How J-schools are helping students develop entrepreneurial journalism skills

Universities around the world are teaching a relatively new subject – entrepreneurial journalism.

The revolutionary changes reshaping journalism have driven the industry to search for new financial models and respond to marketplace demands. Journalism schools are part of that search: Their entrepreneurial-journalism programs try to identify new sustainable business models, create new journalism tools, teach students new skills, and incubate new-media initiatives.

From such efforts, a handful of teaching models are emerging: traditional classroom teaching and degree programs, innovation laboratories, and partnerships with news publishers and nongovernmental organizations. Here’s a look at what’s happening in these areas.

The role of NGOs

In the fall of 2012, American University began offering a master’s in media entrepreneurship aimed at mid-career professionals from the Washington, D.C., area. The first class’s nine students came from public radio, daily newspapers, NGOs, and independent media startups.

Each participant came up with an idea for a media project that would be developed over the 20-month program. Participants then refined their ideas through courses in innovation, marketing, financial analysis, technology, leadership, and communication law at both the communication and business schools.

Jan Schaffer, entrepreneur in residence at American University, teaches the program’s seminar on media entrepreneurship. She is also executive director of the school’s J-Lab. She recruits guest speakers from Washington media outlets and some 70 startups that J-Lab has helped launch over the years. Schaffer says she believes journalism schools should teach “information-gathering and truth-seeking skills to a broad array of future civic players,” including NGOs.

Working with other disciplines

At the New Media Innovation Lab at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, media companies pay for student research that helps them create multimedia products. The school’s Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship also encourages students to develop new media products.

About 50 students participate in the two programs each year, drawn from disciplines such as engineering, business, computer science and journalism. Retha Hill, director of the lab, said in an interview that three graduate engineering students work half-time to provide coding and programming for student projects and research. For example, the Newspaper Association of America Foundation hired the lab to survey 1,500 Americans 16 to 20 years old to understand how they used smartphones to connect with their social networks for everything from planning their weekend to checking the news.

But Dan Gillmor, director of the Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship, warns it’s unrealistic to expect a large number of successful product launches to emerge from the classroom. He adds that he’d consider an occasional success as “a fine outcome, as long as the students are all getting this understanding and appreciation of business that we’re trying to bring into the curriculum.”

Incubating new media

City University of New York’s Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism is one of the most-watched programs. Launched in 2010 with grants of $3 million each from the Tow Foundation and Knight Foundation, it offers a one-semester certificate program in Entrepreneurial Journalism for graduate students. The certificate program includes courses on business models, fundamentals of business, technology and hands-on development of the student’s own proposed capstone project.

The program also aims to incubate new media projects, with the school hosting events where New York City’s digital entrepreneurs can present projects and get feedback. “We want to play a role in the community,” says Jeremy Caplan, director of education for the program. “We want to be a place where people will come and share their ideas.”

The program awarded $47,000 in seed funding to five students in the 2012 class to develop their capstone projects. Among them: Noah Rosenberg received $6,500 to develop a platform for long-form storytelling focused on New York. In September 2012 he launched Narrative.ly, which has developed a substantial following, and he has raised $54,000 in a Kickstarter campaign. He plans to expand to 10 other cities.

Strength working in teams

At Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, “we’re teaching the art of media product development,” says Rich Gordon, the school’s director of digital innovation. “It means solving an equation that involves audience, content, and revenue. That’s what entrepreneurial journalism is.”

While some entrepreneurial journalism programs have each student develop a product, Medill’s students work in teams. “At the core, entrepreneurs are born, not made,” Gordon argues. While not every student has the skills or abilities to be an entrepreneur, he says working in teams lets each student contribute something.

In 2007 Gordon was awarded a $639,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to allow Medill to offer scholarships to its master’s program in journalism to people with backgrounds in computer programming. Nine students have graduated from this program, and all are now working in jobs where they combine their journalism and programming skills, Gordon said via Skype.

Entrepreneurial journalism isn’t a new concept at Medill – for decades, the school has taught master’s students to develop media products. But some of its partnerships are new: Medill recently announced it has joined The Washington Post for a “programmer-journalist” scholarship program in which the Post pays programmers’ tuition for a master’s degree in journalism at Medill, followed by a paid internship. The Post’s commitment adds up to more than $80,000 to cover tuition for three students, plus the cost of the internships.

