Jay Rosen and the Studio 20 experience

IMG_0019It was difficult not to make my first question to Jay Rosen – “so what’s up with this new, dream team media venture you’ve joined?”

Rosen teaches journalism at New York University. But he announced recently on his PressThink blog that he’s spending his 2014 sabbatical with NewCo. That’s the working name of the big project that eBay founder, Pierre Omidyar and former Guardian reporter Glen Greenwald are currently developing (among several others).

This is quite the “launch team”. Greenwald broke what has pretty much become the biggest series of international investigative stories of 2013 – thanks to Edward Snowden and his National Security Agency leaks. Omidyar has very deep pockets. (He’s apparently willing to part with a big chunk of money for this endeavour.) And Rosen has a solid reputation as a journalism critic and innovator. (Listen to NPR‘s take on Omidyar and his project.)

BUT – that wasn’t my first question, nor was it why I chose to visit Rosen. I had come to talk to him about Studio 20.

In this NYU class, graduate journalism students “focus on innovation and adapting journalism to the web”. They help develop cutting edge solutions for a variety of mainstream media companies. It’s a diverse mix of students including broadcasters, writers and some non-journalists with an interest in new media.

“Some are working in journalism and are frustrated with the pace of change,” said Rosen.

They come to NYU to share their skills and acquire new ones – immersed in what Rosen calls the studio approach.

Click here to watch video from NYU

Click photo to watch video from NYU

“Our method is to teach by doing,” said Rosen. “We do this with media partners and it always includes innovation.”

The current project consuming these 15 students (mostly women) is helping MIT’s Technology Review build a new, tech news aggregator. On the day I visit, the students are quizzing their client about his organization’s needs, interests and constraints. I can tell they’ve done their homework. They know the magazine and its content and they have good ideas about how to make this new aggregator a success.

“We’re like a consulting company paid in problems. No money changes hands,” said Rosen. “Having a real problem makes it a good problem.”

One student is the project manager. She takes copious notes. The final deliverable will be a report that all the students will contribute to over the next three weeks.

Unlike other entrepreneurial, new media courses, Studio 20 students work to create something new inside established media firms, rather than trying to start something completely new, from scratch. It’s a different model, perhaps one that helps understand how to change from within, as in intrapreneurship –something many traditional organizations desperately need.

This knack for innovating from within is something Rosen obviously takes to NewCo.

I did get around to asking him about that little project. He calls it exciting and says he’s looking forward to contributing to the planning. He’s just “one voice at the table.”

In his PressThink  blog post Rosen explains what NewCo is expected to be: “an up-to-date technology company resting inside the news company… also important: building a learning culture within the organization. (NewCo has to be its own J-school or it cannot succeed.)”

I’ll look forward to hearing about the kinds of problems Rosen and Studio 20’s class tackles when (if?) he returns to NYU in 2015.


Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY

IMG_1517Just 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 just 100 students.

“I’ve been teaching this from the beginning,” said Jeff Jarvis, the entrepreneurial journalism professor and author.

“I was brought in to be the interactive, crazy guy.”

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.  And it teaches big “E” entrepreneurialism.

“I insist students must do for-profit businesses,” said Jarvis. “They need to understand how to make journalism sustainable…and we teach ethics early in the term.”

In an earlier post about MIT’s Centre for Civic Media I talked about Ethan Zuckerman’s discomfort with entrepreneurial journalism and his preference for the non-profit type. Zuckerman and Jarvis know each other, and I’m sure have lively debates.

So what Jarvis and his colleagues, including Jeremy Caplan, encourage is the actual development and creation of start-ups as course projects. Each of the 15 students comes up with a business plan. Some of these projects make it beyond the classroom, some don’t. Then there are CUNY graduates who take their innovative ideas and made them work inside a mainstream media organization. (Some call this intrapreneurialism.)

“The goal is to make them more literate in business. And past graduation there’s mentoring.”

