Julie Ireton is the recipient of the 2013 Michener-Deacon Fellowship for Journalism Education. The Fellowship was presented during the annual Michener Award Ceremony held at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on June 18, 2013.
Julie spent the second half of 2013 researching innovations in journalism education. The following report synthesizes her findings:
Media Innovation and Entrepreneurial Journalism
Imagine being sheepish about turning a passion into something that actually earns you money.
But Emma Paling and Megan McClean were a bit embarrassed when they first introduced me to their fledgling, niche website. You see, they didn’t think their fashion site, broketheblog.com, would be considered journalism. I needed to remind them that fashion journalism is a multi-million dollar industry – and that they were on to something.
A lot of students start blogs, but back in September, broketheblog.com was already attracting 2000 views a week and was earning ad revenue – even before the women had started promoting it.
These fourth year journalism students had taken their interest in cheap, local fashion (for low and no-income folks like themselves) and turned it into an on-line destination. They came to me for some advice – tips on how to better design and brand their site. Was it possible to actually turn it into a real startup?
I was inspired by their passion, energy and initiative. But I soon realized they aren’t an anomaly at Carleton University’s School of Journalism. As students realized I was researching entrepreneurial journalism, others began sending me notes and knocking on my door. There were a lot of similarities: niche, digital journalism projects with the driving forces of passion, energy and initiative.
Many students are seeking the tools and skills to move their ideas to the next level. Very often, today’s journalism student wants to know about the business of journalism and how he or she can fit into this new media world as a freelancer, an innovator or an entrepreneur. But these skills are not currently taught at many journalism schools in Canada. This is where my Startup Journalism project comes in.
“Carleton is preparing people to go into a media world that doesn’t exist anymore.” Anonymous Carleton University Journalism Student, Survey, September 2013.
Looking back on media history, this really isn’t anything new. Change has been constant. Modern newspapers began in Canada with the Halifax Gazette in 1752. Suddenly, the concepts of local and national news changed, allowing communities to share local stories. Other disruptors were radio (1920), TV (1952), satellite, cable and eventually the world wide web in 1990. Veteran journalist and academic, Eric Newton sees parallels between the changing media landscape 100 some years ago and now.
“Imagine folks sitting around more than a century ago, one saying to the other: You know, our child never knew a world without daily newspapers. He is a newspaper native. He never knew how long we used to wait for news to come from the other side of the country. No wonder he has no patience. No attention span. Sound familiar?” Eric Newton, Searchlights and Sunglasses.
It sounds very familiar. Who knew mobile and social media would find dominant places in our world, giving new meaning to the idea of a short attention span. Today, journalism students enter university with a much different media understanding than those just decades before. I, myself, graduated from Carleton University in 1994 – before the web and digital media was really a part of our lives.
While there were musings about a digital revolution years down the road, no one took such a thing very seriously. My first tools in radio were analog tape and razor blades.
Leap frog 20 years: during this fellowship I’ve learned (in about 20 minutes) how to shoot, edit and post video stories, all on a mobile phone. Twitter, Instagram, Vine, Facebook – the social use of mobile media means the delivery system and platforms have completely changed. People don’t just rely on the mainstream for news. Thanks to the Internet, citizens now write their own news. The opportunities for entrepreneurial journalists are countless, if not always lucrative.
The development of digital journalism is clearly a disruption to the traditional media system. And newspapers, cable TV and radio haven’t quite figured out how to thrive in this new environment – but nor have many of the newbies now entering the fray. How can we make new, news operations sustainable?
Finding that answer won’t be easy. But it clearly sets up a role for educators. The vast change in content and delivery calls for a revolution in what is taught in j-schools. Universities can be the incubator for a mainstream media industry in Canada that is, by its own admission, short on ideas.
“Carleton needs to try things. What can the school teach the industry?” Gerry Nott, Postmedia executive, July 2013
New opportunities are emerging and j-schools need to reflect those changes by encouraging a new kind of journalism: new ways of telling on-line stories; the creation of better, more interactive tools, platforms, applications and services; and a better understanding of the business of journalism. They need to prepare students for jobs in technologies that don’t even exist right now. They need to anticipate. This is something Canada’s well-known communications philosopher wrote about some fifty years ago.
“Control over change would seem to consist in moving not with it, but ahead of it. Anticipation gives the power to deflect and control force.” Marshall McLuhan.
How can journalism schools possibly do that? They do it by continuing to help j-students develop skills, instincts, curiosity and critical thinking. But also by giving them confidence to take calculated risk when it comes to developing different kinds of journalism products and services. While studying at the university, students need to understand and apply basic coding, social media, new business models, branding as well as the traditional reporting and story-telling skills. Experiential learning means developing hands-on, experimental initiatives.
“Journalism education should be even more disrupted and disruptive than journalism, the industry. ” Jeff Jarvis, professor of entrepreneurial journalism, City University of New York.
So let’s take a look at those who are anticipating the industry’s future at some of North America’s top ranked educational institutions. They may not be disrupting, but they are coming up with the next, next things.
