Advice for the fledgling tech writer
The Web has made technology journalism a much more personality-driven, raucous place. People are brands, and brands are only as good as their people.
By Dana Blackenhorn, TheStreet
Last week, Walt Mossberg and his AllThingsD partner Kara Swisher learned something I was first taught in journalism school, and have had to re-learn repeatedly since then.
Always be careful of any job where the first word is submission.
After spending five years building AllThingsD into the most wide-awake part of The Wall Street Journal's online presence, Mossberg and Swisher have essentially been fired. News Corp. (NWS) will hire a new tech team, it will keep the name the two built and it will try to bury them.
The good news is that isn't as easy in the age of the Web as it used to be.
During the first half of my journalism career, it was dead easy. When I was fired in 1983, in 1994, and in 1997, it meant I was out of work, off the beat and that I was supposed to leave the field of journalism that was my first love.
A softer landing
But something happened in the mid-1990s, when the Web was spun. Because that last firing didn't result in a hard landing. It turned out I had my own reputation, and the Web let me continue publishing for basically nothing.
I used my reputation to make a great income through the dot-com bubble. Even after the bubble burst, I kept writing, and eventually made money again.
The one mistake I made, and that I continue to make, is that I didn't try to be "in business." I have tried, instead, to spend my days in front of the typewriter. I have remained dependent on editors and publishers.
Walt and Kara are going to be more fortunate.
The Web has made technology journalism a much more personality-driven, raucous place than it was before. It's not about the brand, it's about the people who run it. On the Web, people are brands, and brands are only as good as their people.
When CBS (CBS) bought CNet in 2008 it probably thought it was getting a virtual monopoly on tech journalism for its $1.8 billion. It wasn't. It's now very, very easy to compete in this sector, and the quality of what's produced drives the train.
What you want to be
One of our best publishers, Om Malik of Gigaom, started as a simple blogger. When Michael Arrington was pushed from TechCrunch by AOL (AOL), he had enough contacts to become a venture capitalist. Robert Scoble, one of the most influential people in the sector, is technically an employee of a vendor, Rackspace (RAX).
So Walt and Kara have choices. They get the chance to determine what color their parachute is going to be. They are going to be taking part in a lot of meetings over the next few weeks, and likely have already had some with folks anxious to back their next venture.
The best advice is to decide what you want to be. No matter what you do, once you decide to go into business for yourself, you're in business. You're hiring other people to do what you want to do, rather than doing it yourself.
That means you either go inside the business and drive its strategy, or represent the business to the outside world, like Charles Schwab (SCHW) represents his business and Jim Cramer represents TheStreet.com (TST). If you choose to be Cramer, find a great business executive to actually run the business, someone who knows the nuts-and-bolts of your industry, and pay that person what he or she is worth.
Rather than acting like they've been fired, in other words, Walt and Kara will be looking for a business partner who understands publishing, who has a strategic sense, who is honest and who can keep the trains running on time.
That will mean a lot more to them than money. Lots of people have money. They need a business partner who will be committed.
The quality of their next business partner will determine whether The Journal has just done what publishers do or whether it has just made a huge mistake. That's a big lesson for anyone.
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