On my morning at CUNY, I sit in on Caplan and Jarvis’s class. They’re practicing their elevator pitches. All the students have been developing projects since September. Now each needs to be able to explain it in 4 minutes – they must clearly, concisely sell their plan.

Journalism Class at CUNY

Click photo to see the journalism Class at CUNY

The first few are pretty clunky. Jarvis points out their weaknesses including “up-talking, verbal ticks and lack of eye-contact.” But the main point these profs are pushing is the clear delivery of their key message – one that must be ready to present to potential investors and consumers by the next class.

“You need to sell it,” Jarvis said to the students. “I’m a reader, or an investor, you need to convince me this is a viable business. And you need to anticipate my questions.”

Over the past 10 weeks, these budding entrepreneurs have been taught that their businesses must be based on a solution to a problem. Many of the solutions in the room involve creating a niche website for a particular community in New York.

One is a news forum dedicated to “queer” news (both curated and original) in NYC. Another student is developing a site for artists in the Bronx to advertise what’s being ignored in that part of the city. A South-Asian arts magazine is the last pitch I hear. It’s already up and running, has advertisers and allows readers to buy stuff on-line.

The course pushes the students to research potential business models, audience and competition. They need to develop a budget with expected costs and cash flow. They build charts to show their enterprise’s hopeful revenue trajectory.

To close this day’s class, Jarvis welcomes in a guest – a former student who has made good. Annaliese Griffin is Editor-in-Chief of Brooklyn Based.  “The best source for events, food and cultural news in the borough.”

Brooklyn Based has a web presence and produces an email newsletter to keep subscribers up to date with events, people and places in Brooklyn. It makes money through events and advertising. It’s a good example of what can be accomplished. But Griffin gives the students a reality check. Nurturing a fledgling business means hard work, little sleep, a lot of hustle and tough decisions.

CUNY doesn’t sugar coat the business of journalism. But it does provide skills that will help reporters and editors whether they work within a traditional organization or create their own. It may be “for profit”, but that doesn’t necessarily mean making a whole lot of money.  It does mean making journalism, creating a buzz. Like any kind of entrepreneurialism it means trying, failing and trying again.

What’s in a Name?

IMG_1433My recent conversation with Ethan Zuckerman at the MIT Centre for Civic Media was, so far, the most interesting of all my visits with media scholars. That’s because it wasn’t at all what I expected from someone at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — and someone with personal experience with start-ups.

Zuckerman is an academic, author, blogger and “internet activist”. He’s also director of the Centre.  That’s where I met him – at his office – first thing one cool November morning in Cambridge. He was wearing purple socks and sipping diet coke.

Zuckerman obviously cares a lot about journalism and holds a special place for public journalism. This we agree on. But he’s not such a big fan of the entrepreneurial kind – at least entrepreneurial journalism by Zuckerman’s definition.

“I no longer believe for-profit is the way to go,” said Zuckerman. “Entrepreneurial journalism is a myth.”

MIT campus

Click photo to see video inside MIT media lab

Zuckerman is pushing to “make it free.” He says journalism can be subsidized by foundations, governments or the “fan model”: such as subscriptions/donations for public radio.

This “entrepreneurial” discussion was a bit intense, and like I say, not what I expected. It was also a debate I was clearly not going to win. But that’s because I really think my meaning of entrepreneurial journalism is actually very close to what Zuckerman embraces – we just call it something different.

I believe entrepreneurialism is: innovation, a willing to take risks, differentiating from the mainstream, knowing how to brand, sell and figuring out how to make original reporting sustainable. Sometimes that’s for-profit, sometimes that’s non-profit, sometimes it’s inside a mainstream media operation sometimes it’s building a start-up.

“I call it Civic Journalism,” said Zuckerman of what to call it.

He says the entrepreneur is concerned with the bottom line – and fails to look at the “second bottom line” which is the evaluation of social good produced by a media organization.

But I wasn’t there for the debate. I wanted to hear about the cool stuff his group is developing at MIT.  So here it is:

vojo: This is the kind of innovative, socially conscious journalism Zuckerman is talking about.

