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    In Digital Age, Journalism Students Need Business, Entrepreneurial Skills

    by Mark Glaser
    January 30, 2008

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    “We live in an entrepreneurial age, not an institutional one. That’s been true of many professions for quite a while, and increasingly (and perhaps somewhat belatedly) it is true of journalism. The people having the most satisfying careers, it seems to me, are those who create a distinct signature for their work — who add value to the public conversation through their individual talents — rather than relying mostly on the reputation and institutional gravity of the organization they work for.” — John Harris, telling PressThink why he left the Washington Post for Politico.com

    The traditional path of a journalism career has clearly shifted. In the past, a journalism student would learn about being a newspaper reporter, then take a job at a small-town paper, eventually moving up to a medium and then larger paper. Now, the reporter might launch a blog, an audio podcast or video reports as a one-person operation, handling editorial and business duties simultaneously.

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    While Harris left the Post for a well funded startup in Politico (part of Allbritton Communications), there have been many examples of journalists who have created their own mini-media enterprises online: Rafat Ali at PaidContent, Om Malik at GigaOm, Debra Galant at BaristaNet, Josh Marshall at TPM Media, Henry Abbott at TrueHoop (now owned by ESPN), and on and on. But journalism schools have been slow to teach the necessary business and entrepreneurial skills that many graduates will need.

    One of the exceptions to that rule is an entrepreneurial journalism class at City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism, taught by longtime BuzzMachine blogger and the school’s director of interactive journalism, Jeff Jarvis. Last fall, the students in the first class learned about the shifting digital landscape and how advertising works online, and came up with their own startup ideas. A jury of journalism and business experts chose which projects would get some of the $50,000 in seed money Jarvis had raised from the McCormick Tribune Foundation.

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    Jeff Jarvis

    “It’s important for journalists to understand how to sustain the business of news,” Jarvis told me via email. “That is my not-so-hidden agenda in teaching the entrepreneurial journalism course. When I came up in the business, we were told not to sully our hands with business — indeed, we didn’t have to when we worked for monopolies. But today, we must give jouranlists an understanding of business so they can make good decisions as journalists and managers, so they can work independently (as more and more of them will), and so they can sustain journalism.”

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    I spoke to Daniel Massey, one of the CUNY students who won a grant for his startup idea in the class, a sort of “reverse Digg,” where people would vote up story ideas for editors before they were written. The site, called Day2Story.com, got $15,000 in seed money, but Massey said that he opted for a steady gig as a reporter at Crain’s New York Business, with plans to do the website as a side project. Massey was most impressed with the way Jarvis drove home that students need to learn how the journalism business is changing.

    “I don’t think it’s something that we didn’t think of before,” Massey said. “It might have been something we were aware of, but now it’s in your face and opens your eyes to the possibilities that are out there. There are other options, whereas five or ten years ago there was a pretty clear path [in traditional journalism]. It’s kind of daunting, because you graduate and the options are limitless.”

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    Daniel Massey

    Jarvis wrote a blog post about the lessons he learned from the first class, and noted that the seed money was only a first step in helping j-school students take the startup route. “We need an incubator,” he wrote. “These businesses need ongoing advice and nurturing.”

    One of the speakers in the class was Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, who told me that j-schools do need to teach students more about business realities, but that they can only go so far.

    “I got the sense that [the students] have a grasp on the rapid change in the market and that’s helping them out,” Newmark said. “But they, like everyone else, are struggling to connect with the change and prepare themselves for the wild ride. They are clued-in but no one knows what’s going to happen. They’re in the awkward position in that the nature of the world is changing as they take the class.”

    Boom and Bust and Back at Berkeley

    While CUNY might be the first school to actually award seed money to journalism entrepreneurs, it’s far from the first j-school to run entrepreneurial classes. At the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, there was a class called “Journalism and Business Models Online” in 1999, with students from the journalism school, business school and school of information.

    According to the journalism school’s director of new media, Paul Grabowicz, the class went on hiatus after the dot-com crash in 2002 when business school students lost interest. However, a new class at Berkeley, Launching an Entrepreneurial Business just started this week, with j-school assistant dean Marcia Parker and business school lecturer David Charron co-teaching the class.

    Grabowicz told me that journalism schools have been remiss in teaching business skills to students, and that in the new media realm, the business side is being melded with editorial more than ever.

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    Paul Grabowicz

    “If you look at new media, the business side was intruding,” Grabowicz said. “If you want to do advertising right, it has to be customized, personalized and the ads orbit around the same kind of content. So there was this idea that it was a threat and not an opportunity. Now it looks like there’s renewed interest in this area…Even if you divide up the responsiblities, and you have a team of reporters and a team of business people, there will still be a lot of overlap there and you have to confront it somehow.”

