing, a New York publishing deal. But in the brave new world a-coming, I believe that those old models may no longer suffice. We must call upon new talents that depend less on the approval of others to achieve what we want to do.
Individual entrepreneurship, either as a stand-alone career or in addition to a primary job, will prove to be a lucrative path for creative types in the coming years. You are suited for that.
The columnist’s job duties — fulfilling the audience’s thirst for new and valuable information and offering it with a personalized style — aren’t going away.
Fortunately, we don’t need to reinvent this path. We can follow the one laid out by America’s first notable columnist, Ben Franklin. He evolved far beyond his start as a columnist into an inventor, statesman and leader. But he was also what I would call America’s original “information entrepreneur.”
Franklin possessed the expertise. He was in possession of a lot of information that he knew people would pay for. Poor Richard’s Almanac was only his start.
Most likely, you, the columnist, were never trained to think like this. Our newspaper (the mother ship) trained us in storytelling, library research, source building, copy editing, online and diversity issues. Learning how to make money was somebody else’s job.
Quite unexpectedly, however, we have reached a point in the evolution of a newspaper columnist where we quickly must learn how to build our own business models, identify markets, create products and maintain a client base. It’s catch-up time.
We have to identify our own particular areas of expertise, then understand how that expertise can, in turn, be offered to help our audiences. We can build a collection of learning materials — books, CD’s, manuals and other tools — that help audiences.
Your subject can be anything: quilt-making, teacher training or sailing. Comedy in the workplace or ethnic foods. These days, there’s a market for everything, almost.
First, though, we must learn how to ask people to pay us for what we do and what we know, especially when we prove our expertise will enrich their lives.
For most current and former columnists, this is a huge hurdle. We started in this business writing for free. Many of us still do. But when you are an expert, you must tell your prospects — and yourself — that your skills and creative works are worth much, much more.
Suzette developed her expertise around column writing. Her book gave her credibility to teach and mentor others. Jeff developed his brand around the theme of lifetime changes with his Transitions column in the Wall Street Journal. The Last Lecture was a natural fit.
My current areas of expertise are consumer rights, storytelling and self-publishing. These expert qualities form the basis for our evolution from columnist to information entrepreneur. And with your research talent and storytelling background, you are adept at hunting and gathering that most precious commodity of an info entrepreneur — new developments and trends that can be used to help improve the lives of others.
The main change in DNA from columnist to information entrepreneur is this concept: It’s no longer an I-me world when you step off on your own. Suddenly, it’s all about the audience. What does the audience want? What will the audience pay for? How can you get it to them?
We’ve entered an age of mentoring. Business coaches, personal trainers, life coaches. As a columnist, with your valued position in your hometown, your contacts and your leadership, you are already a mentor to many in your community. People look up to you. You have a head start.
You can mentor people one-on-one, in groups of 10, 60 like this, or even a thousand. I’m trying very hard right at this moment to serve as a temporary mentor to you.
You bring to the table all the qualities that earned you that columnist job in the first place. Look inward and decide what you are best at and what you can do to help others. Most important, what will keep your creative passions burning?
Testing his own advice, Dave got crazy ambitious this year and created his own, er, nation — WatchdogNation.com. Dave is curious about what you are doing as information entrepreneur. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org .