“Vojo.co is a hosted mobile blogging platform that makes it easy for people to post stories from inexpensive mobile phones via voice calls…Our goal is to foster greater inclusion in the digital public sphere.” (website)

Between the Bars: This initiative provides a blog platform for prison inmates. These blogs start out as posted mail.

“It’s a way to reach out to those not in the traditional media,” said Zuckerman.

Between the bars has published close to 8,000 posts. These letters provide some “insight into life in the world’s largest incarceration system.”

Controversy Mapper: This tool helps breakdown complicated stories. Zuckerman: “Tools to look at who was influencing whom over the days of a story.”

It analyses how a big story spreads and evolves over a period of time. The team tracked the Trayvon Martin story on all platforms and social media. Read it.

This journalism research centre at MIT is obviously a great marriage between innovation and social good. Is it entrepreneurial? According to my definition it is. I think I need find a better name for this thing.

Public Radio Exchange – Cambridge, Mass.


At the PRX offices  in Cambridge, journalists and web developers put their heads together to reinvent radio. By marrying this elderly service with the digital medium, this organization is finding new ways to tickle the ear buds.

“They put innovative ideas to practice,” said Rekha Murthy about the PRX team – of which she is a member. Murthy is director of projects and partnerships and a former MIT fellow (MIT is just a couple train stops away.) Her business card reads: Making public radio more public.

PRX is a “younger upstart network”, explained Murthy. “It’s a nonprofit, web-based platform for the digital distribution, review and licensing of radio shows.”

Basically, radio programming is posted by individual producers who maintain rights to the work. You need a membership to post and retrieve material. CBC Radio’s Quirks and Quarks and The Vinyl Café are both distributed on this site.

“PRX is also a growing social network and community of listeners, producers, and stations collaborating to reshape public radio.” (PRX website)

It’s not long into our conversation before Murthy mentions Jay Allison’s
involvement in PRX. Allison, Executive Director of Atlantic Public Media, is a known quantity among public journalism audiophiles across North America. (I am one.) I first heard this sound curator’s gospel at a Nieman Narrative conference about a decade ago right here in Cambridge. His creative ideas for the use of sound, voice and character development are award winning and well known to listeners of This American Life (among other programs).

“Jay came up with the new technologies for transferring audio files,” said Murthy.
Thus PRX was born. There are now hundreds of purchasing stations across the U.S. and more than 50,000 audio works in its portfolio.

Here are some of the cool things PRX is also involved in:

Reveal: This is an investigative journalism program that is produced in partnership between PRX and the Centre for Investigative Reporting.

“Reveal. There’s more to the story.”

This pilot project is aimed at telling compelling, original investigations to mobile, web and radio audiences.

“It takes a strong digital first approach,” said Murthy. “Even the Reveal pilot got a reaction from Congress.”

Reveal’s first investigation looked into U.S. veterans being over-prescribed painkillers. The radio program is now looking for stable funding.

Matter.vc:  This is an incubator for emerging, “scalable” media ventures. Its intention is to develop an ecosystem for social entrepreneurship.

“It’s for companies that are slightly formed, but feel they could use mentorship and money to grow,” said Murthy.

This is how Matter works: The start-ups with the bright ideas get $50,000 and five months to work on a prototype, find customers and see if it can build an audience. First the team goes through a bootcamp. The entrepreneurs get exposure through design reviews, a demo day in San Francisco and a media showcase in New York City.

The Moth Radio hour:  This show is all about storytelling.

“Moth storytellers stand alone, under a spotlight, with only a microphone and a roomful of strangers.” (PRX website)

Moth StorySLAM competitions started in New York City, but they’ve now spread across the country. The best stories end up on The Moth Radio Hour. And for those who need a bit of help and encouragement to share their tales, there are Moth’s community outreach workshops, MothShop. There’s also a Moth Pitch Line — online. Weekly episodes of Moth are available on PRX. In 2010, the program won a Peabody award. The judges described the show: “Storytelling, likely the oldest art, is revered and reinvigorated by this hour for everyday raconteurs.”