    Marcia Parker, who is teaching the new entrepreneurial class at Berkeley, said that it was the students who pushed for the class, and even helped shape the curriculum.

    “Entrepreneurial skills are essential for all journalists these days,” Parker told me via email. “Our business is becoming more entrepreneurial all the time. I don’t think j-schools do enough in this field. Many of our students are hungering for these skills…While not everyone will want to start their own businesses, they need to understand that drive and bring that spirit into even traditional newsrooms that are looking to create new editorial products and services.”

    NewAssignment.net founder and New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen agrees that not every student is ready to start their own media outlet, but that some of the best opportunities are going to be in media startups. Rosen said NYU doesn’t have an entrepreneurial journalism class but he does teach about online entrepreneurs in his “Rise of the Web” class. In an email response to me, Rosen explained how he sees things changing — and staying the same:

    It seems to me that for a great many journalists, the old model will continue. That is, there will still be jobs with Big Media companies that do not really require the journalist to think entrepreneurially but simply to “do the job.” The economic survival of the franchise will continue to be someone else’s concern, primarily. However, this will be a smaller percentage of the total and those journalists will have less exciting work.

    What’s different today is not that every journalist has to be an entrepreneur or think about striking out on her own; to say that would be hype, an overreaction and inaccurate. Rather, it’s that some of the best opportunities lie in that direction. And for young people there is less of a need to wait for your shot at glory and high achievement. So for those who are extremely talented, ambitious and focused on succeeding in journalism, you “have” to be entrepreneurial in the sense that you would be foolish not to think that way.

    Dealing with Conflicts of Interest

    For journalists who do launch their own online ventures, the “one-man-band” model means that they have to sell advertising and also write the editorial — leading to obvious conflicts of interest. Two such journalist/entrepreneurs I spoke with, PaidContent’s Rafat Ali and BaristaNet’s Debra Galant, said that the conflicts can be very real, but that transparency and openness was the best way of dealing with them.

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    Debra Galant

    Galant had written for the New York Times before, and said that ethical standards are a bit different at the Baristanet blog.

    “At the Times, someone couldn’t spend $5 on you or people would freak out,” she said. “We’re not that pure, but because it’s open and people can say things in comments, we have our own standards. We will write about a restaurant whether they advertise with us or not. And if they do advertise, we won’t say that we can’t write about it…But we play it a bit closer to the line. Sometimes if we do a positive review, readers will say, ‘Next week there will be an ad from them!’ If they want to say that, we don’t delete the comment, it is what it is. By the way, the local newspaper does the same thing.”

    Ali says that PaidContent discloses any conflicts, and has had to deal with angry advertisers who were upset with critical blog posts. After running the business and editorial sides of the site for three years, Ali hired more people to deal with the business and ad sales. “Journalists have zero sales skills,” he said. “I had to learn that on the job.”

    For the budding entrepreneurial journalist, Ali recommends learning not only about running an online site but offline community-building events as well.

    “If you buy into the argument that media companies are about community, there has to be some way of bringing the community together, whether it’s offline or online,” he said. “That’s where the events come in. So sites like ours have to think about events pretty soon in their lifecycle, because it helps think about how to bring people together, how to market the site and other things.”

    In one intermingling of editorial and business, PaidContent had a roundtable discussion in London about the mobile industry, and had the underwriter invite the speakers and book the venue. But Ali was still free to ask the participants whatever questions he wanted and could lead the discussion freely. “It was a balancing act we were doing there but the discussion came out pretty well and we put it online as a video,” he said. “So the sponsor got to sponsor it and we got the content, and it worked for both of us.”

    As the editorial and advertising lines blur online, journalist-entrepreneurs need to balance business needs and income with the integrity of their editorial operation. If they lose the trust of their readers, they lose everything. Berkeley’s Grabowicz told me that journalists need to take off their traditional blinders about advertising and business models even as they maintain their ethics.

    “My view is that you need to start treating advertising as content,” he said. “It’s not just the thing that pays our paychecks and otherwise we want to flee from it. Once you realize that, then you think about how to preserve your credibility, and tell people, ‘yes we take advertising’ and show people that it doesn’t affect the editorial. It’s going to require more transparency, which frankly is a healthy thing. It’s not like this fiction that advertising was never there before. The public generally felt that it was affecting the editorial, so there’s an opportunity to explain this to people and distinguish ourselves from sites that don’t care [about a separation between ads and editorial].”

