Fortune's new money-making plan? Higher education

In 2005, when Alan Murray was rising through the ranks at The Wall Street Journal, he ponied up for an executive education program at Stanford.

The cost? Around $45,000, back then. The length of the program? A few weeks.

The whole experience left him thinking these programs were ripe for disruption from a competitor who could do it better and cheaper.

"Businesses spend a lot of money on training their executives," said Murray, who's now the chief content officer at Time Inc. "And we can help do that in a better and more efficient way."

The program is divided into two tiers that each have different costs. Take three "Emerging Leader" courses at $950 per course and you get a "Leading With Purpose" certificate. Three Mid-Level Leader courses at $3,500 per course earns you a certificate. Not chump change, but nowhere near the tens of thousands of dollars you might cough up elsewhere.

The program is the second of its kind to debut in recent weeks. Cheddar, the millennial-focused financial streaming network, announced last week that it was creating a series of virtual courses for Strayer University. Both programs are aimed at providing a new revenue stream as ad budgets shift away from newsrooms and toward the twin monoliths of digital advertising, Facebook and Google.

Murray declined to provide a specific revenue figure for the partnership. It's difficult to estimate, he said, in part because the money Fortune makes is tied to the success of the program itself.

"If no one signs up for the program, we don't make any money," Murray said. "But if it's as successful as [MBA@UNC, UNC Kenan-Flagler's Online MBA Program], then we make a lot of money."

For students who purchase executive education, one of the biggest draws is face-to-face time with successful CEOs — the kind of businesspeople that Fortune has access to and a good relationship with, Murray said. Meanwhile, students will also be attending classes with the university's faculty.

That journalistic energy and access enables them to respond quickly to emerging topics that might be difficult for a different program to tackle on short notice, Murray said.

"If we want to do an education module around change management — a hot topic these days — in a few weeks' time, we can have six or seven top Fortune 100, Fortune 200 CEOs talking about change management that you can fit into their module," Murray said. "So, the way this works is, they provide the pedagogy, we provide access to CEOs talking about key issues."

It's possible the online education model could be applied to other titles in Time Inc.'s portfolio with a different topic, Murray said. He expects other companies to experiment with the idea, too, just as they did with research and conferences.

"I think you'll see more of it," he said. "It's a natural affinity between information businesses like ours and education businesses."

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    Benjamin Mullin

    Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism innovation, business practices and ethics.

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