In this interview, Elizabeth Mays interviews intrapreneur Ebony Reed for a class on Business & Future of Journalism. Ebony Reed is director of innovation and the RJI Futures Lab at the Reynolds Journalism Institute and an associate professor at University of Missouri-Columbia. Previously she was director of business development for U.S. (local) markets at the Associated Press. Reach her on Twitter at @EbonyReed.
Q: Can you give our readers some ideas of the types of projects or initiatives or interesting things that you’ve done as an intrapreneur in news organizations?
ER: Sure. About three years ago I was working as a regional sales manager for the Associated Press, and we started to place more emphasis in the local markets on selling to nontraditional news customers, which were startups and also companies that aren’t even in the news business. That included some companies that were doing things with artificial intelligence and needed news to put the metadata that’s on it, maybe companies that wanted to use news for competitive intelligence, just a variety of use cases. And so my job at that time was to drive that new business and to look for those new markets and to grow that revenue, which grew about a million dollars year over year in that time that I was in that role. I worked with 24 sales representatives across the U.S. that were working in their local markets driving the initiatives that I was identifying.
Q: How did you get tapped as an entrepreneur to begin with? You have a series of intrapreneurial roles on your career path, but you didn’t walk into a newsroom as an intrapreneur, did you?
ER: Right. Part of it was luck. Part of it was fate. I was working for the Associated Press as a deputy bureau chief. That’s how I was recruited into the AP in June 2010 from the Detroit News.
I was 90 days into my job and the AP went through a re-organization and said, “Hello all of you bureau chiefs. We’re now changing your jobs, and you now have a complete focus on revenue and we’re removing you from being involved with the news report and the news operation. You’ll come into headquarters in October. You’ll get trained from the Harvard Business School, and that’ll be your new job.”
So I was asked at that time whether or not I wanted to continue down that path, or whether I wanted them to find me [another] place. I just sort of embraced the opportunity that had been placed in front of me and I just said, “You know what? I’ve got a master’s in media management, I have a father that was a longtime advertising executive on the buy side, I’ve got an uncle that is a VP of operations for one of the largest urban radio station chains in the U.S.,” and I just said, “I’m just going to go with this and see what happens.” And so to my surprise, I actually was pretty good at sales and then that opened the door to people listening to me about new products and services.
The other thing that I did was that I wasn’t quiet about my ideas. The AP had a business plan competition. I had an idea for a mobile political product. At the time it was something that AP wasn’t doing and I put forth my idea and I was one of the top 12 global finalists in that competition. So that really got the attention of senior management within the organization to want to hear my ideas and listen to them, even though the AP didn’t make the product.
Q: From your perspective, what does it mean to be an intrapreneur in a news organization?
ER: To me it means that you have new ideas about new ways to do things. It may be that you have new ideas about creating an experience for your digital clients or your digital users, or it may be that you have a new idea tied to a new product and service, and that you can say, “This is how this ties into our core mission. And it’s new and it’s different, and this is why we should do it.” I think being able to understand the revenue piece too is really key, because at the end of the day, all of these media companies really need to be able to make revenue.
Q: How would you encourage young people who have great ideas and are afraid they won’t be listened to by others within the organization?
ER: So I hate to link everything back to revenue, but that’s so much of the big piece. So right now, I’m doing advertising sales as a manager at the Boston Business Journal, which is part of American City Business Journals, and I would say while I’m not on the product team there, if I have an idea about something that’s new that we need to do in this market, I can move that idea forward by linking it to how much revenue potential I see. I know that my boss and her bosses want that from me, expect that from me, would be open to that. So what I would say is to anyone that’s considering a proposal for something that’s new, I would just say how solid is your business case? What is the value proposition? Why should this media company do what you’re proposing? Are you saving them time, are you saving them money, are you saving them both? There has to be an element to it that has a benefit that’s tied to financials and it’s not just cool and fun.
One of the questions I would have, and that I think students should ask, is who else in the organization is doing this and why do we think that this will work inside of this organization? Because really what you’re doing is you’re almost building a business, building a product, building something that doesn’t exist anywhere else inside the organization and if you don’t have the support from the top down, you’re just kind of spinning your wheels.
Q: Why do you enjoy this kind of a role? That sounds like hard work and a lot of numbers. What are the best and worst parts of being an intrapreneur in a media organization today?
ER: So my work on the advertising side … technically I’m not in the newsroom, although I work for a news company. I would say that the best part is recognizing that the work that I’m doing to make things fiscally strong and financially strong is ensuring that great journalism gets to continue happening at the organization where I am and for the industry.
I would say one of the hardest parts of this type of work is when you’re a reporter, when you’re an editor, everyone wants to talk to you. Everybody wants to tell their story. Everybody has something they want to say, but when you’re on the revenue side, it is hard. It is tough. We get a lot of no’s. I tell my team, “We need three times as much revenue in our pipeline to be able to hit our revenue goals.” What that means is, is if we’re doing outreach to 100 prospects, in the back of my mind I only think 25 to 30 of them are going to be warm towards us. That means we have a lot of people telling us no. That’s just a part of the job, but at the same time, when you come from a side of the house where everybody is warm and engaging and wants to talk and then you come over to this side, it’s a totally different experience. Totally.
Q: Do you think hearing the word “no” is really unique to that advertising side or do you think that’s also part of just being in journalism? Shouldn’t my students be prepared to have some sort of a thick skin?
ER: They will definitely hear “no” in other parts of their work, even if they’re not working full-time on the revenue side. What I would say to that is when people say no, what I say to my team is then your next question is why. If they said no, ask why. Is it because the idea isn’t realistic? Is it because the resources are not there? Is it because they don’t think the revenue would be there, and if so, why?
Then when it’s even not clear after that, ask for an example. It’s another way of really getting down to the nitty gritty of what the issue and how you can make your proposal better so that maybe it could become a business plan that could be utilized.
Q: What traits do you think would make someone a good fit for news organization intrapreneurship or media intrapreneurship? Or what traits would make them someone who’s a better fit not to do that and just to be a newsroom employee and what traits would make them better to be an entrepreneur than an intrapreneur?
ER: Let me separate the two terms first. So, entrepreneur means of course, you’re starting your own company, you’re solely responsible, you’re going to employ yourself and other people, and it’s all on you. Intrapreneurial is you’re inside of a big organization. So to some extent you like working inside of a big company. Maybe you like the resources that it provides. Maybe you like having the amount of colleagues you can bounce ideas off of. Maybe you like having the credibility of the name of where you work, but you’re inside of a big organization. So to me, one of the first big differences is that the intrapreneur is very comfortable and okay with moving through that maze of that larger organization. The entrepreneur might like a much more flat organization to work within and might not want to deal with the level of bureaucracy to get decisions made.
When you’re intrapreneur, you’ve got to not only put forth new and creative ideas, but you’ve got to also really, really understand the organization you are maneuvering within politically. You’ve got to understand it from a fiscal perspective. You’ve got to understand how it fits into the greater context of the industry as a whole, which an entrepreneur has to understand too.
Q: Do you have any rules that have held true about pitching your ideas throughout organizations or are your pitches very specific to each organization?
ER: I think it really depends on the organization, and I think it depends on the organization’s mission. I think it depends on who the players are within the organization. I think it depends on timetables, how long you would take to get something crafted that’s new. So I don’t have any set ground rules. What I would say is that I have never put forth an idea inside of an organization where someone did not ask me what is the timetable to get this off the ground, what are the resources that you need, and what is the revenue potential? That’s something that’s been part of every conversation.
This interview has been edited for length.