    Dan Gillmor is another former traditional journalist who is pushing for more entrepreneurial training, as he has gone from the San Jose Mercury News to the Center for Citizen Media and now becoming the founding director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. Gillmor explained via email how j-schools could address shortcomings in entrepreneurial teaching, while also emphasizing ethics:

    By creating programs that, among many other things, a) help students understand the business side of journalism; b) cross academic boundaries; c) inspire intelligent risk-taking; d) and connect students with people who’ve done it before. That’s a start, but only a start…

    What we need to keep emphasizing is that the principles of honorable journalism — thoroughness, accuracy, fairness, independence and (a new one) transparency — remain vital. When the boundaries get more difficult to discern, the transparency becomes all the more important. That said, the distance is something to preserve if possible. But we have to acknowledge that advertiser/powerful-friend influence over traditional media is a longstanding reality. When was the last time anyone saw serious journalism about a newspaper’s or TV station’s biggest advertiser?

    What do you think about journalism schools teaching more business and entrepreneurial skills for students? Should they become a requirement or are they only necessary for a minority of students who want to start up publications? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

    UPDATE: I heard from consultant and online expert Vin Crosbie, who is now teaching a New Media Business class at the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. Crosbie doesn’t believe that one class in entrepreneurship will give journalism students enough foundation to build a business. Here’s part of what he said to me via email:

    I don’t like the idea of a j-school dickering around with entrepreneurial efforts unless the school has first given its students a thorough foundation in how, where, when, and why the business of new media differs from that of traditional media. Taking journalism students, giving them a course in entrepreneurship, and then thinking that you’ve properly prepared them is like taking carpenters, training them how to use a shovel and pick, and thinking that you’ve prepared them to be gold miners. It’s dilatantish. I’d rather first give them at least a course in geology.

    So, I spend a week teaching them the general theories of new
    media…I spend a week on mass marketing versus permission marketing. A week on new media’s unique privacy and legal issues. A
    week on the comparative economics of new media and mass media. A week studying the Internet timeline and what Web 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0 (semantic web) are. A week learning the ‘alphabet soup’ (CSS, RSS, XML, NewsML, P2P, 3G, etc.). A week studying cultural and geographic differences (why are the Koreans are ahead in mobile, the Scandinavians ahead at online newspapers, the Singaporeans at community sites, etc.). And a week on megatrends and the ‘creative destruction’ in numerous media industries.

    The fact is that if they’re really good most journalists will get promoted into middle or upper management of their media companies. That’s as true for online journalists as it’s always been for those in traditional media. Perhaps some of my students will decide to work for themselves after graduation and thus be entrepreneurs, in which case they’ll use some of what I’ve taught them. But the majority will work for existing media companies and thus also need to know all these things.

    Tagged: digital journalist education journalism weblog
    • Doug

      Not trying to start a war, but …

      Is anyone thinking about charging for their work, particularly where ad-free, high-quality video journalism and documentaries are concerned?

      I would guess that many consumers would consider subscribing to something like that, if the price was reasonable (say, $5 per month).

      Anyone have any thoughts?

    • Doug

      Not trying to start a war, but …

      Is anyone thinking about charging for their work, particularly where ad-free, high-quality video journalism and documentaries are concerned?

      I would guess that many consumers would consider subscribing to something like that, if the price was reasonable (say, $5 per month).

      Anyone have any thoughts?

    • Doug, it seems to me that if The New York Times can’t charge for its content and even The Wall Street Journal toys with the idea of freeing up more of its content, hardly anybody could make a Web subscription work, excellent video or no.

      Mark, excellent, eye-opening post, especially the part about conflict-of-interest standards at sites like BaristaNet. That’s quite a line those folks have to walk.

      I’m one of those journalists who grew up in the era when we simply didn’t sully our hands with business considerations. They were somebody else’s problem. In these days of buyouts and layoffs (even at the privately owned paper where I work), it’s obvious that the financial end is everybody’s problem. It’s good to see that at least some J-schools are teaching that.

    • Doug, it seems to me that if The New York Times can’t charge for its content and even The Wall Street Journal toys with the idea of freeing up more of its content, hardly anybody could make a Web subscription work, excellent video or no.

      Mark, excellent, eye-opening post, especially the part about conflict-of-interest standards at sites like BaristaNet. That’s quite a line those folks have to walk.

      I’m one of those journalists who grew up in the era when we simply didn’t sully our hands with business considerations. They were somebody else’s problem. In these days of buyouts and layoffs (even at the privately owned paper where I work), it’s obvious that the financial end is everybody’s problem. It’s good to see that at least some J-schools are teaching that.