The enterprise as laboratory

At the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, the Punch Sulzberger Program focuses on changing the enterprise rather than on developing skills.

Doug Smith, executive director since the program’s inception in 2007, says each applicant identifies a challenge that their enterprise faces. Applicants’ proposed solutions must be measurable in business performance results, achievable in 10 to 20 months, and result in a major change to the enterprise, among other criteria.

The Sulzberger program yields a certificate, not a degree, and its 20 to 25 participants come to New York four times during the year-long program for a week each time. Several Christian Science Monitor executives went through the program while shepherding their publication through a transition from a daily print edition to a digital product with a weekly magazine.

A master’s completely online

The University of Guadalajara in Mexico is in its second year of offering an online master’s degree in digital journalism — perhaps the only master’s degree program in entrepreneurial journalism that’s completely online. The current class includes participants from Ecuador, Peru and Colombia.

Each applicant to the two-year, four-semester program must propose a media project. Then the first cut of 35 applicants take a three-week online course in which they watch videos, read articles, complete assignments, and receive feedback from faculty about their proposal. Only 20 students from this first group are accepted. (Disclosure: I helped design this program while director of the Digital Journalism Center, Centro de Formacion en Periodismo Digital, at the University.)

Rosalia Orozco, director of the program, told Poynter the preliminary course helps identify which students are most likely to thrive. The time commitment — 15 to 20 hours of online work a week — is a challenge since applicants must be working journalists.

Half the course credits in the program are dedicated to refining the capstone project. Courses include a market survey, competitive analysis, technology assessment, management of online communities, a marketing plan, Web design and usability, and a business plan.

Other players

Universities aren’t the only players in entrepreneurial journalism — Silicon Valley is asserting itself too. Matter, a startup accelerator, recently announced its first class of six digital-media entrepreneurs, each of whom receives $50,000 in seed funding and four months of intensive coaching to turn their ideas into reality. The project is funded in part by the Knight Foundation’s Enterprise Fund.

Another model is Poynter’s own News University, which has several courses, Webinars, training videos and a certificate program on media entrepreneurship, with plans to develop more. These training modules generally last from one to three hours and are inexpensive or free.

“We’re reshaping the traditional mass-media business model to be more entrepreneurial and independent of major corporations,” Howard Finberg, NewsU’s founder, said via Skype. “We’re also training journalists to be more self-sufficient. We’re giving them the skills to work across disciplines in ways they didn’t have to when we were in school.”

Funders push for innovation

The Knight Foundation, which funds several of the programs mentioned in this article, has pushed journalism schools to make changes more quickly. As of November, Knight’s 132 active grants totaled $119 million.

Michael Maness, vice president of journalism and media innovation, has outlined a new innovation strategy that calls for moving away from big grants to big institutions in favor of smaller grants for digital innovations. Some of the universities and other organizations that have been major recipients of Knight grants have seen funding reduced or eliminated as a result.

So the pressure is on universities to change — and change quickly. They must help create the revolution while avoiding being swept away by it, embracing change while preserving the best traditions of a vigorous free press. In other words, they themselves must be more entrepreneurial.

James Breiner @jamesbreiner is co-director of the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. He writes about entrepreneurial journalism at www.newsentrepreneurs.com.

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  • Laura Hong

    Great article. SmartRecruiters did a recent post on new skills needed for journalism.

    http://www.smartrecruiters.com/blog/the-emerging-skills-needed-for-online-journalism/

  • http://twitter.com/jamesbreiner James Breiner

    UMD has always had a strong program.

  • http://twitter.com/jamesbreiner James Breiner

    Thanks for this, Dane. Which schools would you recommend I look at?

  • http://twitter.com/merrillcollege Merrill College @UMD

    Please also know that the University of Maryland strongly emphasizes entrepreneurship and the Merrill College offers entrepreneurial journalism both in our regular course offerings and also in our popular graduate certificate program for professionals.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=537683437 Dane S. Claussen

    The article correctly points out that Northwestern has been doing what is now called “entrepreneurial journalism” for decades (with a prototype and business plan of a new magazine). The article fails to point out that other j-schools have also been doing this for a long time. It’s a relatively standard course in j-schools that take magazines seriously.