So back to those journalists and web developers who brainstorm together at PRX. It’s easy to see why journalists would want to work on innovative public radio, but why computer geeks who could likely find the technology sector much more lucrative?

“They have a passion, a dedication. Sure they could make more money elsewhere. But they want to work here,” said Murthy with a smile.

A visit to Nieman Lab – Cambridge, Mass.

nieman pic 1nieman pic 2

Not far from Harvard Square, down a cobblestone path, is an historic New England mansion housing the Nieman Journalism Lab.

This is where great journalists come – Nieman Fellows – to think, reflect, listen and share ideas about the state of the industry. And given the current climate of this business, there’s plenty of reflection and thought needed when it comes to moving forward.

Josh Benton is director of the Nieman Lab.

“It’s a newsroom and think tank,” explained Benton. “A mix of technology, journalism and academia.”

After offering me a cup of green tea we sit down to chat in a parlor with big comfy chairs, surrounded by floor to ceiling bookshelves. After hashing out the problems facing journalism and how it’s been disrupted by great innovations, we move on to the next next thing.

Inside Harvard Nieman

Click photo to see video inside Harvard Nieman

“Mobile is now first,” said Benton.

At Nieman, a lot of time is spent looking at how new applications and platforms are coming on-line, what’s working, what’s making money, what’s changing the story. Here are just a few projects/organizations Benton highlights:

NowThis news:  is a start-up that produces news videos for a young audience. It was founded by former Huffington Post guys: Kenneth Lerer and Eric Hippeau. This company produces more than 50 daily video updates for Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Vine and Youtube. The video items are produced in small, digestible 6, 15 or 30 second chunks, to be viewed on mobile and tablet devices. These micro stories are presented by fast talkers with faster music running in the background. This is definitely designed to deliver quick news to a specific audience.

PBS Digital Studio on Youtube: This is a network of web-original content from PBS and member stations from across the United States. “Not your average PBS” as its twitter profile notes. Benton says these videos are designed specifically for the digital medium and “they work”. (Here’s a Forbe’s review.) These 3-8 minute videos include a popular remix of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood that went viral with more than 9 million views so far. PBS Digital content is “educational and intellectual” and created for a youtube audience. Check out the Julia Child remix. The video is beautifully edited with music, sound. And the producers obviously did their research to understand and appreciate the character.

 iPolitics: Yes, he had a Canadian example. In fact, this guy Benton is a Canadaphile. (This comes up a couple of times during my visit and at one point a Nieman staffer walks by and laughs in our direction – Benton is apparently known for his odd love affair with his northern neighbour.) So he likes iPolitics and says it’s created some “unique opportunities”. I, too, am a fan, but would like to see even more creative digital-first journalism  coming out of this hopeful start-up.

While Benton has great respect for Canucks, he also scolds us for not having nearly 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 enterprising academic discussion and encouraging a media start-up culture.

We have our work cut out for us.

An Evening with Chart Girl at MIT


I have to admit, when I do complicated stories, I think in charts. I’ve now encountered someone else whose mind works the same way – and she may just parlay her chart making into a business.

Hilary Sargent is Chart Girl. (That’s her logo up top.) She’s a journalist with a keen interest in investigations who likes to visualize stories in the form of boxes and bubbles – useful tools to describe sometimes very confusing and convoluted news stories.

Her website, chartgirl.com features her very first chart – produced last November about the David Petraeus Affair in the U.S.. That story about the former CIA director (Petraeus) was a confusing web of sexual affairs, FBI investigations and messy media coverage. After a discussion with a friend, Sargent broke it down into a chart scribbled on a piece of paper. Then Boing Boing posted it and Chart Girl was born.

Now Sargent uses software tools to present her elaborate charts on everything from the misinformation spread after the Boston Marathon bombing to the Rob Ford scandal.

