June 23, 2020

In January 2019, Elisabetta Tola had a concrete idea of what her investigative science journalism nonprofit, Facta, could become. Five months later, after finishing a special City University of New York degree program, she had a concrete business plan.

Soon, other independent journalists like Tola can join CUNY’s graduate-level program, designed to give writers the financial background needed to create a successful journalism startup.

In January, the Tow-Knight Entrepreneurial Journalism Fellowship will shift from an in-person, New York-based degree to an online 100-day certificate. The program focuses on training, supporting and energizing independent journalists like Tola. Additionally, tuition will drop from $10,751 for out-of-state participants to $4,000 for all participants, making it a cheaper and more flexible option for those considering grad school.

The transition to remote learning began well before the pandemic hit. Administrators said that they hope the program, which already had a heavily international student body, would be more accessible to journalists from all over the world and would foster connections across continents.

Binoy Prabhakar, editor of Moneycontrol, moved from Delhi to Manhattan to participate in the program in 2017.

“The benefits will be immense even though it’s an online course because there are many people who are reluctant to go make this trip and leave their homes,” said Prabhakar. “Being from India, it’s a huge risk for many people to take that leap to go all the way to New York, and the cost, obviously, is also a huge risk. So I think the new program will be hugely beneficial for several journalists who want to reinvent their careers or go and launch a startup.”

Next year’s 12-20 participants can expect to leave the program with a capacity to understand market needs and revenue opportunities, the tools to grow an audience, an ability to develop a revenue portfolio and personal leadership skills, said Jeremy Caplan, director of teaching, learning and assessment at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. (Disclosure: Craig Newmark is a donor to the Poynter Institute.)

The program is aimed at enterprising individuals, not groups. Caplan calls them “microventures” or “armies of one,” and encourages independent journalists of all ages and backgrounds to apply, from mid-career journalists looking for a shift to recent grads eager to jumpstart their careers.

“There’s a flourishing of independent journalists creating all kinds of new, great projects,” he said. “A lot of those people are fantastic journalists and they’re quite capable of gathering information and serving a community, but they may not have all the tools in the toolkit that they need to become sustainable.”

The overarching goal of the CUNY certificate is to fill the gaps and support individuals who are creating diverse news outlets, Caplan said.

“A lot of people don’t consume news because it doesn’t serve them adequately,” he explained. “And we think that if news entrepreneurs can provide really great products and services to people, then there’s a business opportunity there for them to be sustainable and to serve communities as well.”

The 100-day certificate will consist of mostly asynchronous classes with a few weekly group calls and various networking opportunities. Participants can expect 10 to 15 hours of work per week and a lifelong membership in the CUNY community: Prabhakar video chats with Caplan and his classmates every few months and friends from Tola’s cohort came to visit her in Italy last year.

“Whenever someone had a birthday, we made it a big affair, with cake, candles and songs,” said Prabhakar. “It’s been two years since (I finished the program) and if you come back to me after 10 years, I am certain that I’ll still be in touch with those 16 people.”

The program markets itself as flexible and accessible. While there are entrepreneurial journalism courses at various colleges and universities, most target undergraduate or graduate students, not mid-career journalists or professionals. Many are focused on scaling up journalism startups, not supporting small, sustainable microventures. Other programs are also much longer. Participants in CUNY’s certificate program don’t enroll full-time at a college. Meanwhile, the coursework is far more substantive than a day- or week-long workshop, like those offered by various journalism nonprofits online or at conferences, said Prabhakar.

“I liked the format and the way the program was organized,” said Tola. “We had a lot of practical activities and lots of exchange (between participants), which I think really allowed us to build stronger projects. I came in with a very good idea and I was there long enough to really develop the idea.”

Dawn Kissi, co-Founder and CEO of Emerging Market Media, was a 2017 fellow. She rapidly grew her audience — far more quickly than she had expected — over the course of her time at CUNY.

“All the games that we played in class are so helpful in terms of analysis and negotiating and planning,” she said. “There was one week when we focused on negotiating and give and take, and I’m doing a lot of that right now.”

Caplan has received dozens of people emailing saying they’re interested, though he’s cautiously optimistic about how many people will apply. Like any new venture, he said it’s one thing to be excited in the early phase and it’s another to really commit oneself to participate. In the past, the admission rate hovered around 25%, though the application rate varied from year to year.

Applications for the CUNY’s entrepreneurial journalism certificate will open later this summer.

Eliana Miller is a recent graduate of Bowdoin College. You can reach her on Twitter @ElianaMM23, or via email at news@poynter.org.

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