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Rise of the media artisan

I'm one of 'em.

Isabelle Roughol
Isabelle Roughol

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By your reading this newsletter, dear readers, and by my writing it, we are part of a hot new media trend. Individual journalists are striking out on their own to create mostly newsletters, sometimes podcasts or a Youtube channel, without the backing of a larger news institution. They connect to and monetize their audience on their own. It’s not just you and me; it’s a thing.

We are the darlings of the media trade press. We have stars (Casey Newton), people who did this long before it was cool (Thomas Baekdal) and a dearth of women. There have been hot takes about why this will revolutionize journalism and why this will undoubtedly fail. There have been sniggers from the safer corners of famous newsrooms, encouraging case studies about that one Patreon group that makes $12k a month and call-outs of the lack of diversity. I’ve even seen a Twitter thread deconstructing why the naming of this trend is “problematic.” We just need a plagiarism scandal and we’ll have gone full circle in about six months.

Some call it the “passion economy,” others the “creator economy.” I prefer a different term. (Creating new names for existing concepts is also a thing in the media industry.) I like to call myself a media artisan. Here’s why.

The allure of independence

Artisans are independent professionals. They usually work alone. They can take on an apprentice or collaborate with others, but it’s a gathering of individualities, not a corporation. That is the most obvious feature of this new media model. Journalists have through circumstances (times are tough) or through choice (I was that crazy one) severed ties with larger employers and become their own boss.

I’m not here to speak for all indies, but I had underestimated how much this would matter to me. The rein to speak only for oneself, to decide where the day takes you and what work is worth doing is the true joy of the self-employed. Of course, the consequences of those decisions are yours alone too. But freedom once tasted…

The joy of ownership

There have long been free agents in media. Freelancers are knights without banners, literally selling their lance — their pen in this case — to the highest bidder. Artisans, however, enter the arena under their own banner. It’s modest but it’s theirs. They own the means of reaching their audience. They’re not selling their skills to a business; they are using them to sell a product to a customer. (There is no hierarchy implied here. We each work as we like and as we can, and artisans are frequently also freelancers.)

Ownership is independence’s enabler. Without it, you are at the mercy of a slow-paying (or never-paying) publisher. You’ll only earn income from the time spent laboring, not from any assets, and there will be a ceiling to that. An artisan can — theoretically and it’s incredibly hard — grow passive income streams and a self-sustaining business. Come retirement, they own something worth something.

The consequence of tools

Nothing is more valuable to an artisan than her tools. They fascinate me, lined up like soldiers over a workbench. The twelve different ones it takes to bind a simple notebook; the absinthe spoon, the berry spoon and the bonbon spoon, all slotted in different ways; the hollow needle that revolutionized medicine… (That’s my next newsletter by the way, if I ever find the time: Weird tools throughout history.)

Point is, in media too, tools are essentials. They and the artisans appeared concurrently. Substack, Patreon, Zoom, Descript, Squarespace, Anchor… not to mention cheap hardware and reliable internet. Without the technological advances of the last decade, this sub-industry would not exist.

The value of staying small

I’ve been called an entrepreneur a lot lately. Thanks, I guess, but I balk at the term, perhaps because it’s been co-opted by Silicon Valley. Scale is not the goal here. We are not the Buzzfeeds and Quartzes, the Vices and Axioses of the last decade. We are small businesses, not start-ups. If we take over the media world, it’ll be by the sheer number of us, not the size of any individual outlet. (Though I’m exploring getting together as a guild…)

For me, staying small means staying close to the work. It’s about resisting the alienation of labor by making sure that each day I make something concrete. Even the best corporations will overload you with processes, emails and meetings and eventually distance you from the essence of your work. That’s where burnout comes from. Artisans may not have the most influence or the most glory, but they are connected to craft and to community. That’s where I find meaning at the moment, and where, I hope, I can offer value.

When I think of what I’m trying to build with Borderline, I picture the cobbler in my old neighborhood in Paris. He occupies a one-room shack by the side of an old railway, organized, he says, by a system only he can understand. His workbench sits by a large window so he can see the community and we can see how he works. No one would dare take their shoes anywhere else. He makes a perfect heel.

Explore further

👀 I’ll be speaking about media artisans and growing Borderline at Hack/Hackers London on 18 November, 8pm GMT. Join us: It’s a friendly monthly gathering of journalists and technologists free and open to all. Just register here. [Update: You can watch the event video.]

🎙 I also spoke recently on the podcast about starting and growing Borderline, some of the ideas above and the business skills I learned at LinkedIn and am applying now. Check it out.

🎙🎙 The Media Voices Podcast did a great episode on the harsh realities of going solo as a journalist. Well worth a listen.

Thank you for joining me so early on this wild ride. Borderline doesn’t happen without you. I’m working these ideas out for myself at the moment, and this is a first attempt at jotting some of them down. I’ll be writing occasionally about such behind the scenes issues, as well as on your usual Borderline fare of global citizenship. I’d love your feedback; just hit reply on the email or get in the comments. And make sure to subscribe.

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Isabelle Roughol Twitter

Journalist, podcaster, media consultant. Telling stories & building better newsrooms. Writes The Lede. Ex- LinkedIn News, Le Figaro, The Cambodia Daily. 🎓 Mizzou '08, Birkbeck '25.