    • True Hoops is actually owned by ESPN, not the NBA.

    • If I knew how to do all the things you say reporters should be trained to do, why would I want to work for a media corporation instead of myself or a small company? BTW: I do all those things myself and have my own company after 30 years in the corporate media. I only wish they had computers, DV and and Internet in 1976. I would’ve never worked in a newsroom and never missed it.

    • Mark,

      Great post. Thank you for bringing up this (still somewhat touchy?) subject. I’m on the Medill alumni listserv, and as that journalism school continues through its curriculum transition, there’s been a lot of discussion about how much business-savvy journalists (of all focuses — writing/editing, digital media, television, etc.) really need or should have. I say “more”, others say “less” or “none”.

    • Mike McQueen

      This article is right on-point as to what journalism schools should be teaching. I’m a former journalism department chair. In 2000, our faculty sat down and considered all of the changing media landscape, first, and then what it means for journalists second. We held seminars where we got ideas from the leading thinkers in the field of journalism and in journalism education. Then we revamped the school’s curriculum to incorporate all the thoughts we heard.
      We did, as a faculty, think that media convergence ought to be the principal thing we teach journalism students, even though convergence is what prompted us to rethink our curriculum.
      These are the areas we thought ought to be emphasized, in roughly this order.

      1. The old-school skills of grammar, composition and critical thinking. Convergence, business acumen, all of that stuff is nice. But we are teaching people skills so that they can acquire a legitimate four-year college degree. Every college student, particularly journalists, damn well ought to know these three basic things as a condition of getting a degree.

      2. Knowledge of the world around us, and knowledge of the principal areas that journalists are likely to encounter. That means required courses in the subjects that make up the Western civilization tradition: history, philosophy, economics, political science, etc. Again, the thinking here was: No one should get a college degree without being properly educated in the Western tradition.

      3. We found the biggest challenge facing journalism graduates, after these two areas, was a lack of visual literacy. What makes up a good newspaper page? A good website? What are the visual communication principles at work here? That was a required set of courses totaling 6 credit hours, or about a fifth of their journalism courses. (This also included instruction in videography, video editing and digital photography.)

      4. Next, journalism graduates needed the tools to make sound decisions: They need to know the history and traditions of their craft; they need to know the ethical principles that guide it; they need to know the wider world of mass communication and point-to-point communication to make smart business decisions. Inclusive in this area was a course on the business of journalism, as well as your tradition journalism history class, journalism ethics class, press law class and mass communication theory class.

      5. Next, we operate in a multicultural world. Far too many journalists understand suburbia, but not urban area, immigration issues, sex and gender issues, etc. This was a separate class.

      6. Students needed advanced tools to be better reporters and editors. That meant instruction in computer-assisted reporting, instruction in basic mathematical skills most often encountered by journalists and other social-scientific methods. This course was generally taught by either an experienced computer-assisted reporting expert or by a journalism librarian trained in research and investigative reporting.

      7. We instituted an honors sequence for students with advanced skills.

      8. Over the objections of some in the industry, we did not require students to get an internship as a condition of graduation. We understand very well the industry’s argument: Students need real-world experience to get a job in a field as competitive as journalism. But there are three considerations that were more persuasive for us: First and foremost, students need get a proper college education. That does not require them to have an internship in their chosen profession, although it would be nice. So, academics trumps the industry in this regard, and faculties are first and foremost training students to be critical thinkers. Second, the best students know they need experience and they either get it outside the university or work for student publications. They don’t need a mandate to do what they know is the right thing. Therefore, who really benefits from a required internship? We believe it is the mediocre or the poor student or the student with no real interest in pursuing journalism as a career. As some of you know, the overwhelming number of students studying journalism are doing so because, in their words, “there’s no math involved.” As the department chair, I did not want my university represented in the work-world by students with such tepid attitudes about the grand profession of journalism.

    • Probably for spatial reasons (?), Mark G omitted a paragraph outlining the other half of my graduate school course at Syracuse U.:

      “I then spend a week teaching them banner and ‘rich media’ advertising. A week learning search engine optimization. A week about online ad metrics. A week about e-mail publishing and e-mail marketing. A week about how and when to charge for online content. A week about individualization and customization (‘personalization’) of content. A week learning streaming media, podcasting, and vodcasting. A week about on-demand video and audio. A week about publishing or broadcasting to mobile devices. A week about e-paper and PDF editions. A week about community sites and virtual worlds. And a week about viral marketing and online PR.”

      Even then, my course is only an overview.