Let’s start with my visit to the Boston area. In November, I met with professors and journalists at MIT, Harvard, Boston University, Northeastern University, the Public Radio Exchange, the New England Centre for Investigative Reporting and the Investigative News Network. Here’s a sampling of what I took away:
Not far from Harvard Square, down a cobblestone path is an historic, New England mansion that houses the Nieman Journalism Lab. The director, Josh Benton, calls it a newsroom and think tank: “A mix of technology, journalism and academia.”
Benton told me about some impressive new innovations. “Mobile is now first.” At Nieman, time is spent looking at how new applications are coming on-line, what’s working, what’s making money, what’s changing the story. One of Benton’s highlights is NowThis news, a startup that produces news for the young and hip. It produces more than 50 daily video updates for mobile users of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Vine and YouTube – in small, digestible six, 15 or 30-second chunks. It’s information for a new generation of news consumers.
Survey any class of university students these days, you will discover that few own a TV, even fewer have a newspaper subscription. They all get their news online. The product produced by this kind of startup speaks their language.
As my visit with Benton wrapped up, he had scolding words for Canada – a country he deeply appreciates. Benton says Canadian entrepreneurs haven’t had the same drive for innovation on the media side, suggesting we’re at least five years behind the U.S. both when it comes to an enterprising academic discussion and encouraging a media startup culture.
“It is openness to experience and it is willingness to view a new platform as something other than a threat that is absolutely key.” Josh Benton.
Zuckerman’s team develops media innovations with a social good. In fact, he disagrees with the idea of entrepreneurial, for-profit journalism.
“Entrepreneurial journalism is a myth,” Ethan Zuckerman, MIT.
Zuckerman told me about several projects at MIT. Vojo is a good example of the kind of innovative, socially conscious journalism Zuckerman promotes. It’s a mobile blogging platform that was built to make it easy for people to post stories from inexpensive mobile phones via voice calls. Zuckerman says the goal is to foster greater inclusion in the digital public sphere.
A former MIT fellow, Lisa Williams had another unique enterprise to discuss. Williams is the Director of Digital Engagement for the Investigative News Network. She calls herself a fairy godmother for journalists. That’s because this entrepreneurial network helps fledgling, nonprofit, investigative forums produce and distribute original stories.
It finds strength in numbers by finding efficiencies and pooling resources. These niche sites are all trying to figure out new revenue streams in a drive towards financial sustainability. The network of 92 investigative news sites includes: the Ohio Centre for Investigative Journalism, Hidden City Philadelphia and the Broward Bulldog in south Florida.
Williams says INN doesn’t yet have a Canadian member, but she says the doors are open. Investigative news is extremely time consuming, thus expensive, to produce. But people like Joe Bergantino, executive Director of the New England Centre for Investigative Reporting at Boston University, are figuring out how to do it. (NECIR is an INN member)
The New England Centre for Investigative Reporting partners with mainstream media to produce investigations.
It started out with generous grants, but now raises money by training a new generation of young reporters.
Every summer, Bergantino’s team invites high school students from across the U.S. to take a two-week investigative reporting workshop at Boston University – raising more than $200,000 to pay for original stories at NECIR.
WHAT STUDENTS WANT:
Unique media innovation is happening. J-students are well aware of it and want to be part of the new wave. Early on in my fellowship I set out to discover what students at Carleton University’s School of Journalism want when it comes to learning about entrepreneurship and future opportunities. Are they interested in startup journalism?
In September, I sent out this 10-question survey to senior (4th year/graduate level) students. Of the more than 50 students who filled out the survey, a majority said they want to learn more about the journalism business – from freelancing to creating new enterprises. The results showed that 86.54% would enrol in an entrepreneurial journalism course if offered at the school. Some even tell me they’d come back, after graduation, to take the class.
When asked to describe what they’d most like to get out of such as course here’s a sampling of answers:
- “Case studies of journalism “start-ups” – knowledge on steps to start-up a media business –overcoming the fear/uncertainty of.”
- “I would be really interested in focusing on coding and business skills.”
- “Business training…Not journalism training. We’ve had lots of that over four years…We would need business training.”
Shortly after the survey went out, I began hearing from more students who wanted to talk about their own enterprising ideas. So I decided to organize a Start-up Café. The student-run Journalism Society helped. We met up on an evening in mid November at a campus café. I was surprised when about two dozen senior students showed up – with a lot of questions and ideas for future gatherings.
Here is one of several tweets that night:
Armed with the knowledge that students are eager to learn more about entrepreneurial journalism, I started researching other such courses across North America. I had my Aha! moment while attending the Online News Association Conference in Atlanta in October. That’s when I discovered several others who have a similar interest and passion when it comes to teaching startup journalism.
At the Hack the Curriculum workshops I attended, I learned from a dozen entrepreneurial professors from across the U.S. These teachers discussed the best practices at some top American universities.
They emphasized important skills in entrepreneurship including: understanding competition, audience, advertising, business models and marketing.
