How journalism educators can ‘train students for jobs that may not yet exist’

When I began my current job in the journalism school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, my director told me I had a particularly daunting mission: “train students for jobs that may not yet exist.”

I’ve tried to keep her voice in my head over the years and keep my courses on pace accordingly. But as the business models of journalism have grown ever more strained, I realized I wasn’t doing enough to give my students assignments and inspiration to stoke their entrepreneurial fire, to drive them to envision the apps, sites, platforms and functions we’ll all use 10 years from now.

After all, if journalism is to thrive, this generation of students will have to create things that do not yet exist.

At other schools, entire courses and programs are dedicated to entrepreneurship in media and business plan creation. We don’t have that luxury. Also, I’m a believer in spreading valuable lessons throughout as many courses as possible.

In advance of adding new entrepreneurial elements to my introductory and magazine courses this fall, I test-drove some ideas with students taking internship credit this summer. The students enroll for credit while working at internships across the country. Faculty generate different assignments for the students who enroll with them, often involving readings and research papers related to the experience.

The students responded with a creative vigor I’ve never seen in previous outings with interns, making it a good case study for other journalism educators trying to help students gain entrepreneurial skills.

The idea was simple: develop a five-page pitch for an entrepreneurial idea somehow related to each student’s internship. They could propose a new service, business, website, mobile app, device, platform … whatever.

I asked for a connection to their internships, but it could be fairly loose. For instance, a student interning at a PR firm might have a hotel chain as a client. She could propose an “American Road Trip” app that maps people across cool places in the U.S. and lets them rate hotels along the way.

I didn’t want them getting too tripped up on style vs. substance, so I gave them pretty basic pitch requirements:

  • Create a specific idea, including basic branding, such as a name for the app or service.
  • Determine the audience and what needs the new idea fulfills for that audience, or what problem it solves.
  • Brainstorm potential revenue streams. (They didn’t need a specific budget, but I asked them to discuss what streams they’d rely on: ad-support, subscriptions, paid downloads, etc.)
  • Gather primary research on at least three sources connected to the idea. This could be in the form of focus group with potential customers, interviews with coworkers at the internship, surveys of other entrepreneurs in the same sector, etc.
  • Gather secondary research from at least three sources. This could include articles on entrepreneurship, blog posts related to the idea, etc.

The group began by selecting videos from Stanford’s entrepreneurship program for inspiration and picked specific points to remember as they worked through their ideas.

We then did a series of Google+ hangouts to discuss their ideas, brainstorm and find holes in their plans. G+ hangouts are an ideal tool when you need to connect students in far-flung places, offering free videoconferencing for up to 10 people at once. The tool allows students in internships from the midwest to the coasts to benefit from hearing one another’s thoughts.

The students came up with excellent, fresh ideas and are polishing their pitches right now. We’ll hangout again to go through the outcomes. For those who are back on campus in fall, we’ll meet with an alumnus working in venture capital to hear how funders might respond to their pitches.

I’m not an expert in building a bottom line, but a few of the ideas appear to have long-term potential. Even without projecting into the future, the students say the experience has been positive. They appreciated the chance to take their internship experience and hone an idea all their own. They began walking on entrepreneurial legs they hadn’t yet realized were under them.

I hope someday they’ll run.

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  • Katy Culver

    Thanks for the links, Cindy. I’ll +1 your SXSW proposal. The curriculum at our program is adaptable enough to enable experiments like this. Others aren’t equally maleable. I tend to advocate for immediate course-level advances during the process of curricular change, rather than waiting for a wholesale move forward. If you want to read more, http://blog.journalism.wisc.edu/2012/08/21/my-open-letter-to-journalism-funders-change-your-plan-of-attack/

  • http://twitter.com/CindyRoyal Cindy Royal

    I discuss this topic of “training students for jobs that don’t exist yet” in my SXSW proposal and accompanying video http://panelpicker.sxsw.com/vote/1383, as well as on my tech blog http://tech.cindyroyal.net/?p=1448. I call it the Hipster Method of Education. I think many realize that we are preparing students for new jobs and roles, but there has been little talk about how we should strategically approach curriculum in order to achieve this. Some have been more successful than others in developing the kinds of graduates who have easily moved into and created new roles. Experiential learning and innovation assignments like those described above are good examples.