How Richard Branson believes people power will change journalism

Sir Richard Branson is best known for founding the Virgin brand that has made him one of the world’s richest citizens, but his early life as a journalist is less well documented.

Fresh out of school Branson set up Student magazine with his friend Jonathan Holland-Gems in a media landscape that has been rendered barely recognisable by the advent of the web.

Branson recently revealed he has invested in crowdfunding platform Indiegogo, so Newspryng sought his opinions on crowdfunding’s implications on the world of journalism.

In his Losing my Virginity autobiography there was an anecdote that struck a chord with Newspryng because it neatly encapsulates the new model for internet journalism we are trying to create.

Branson recalls in the book how he encountered South African children waiting at the side of the road after they had filled in the potholes in the hope that passers-by would pay them.

We approached Branson to find out why that episode left such a lasting memory and how he believes crowdfunding could shape journalism.

Newspryng: What made you begin your career in journalism and do you ever regret leaving the industry?

Richard Branson: My entry into journalism came through my first business venture, Student magazine. We started it to give young people an exciting and thought-provoking alternative to mainstream media.We challenged the status quo and voiced unheard opinions, focusing upon issues such as the Vietnam War.

I enjoyed the buzz and excitement that came with being a journalist, finding stories and convincing people to become a part of the magazine, from Mick Jagger to Vanessa Redgrave.

However, I quickly realised my greatest strength was the business behind the words. I became an entrepreneur by default, before I had even heard of the word. I began to think, how can we shake up other industries?

Despite focusing my attention upon growing the Virgin brand, and now on no-for-profit ventures, my journalistic instinct never left me. I’m always thinking about ideas – be it business tips or life lessons –and through my daily blog and social media we can put these into action. Really, social media has allowed us to come full circle in journalism.

RB at Speakers Corner

NS: Why are you such a prolific blogger and social media user, and how much time do you devote to it each day?

RB: Anyone who’s worked with me knows that my most essential possession is a notebook. I carry it everywhere and write down the comments, ideas and musings that I come across day to day. If you have an opinion, it’s important to make your voice heard.

I turn my notes into opinion pieces and tips articles, campaigns and videos, and share them directly with people through social media. It is a powerful platform for communication – it’s instant, far-reaching and encourages open dialogue and feedback.

I start every day by checking my tablet and tapping into what’s happening around the globe and in the Virgin world. I pick out the topics that I feel passionate about and plan my blogging and social media agendas around them. Throughout the day I check in several times on my iPad or phone and reply to as many people as possible. And of course, I have a wonderful team around me to help turn the ideas into reality.

NS: Has the internet democratised journalism?

RB: There’s no denying the internet has democratised journalism in many positive ways. In the past journalism has been in the hands of those with the money and/or power to publish their story.

Now, everybody can not only have a voice, but one that will be heard. The internet has given opportunities to those who previously had none. We now see stories come out of all corners of the world, penned by those actually living with issues, and not just by foreign correspondents.

And in one of the most tell-tale signs of democracy, everybody has the right to give feedback – instant and, in most cases, uncensored feedback.

NS: Are you concerned about the future of journalism?

RB: I’m very hopeful for the future of journalism. While the internet has democratised journalism, it is also true that maintaining high standards across the web is tough.

Therefore, there will always be a need for high quality journalism, whether it be from established publications like The Economist or branded content like the kind we [Virgin] try to make. As humans we have a natural instinct to question and learn, and that won’t change, regardless of how information is formatted or presented.

NS: Do you believe crowdfunding could prove a viable means of financing investigative journalism?

RB: I am an investor in crowdfunding company Indiegogo, and I feel the concept has a very interesting future. If I was starting my first business now, I would probably turn to crowdfunding. It can be viewed as a survey of interest. If you get enough people behind an idea, you will end up producing a story that people actually want to hear about– and could start a movement that cannot be ignored.

On the other hand, if only the ideas that receive funding make it into fruition, then others will be overlooked, and the risk of biased and censored journalism prevails. It could be a Catch 22, but it is certainly worth considering. Now there’s an investigative journalism project that needs financing.

NS: Can you explain why the story of the South African kids [see intro] made such an impact on you and did you ever discover if they made any money?

RB: The story resonated with me because I loved the kids’ entrepreneurial spirit. We often rack our brains trying to find big ideas. These kids simply saw a problem, worked out how they could solve it, and got on with it. It’s a great way to think about business.

I can’t recall if they made any money from that particular venture, but I’m hopeful they’re doing okay. I recently heard about some other kids selling rocks on the side of the road – they had picked out the ‘best’ rocks from the thousands along the motorway. Now that takes gumption.

Editor’s note: We have launched a crowdfunding project to  fund the development of the Newspryng platform. You can read more and donate here

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