While U.S. schools are far ahead in their entrepreneurial journalism offerings, King’s College in Halifax does offer a New Ventures program. I visited King’s over a couple days last summer and spoke to several professors.
The entrepreneurial stream there is a boutique program that only admits between six and 10 students a year. These graduate students get significant one-on-one coaching to help nail down a new media business.
When the term is finished, they pitch ideas to a Dragon’s Den type panel of judges from the mainstream media community and potential funders. After hearing about the startup projects, the dragons give feedback and sometimes even money. So far about half of the grads have started companies.
It’s an impressive program, but the real leaders in this kind of training are in New York City. So that’s where I headed at the end of November.
NEW YORK CITY:
Just footsteps from the New York Times in midtown Manhattan, is the easy-to-miss doorway of the City University of New York. Only eight years old, CUNY has a somewhat small, but progressive journalism school with 100 students.
Jeff Jarvis says he’s has been teaching entrepreneurial journalism since CUNY’s program began.
CUNY sees itself as a leader in the emerging field of entrepreneurial journalism. In 2010, CUNY’s Tow-Knight Centre for Entrepreneurial Journalism was founded thanks to Knight Foundation grants. The program teaches big “E” entrepreneurialism. That means the students must bring an idea for a for-profit journalism business.
So like the professors at King’s College, Jarvis and his colleagues encourage the development of startups throughout the program.
Every one of the 15 students comes up with a business plan. Some of these projects make it beyond the classroom, some don’t.
There are also CUNY graduates who take their innovative ideas and make them work inside a mainstream media organization. (Some call that approach intrapreneurialism.)
New York University, also in Manhattan, is doing something equally innovative, but a bit different. NYU’s Cooper Street campus houses the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. I sat in on Jay Rosen’s Studio 20 class where graduate students help find cutting edge solutions for mainstream media companies.
“Our method is to teach by doing. We do this with media partners and it always includes innovation. We’re like a consulting company paid in problems.” Jay Rosen, Studio 20 professor, NYU
The day I visited, the Studio 20 project consuming the 15 students was the development of a new, tech news aggregator for MIT’s Technology Review.
The students were questioning their client about the Review’s needs, interests and constraints. I could tell these students had done their homework.
They knew the magazine and its content well and they had great ideas about how to make this new aggregator a success.
MEDIA INNOVATION AND ENTREPRENEURIAL JOURNALISM COURSE:
Back home in Ottawa, my research evolved. I attended a couple of startup business conferences and chatted with business professors at both Carleton and the University of Ottawa about how they teach entrepreneurship. Then I set out to synthesize all of the above information and build my own lesson plan.
I have proposed my course, called Media Innovation and Entrepreneurial Journalism to Carleton University. Whether students go on to work in mainstream media organizations as intrapreneurs, freelance or start a new enterprise as entrepreneurs, they will leave this course with inspiration, unique skills and the ability to innovate on various scales.
Students in this class will learn how new, digital media businesses are modeled and developed, how big ideas are pitched and branded. They will learn a bit of computer coding and study media startup case studies. With guidance, research and help from entrepreneurial mentors, students will be encouraged to develop business ideas – new media products, tools or services – and work towards a prototype.
This course will draw on experience, knowledge and in-kind support from a wide community. Initial discussions with the Technology Innovation Management team at Carleton University have been positive. There is potential for members of this successful, entrepreneurship program to help judge pitches and give students access to a real, startup incubator project.
There’s also an important role for the mainstream media. These organizations must encourage intrapreneurialism within their ranks. They should welcome and recognize students with new and different skills that often go well beyond those who are doing the hiring. Traditional media firms should look to developing new partnerships with universities to further open up a two-way street when it comes to media innovation education.
This course, Media Innovation and Entrepreneurial Journalism, would greatly benefit from the creation of an ecosystem, both at the university, and throughout the larger community.
At Carleton University, there’s a keen interest from both the faculties of business and information technology to collaborate. It is obvious what the journalism school can gain by accessing the knowledge of business minds and computer developers. The School of Journalism can give back by helping students and professors in other faculties tell their stories and better articulate their messages, by providing writing and pitching lessons.
But the ecosystem reaches out beyond the university. The city of Ottawa has a significant technology industry. In fact, the head of Invest Ottawa, Bruce Lazenby says he’s impressed with this initiative and has offered the support of his economic development engine and startup incubator. There is potential for internships, partnerships, mentoring, incubation, investment, enterprise, and growth.
There are new ways to tell and deliver stories, to create jobs and make money within the changing media landscape. A recent Poynter NewsU webinar reinforced the idea that in this changing, digital environment we must “embrace the chaos”. Some see crisis, but they should look closer, if they open their eyes wider, they’ll see opportunity.
Nay-sayers should meet fourth year students like Emma Paling and Megan McClean and click on broketheblog.com. These are two women who decided to turn a passion into something that people want to read and follow. They know this is just a start. But they also now know they’re creating and learning. They’re now interested in knowing more about the business of journalism. I have an idea where they might acquire those new skills.