“My brain is now rewired for charting,” said Sargent last week at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in Boston.

As a guest of the Comparative Media Studies and Writing program at MIT, Sargent chatted about her trajectory from journalism grad to new mom to chartgirl.com being named one of Time Magazine’s Best 50 Websites of 2013.

(She’s also done a lot of non-journalism work as an investigator for law firms, corporations, NGOs and political campaigns.)

With no formal training in graphic design, Sargent’s site features several different kinds of charts. Her artful story-telling process has now been featured by Reuters, AtlanticWire, Business Insider and her investigative skills have also come in handy lately at the Boston Globe.

I think it’s a very cool way to visualize information on the web. Like so many journalists these days she’s self taught when it comes to acquiring new technology skills. But what would make her charts even better would be to make them more interactive, rather than static – and if these charts were easily viewed on tablet and mobile platforms. (I only had my ipad at MIT and couldn’t read the content.)

But Sargent has inspired me. On big, complicated investigations I ALWAYS do charts – but with sharpies and big sheets of paper. Many times I’ve sold an original story to a producer after breaking it down to its essential parts on a chart. Web developers have built those charts to accompany my stories. Now I’m learning how to build my own. Thanks Chart Girl!

Books enterprising Journalists should read

book pic

Entrepreneurial Journalism, Mark Briggs

This book is a great primer for the topic. Briggs is an enterprising  journalist in Seattle where he co-founded the start-up, Serra Media. His other books are used as texts in several journalism courses. I like this book because it gives a lot of great examples of media sites and services that journalists have developed in the past few years. It covers both the for-profit and non-profit sectors, explains the development of business plans and encourages creative risk-taking. He and others at ONA 13 helped me with my Aha moment.

Curation Nation, Steven Rosenbaum

This was recommended to me by the CEO of a small, Ottawa tech firm. It’s written by a journalist and it’s really geared towards people in this industry. I like the history the book provides about very early developers — including the founder of Reader’s digest — a great example of curation long before the internet. Rosenbaum is also an entrepreneur (Magnify.net). His thesis is that the information available on line is developing at break-neck speed and we need people to organize and curate that info — who best to do it but journalists?

Crowdsourcing: How the Power of Crowds is Driving the Future of Business, Jeff Howe

I recently met Jeff Howe at Northeastern University in Boston where he now teaches. This long-time writer at Wired actually coined the phrase, crowdsourcing. This is a really interesting read about how harnessing the crowd has created some very innovative and successful companies and projects. It was written in 2008 so a lot has changed, but this book is still relevant.

The Innovators Dilemma, Clayton Christensen

Christensen is a business administration professor at Harvard. This is not about journalists or journalism, but there’s much to be learned about business and innovation from this book. Christensen also been quoted in important interviews and reports about how his thesis applies to the journalism industry. This author explains what disruptive technology is and how it can drastically change industries and force once stable companies to evolve or die.

What would Google do? Jeff Jarvis

Jarvis teaches Entrepreneurial Journalism at City University New York (CUNY) and writes a blog: Buzzmachine. This book was written in 2009, but again has some lasting examples of how new technology can disrupt an industry. It’s a good book on a company that’s had a massive impact on what we do.

Newsonomics, Ken Doctor

Doctor’s book  has a companion website and blog. He also files frequently for Nieman Journalism Lab. This book has something to offer to journalism students in particular with the chapter: For Journalists’ Jobs It’s Back-to-the-Future. He also talks about the pain reporters and big media needs to endure before making it to the other side.

Where Good Ideas come from, Steven Johnson

Students ask me constantly where I get my ideas. I say, often by exercising critical thinking skills, by networking, sharing and brainstorming. This book isn’t about finding journalism story ideas, rather it’s about entrepreneurship and scientific discovery. It’s about taking risk and using critical thinking to invent. Steven Johnson presents an interesting TED talks about his ideas on the development of innovation.