New CUNY Program to Equip Students to Start Journalism-Based Businesses

Last week, the City University of New York unveiled the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism — the first of its kind in the nation.

As part of this program, the school will offer a master’s degree in entrepreneurial journalism and a related certificate program for mid-career journalists. Students will research new business models for news and learn how to start and run sustainable news businesses.

The creation of the $10 million center reflects the growth of startup news sites and the need for journalists to learn how to navigate this new ecosystem of local news, said Jeff Jarvis, the center’s leader and an associate professor and director of CUNY’s interactive journalism program.

This is just the latest example of the steps that journalism schools are taking to remain relevant. CUNY and New York University are partnering with The New York Times on hyperlocal news sites. Columbia University has created a journalism and computer science dual degree program. And the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California has created a new course that uses iPads as a reporting tool.

Some J-schools, meanwhile, are struggling to survive.

I e-mailed Jarvis to learn more about the new Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism. In this edited Q&A, Jarvis describes the thinking behind the center, key components of the curriculum, and why today’s journalism schools need to teach students to be not only good storytellers, but also smart entrepreneurs.

Mallary Jean Tenore: Why did CUNY decide to create a Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism?

Jeff Jarvis: In the words of our dean, Steve Shepard, what Stanford and MIT bring to the technology industry, we hope to bring to journalism — that is, producing innovators and innovation. The news business needs both.

I have long believed that telling journalists to keep our distance from the business of news made us poor stewards of journalism, so I think it is good to teach journalists how their business works, especially now. Finally, we see the opportunity for journalism students to make their own jobs, to create their own journalistic companies.

We hope to equip students in this program to start a company, to manage, to bring innovation into larger media companies, or simply to be smarter about our new business realities.

How long has this been in the making?

Jarvis: Since the school started, I have taught a course in entrepreneurial journalism, in which students create and develop a business and product plan for a sustainable (read: profitable) journalistic enterprise.

At the end of every term, a jury of investors, journalists, publishers, entrepreneurs and technologists judge their work and, thanks to the McCormick Foundation, we have given [a total of] $100,000 in seed money to seven students’ businesses, which are now being incubated at the school. We also have students taking their entrepreneurial spirit into other larger media companies.

That class became the inspiration for the creation of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial journalism. We received a challenge from the Tow Foundation more than a year ago to establish a focus on improving journalism and find matching funding.

Then we received a challenge from Knight to ask ourselves what it would take for CUNY to be the leader in entrepreneurial journalism. This is our answer and we are grateful to both foundations for funding the vision and also to the McCormick and MacArthur foundations and the Carnegie Corporation for funding earlier work.

This work included research on new business models for news, conferences on the topic (at one, Jim Brady drew the newsroom of the future, little knowing that he’d launch it at TBD), and our laboratory in hyperlocal journalism and business in Brooklyn.

What are some of the key components of the curriculum?

Jarvis: Our students can continue for an optional fourth semester to receive a master’s in entrepreneurial journalism. We will also offer mid-career professionals the opportunity to come for the semester and earn a certificate. (Note that the curriculum still must be approved by our faculty and the state.)

We will offer courses in the essentials of business and management and in the media business specifically, as well as a course in relevant technology.

The students will also develop businesses that we’ll incubate, and we hope to arrange brief apprenticeships at New York startups. These fourth-semester courses are in addition to the third-semester entrepreneurial journalism course I described above and another course in supporting the hyperlocal ecosystem in Brooklyn (working with The New York Times and Patch).

What specific skills do you want students to develop, and how will you help them do that?

Jarvis: They need to be able to recognize opportunities, conceptualize and plan a business, research that business with customers, present that business to investors and customers, understand the essential skills of running a business and of media (e.g., how advertising works), be able to work with other constituencies (technologists, partners, salespeople, etc.), and be able to manage projects.

We will teach these skills in our classes and through incubating the students’ own businesses with faculty and mentors from the the news, technology and investment sectors in New York.

Are other departments within the university involved with the center?

Jarvis: We are working with Baruch College’s Zicklin School of Business and plan to work with other parts of CUNY, including law and technology.

Why do you think more schools haven’t jumped on this idea and put a greater emphasis on entrepreneurial journalism? Which schools, if any, are doing a good job of this?

Jarvis: I think they are starting to jump on it. Earlier this year, I organized a conference (call) among those who are teaching or want to reach entrepreneurial journalism, and we found more than three dozen ready to join in. Now that the school year has started, we will organize the next so we can share best practices.

You mentioned on your blog that the center will help create new enterprises in news. Can you elaborate on this a little?

Jarvis: Once we get the legal structure set, I hope we can not only incubate new businesses — from students and outside entrepreneurs — but also create an investment fund that supports these new businesses with seed funding in the model of Y Combinator, Betaworks, and Seedcamp. I will then raise investment capital.

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What else do you want journalists and journalism students to know about the center?

Jarvis: As in my class this term, we will mix our journalism students with mid-career journalists, all in the same boat, and we plan to start a pilot of the program in the spring. We will not produce MBAs. We will bring necessary business skills to journalists so they can support themselves and our profession.

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