      Mark M: There are plenty of examples of how and when successfully to charge for online content (for example, Consume Reports, ESPN, Playboy, etc.). There is no one rule about this; factors such as type of content, target audience, nature of publisher (B2C, B2B, other?), competitive quality of content, competitive situations among similar publishers/broadcasters, etc., play crucial roles. However, many journalists who consider their work “high quality” tend to overlook all the other other factors.

    • Tom Foremski

      Journalists don’t need entrepreneurial skills anymore than any other profession. It’s nice if you can get them but it won’t improve your journalism. I am a journalist/media entrepreneur with my site Silicon Valley Watcher, and others. But most journalists just want to go out and talk to people, come back and write–then go home. And do it again the next day…

    • Don’t forget Laurel Touby, who sold her Mediabistro to Jupitermedia for $23 million.

    • I think we’ve come to a point where every journalist needs to start thinking about the business of journalism. If we want to stay in this industry we need to be part of what sustains it, and that probably means thinking about new business models and revenue sources, or at the very least new ways to build audience. Saying such things are someone else’s job seems like asking to get laid off.

    • Journalism schools should have been teaching these lessons at the very least 20 years ago. I spent nearly 20 years working for newspapers. In 1992 after The Dallas Times Herald folded, I attempted to start my own freelance business but didn’t have enough business skills. I went back into the industry and was laid off from The Dallas Morning News in 2002. At that point, I saw no need to return to daily newspapers. I formed my own company, Egiebor Expressions, a public relations/media relations firm that relies heavily on creating journalistic content.

      Last year, I returned to school to work on my MBA because it is the entrepreneurial skills that are keeping my business afloat.

      Journalism has suffered over the years because the individuals � reporters and editors � responsible for content had little understanding of the business of journalism. I think this has a lot to do with why the industry is failing. It is nearly impossible to make a good business decision if you don�t understand the concepts.

    • Journalism schools should have been teaching these lessons at the very least 20 years ago. I spent nearly 20 years working for newspapers. In 1992 after The Dallas Times Herald folded, I attempted to start my own freelance business but didn’t have enough business skills. I went back into the industry and was laid off from The Dallas Morning News in 2002. At that point, I saw no need to return to daily newspapers. I formed my own company, Egiebor Expressions, a public relations/media relations firm that relies heavily on creating journalistic content.

      Last year, I returned to school to work on my MBA because it is the entrepreneurial skills that are keeping my business afloat.

      Journalism has suffered over the years because the individuals reporters and editors responsible for content had little understanding of the business of journalism. I think this has a lot to do with why the industry is failing. It is nearly impossible to make a good business decision if you dont understand the concepts.

    • Journalism needs entrepreneurs because the digital age is turning everything upside down and inside out.

    • Kudos to you, Sharon! (I’m super-envious, by the way.)

      Unfortunately, most students fresh out of school — especially aspiring reporters — don’t have the money to earn an MBA right away, so they grab the first job they can. But herein lies the problem, because if they enter the workplace without these skills, they’re already obsolete. It’s a catch-22, you see.

      J-schools need to find a way to get the best and brightest journalism minds to teach journalism. The stories will tell themselves. But what’s wrong with requiring students to take a separate load of business- or new media-related coursework? Just keep the areas separate.

    • I was a J-school grad from Northwestern earlier this decade, and would say the school did help teach skills that eventually helped me to launch bizCult.com, a news site about China business culture, last month. Back in 2002, I developed a new media portal for class and learned critical news writing and reporting skills. I also had a great economics course.

      But it’s true I learned nothing about being an entrepreneur, least of all in a global environment. Considering J-schools are institutions themselves, they’re probably having a hard time thinking out of the box on the single-man-news-team topic.

      On the other hand, being an entrepreneur is not something learned as much as it is something that arises within oneself as an urge – I suppose much like the desire to be a doctor does.

      In my case, I was tired of the small-town newspaper grind. Tired of working for a niche trade magazine. Tired of working for a Chinese government magazine as a pseudo-editor. I needed to break out with a creative leap of faith, and did with bizCult.com. No school could have taught this.

    • CubReporters.org lists entry-level journalism jobs, paid internships, fellowships, scholarships and more. It’s a can’t miss guide for journalism students.

    • Hernando

      Doug, remember that people will pay for what they want. $5 a month for info I like and well delivered is a great deal.. go for it!!

    • Spanish translation — I´ve translated this into Spanish for the training I do of Latin American journalists. It´s here http://docs.google.com/Doc?id=dd6b5shj_202d8ccpggs&hl=en

    • I certainly wanted some guidelines to do my business ,anyway this is wonderful idea,Thanks

      Thanks and Regards/-
      Jason Webb

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