Last year will easily go down as one of the most turbulent ever in journalism. Yet nowhere was the devastation greater than among the players who cover business and the economy. By my reckoning, the print operations of the Big Four in business - The Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, Fortune, and Forbes - lost more than $200 million last year.
No wonder major layoffs became a fact of life for business journalists and editors. It is also no surprise that three business titles - Portfolio, Fortune Small Business, and BusinessWeek SmallBiz - were all shuttered last year.
So what is the future of business journalism? Amid all the havoc and pain, I'll make a bold prediction: Over the next three years, we're going to witness one of the biggest booms in media ever. It will occur not in print, of course, but in the online world. And it will largely be fueled by forced media entrepreneurs, laid-off writers and editors, lower barriers to entry, and the opportunity for tens of thousands of well-trained journalists to create something of value that they can run and own.
That old line about freedom of the press belonging only to those who own a press is just that - old. For years now, pretty much anyone with access to a computer and the Internet owns a press. But there was still a missing ingredient: vast numbers of journalists with the courage and skill to use the Web to do their own thing. That's much less true today. Many laid-off journalists will not be able to find jobs in the field; they'll have to invent their jobs, resulting in this new media boom.
A funny thing happened after Bloomberg laid off more than a third of BusinessWeek's editorial staff in early December: longtime journalists and editors who were axed began launching their own mini-publishing enterprises. The title's veteran books editor, Hardy Green, started a blog, Business Books Guy. Tech and You columnist Steve Wildstrom began blogging at Steve Wildstrom on Tech and accepted a deal to blog at last month's Consumer Electronics Show for chipmaker Nvidia. As BusinessWeek.com's former editor-in-chief, I launched C-Change Media to build a network of new business sites online.
Not all ventures will make enough money to support these journalists. In many cases, their blogs will become part of a portfolio of things they do to earn a new living. But some will be able to use their expertise and knowledge to stay highly influential in the fields they cover.
After all, this generation of skilled unemployed has a few other things going for it that the successful bloggers of 10 years ago didn't:
First-mover advantage is no advantage at all. We've now seen a number of successful Web models, from Gawker Media and Politico to the rise of an ecosystem of news generators around the country. Followers have significant competitive advantages over first movers because they can learn from their mistakes and take advantage of better and cheaper technology. Today, there are many more open source (low-cost and easy-to-use) options for would-be entrepreneurs. There were dozens of search engines before Google, but it took a follower to master the search market. There also were dozens of MP3 players before the iPod. Now is the time to follow the early pioneers.
Labor is cheap, monopolists are dying. As the traditional winners of our business continue to die, there will be lots of opportunity for new low-cost models run by smart, highly motivated people - and there will be many vacuums to fill online. The past three years have been bad on the business; the next three will be brutal. Traditional media will remain in total meltdown, dragged down by high costs, old thinking, and legacy work processes. But the decline of old media will open up huge opportunities for journalist entrepreneurs.
We're only at the very start of a media revolution, despite the vast proliferation of blogs and Web sites. There are still so many untapped niches to cover online, and today it's easier than ever to move from a blog to a full-fledged Web site with the advantages of hosting databases, feeds, and social media tools.
Many of these new ventures in the coming media boom will fail. After all, odds are always against the entrepreneur. But many of them will succeed and change the game forever.
John Byrne is the former executive editor of BusinessWeek and editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek.com. He is also founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media.
Editor's note: Byrne's figure of $200 million loss in print at the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Fortune, and BusinessWeek is based on his own research and knowledge of the operations at those publications. The Wall Street Journal has since informed us that its print operations did not suffer a loss last year and in fact News Corp.'s earnings show that print revenues at the newspaper have increased. We apologize for the error.