From about the time I found out journalist was a real job it became my one and only career aspiration. In fact, as a northern California high school student, my decision — a pretty unheard of one at the time — to attend the University of Georgia was almost entirely motivated by the school’s coveted journalism program, which I believed was a critical start to a long reporting life.
After earning my degree in newspapers and climbing the ladder at the student newspaper, The Red & Black, I knew what I had to do: work at the largest daily publication that would have me and hope to God to impress them. In my case, this publication was the Augusta Chronicle, where I spent two and a half years on general assignment, transportation and crime beats. This was dues-paying that every wannabe Lois Lane had to endure. There was a sure-fire path to success, professors and editors taught me, and it always came from job advancements every few years to subsequently larger newspapers until The New York Times came-a-calling.
The problem is this “sure-fire path” has now been replaced by shoddy cobblestone walkways, jagged cliffs on the sides of mountains, all attempted barefoot in pitch-black conditions.
I knew I wanted to stay in this profession, but I needed to become even more marketable and expand the kinds of positions for which I’d be qualified. That realization prompted me to start looking at master’s programs before ultimately settling on the one I will begin next month.
And what I found is that in the world of journalism progression, as the saying goes, the only constant is change, including when it comes to journalism education.
The Twists and Turns of a Modern Journalism Career
Personally, my career has taken unexpected twists and turns, all in the name of learning the expanding skillset now required to stay above water. I spent a year devoted to freelancing, contributing to an array of magazines, web-based outlets and newspapers. A stint in AmeriCorps working for a non-profit that rebuilt homes in post-Katrina Louisiana was a way to learn fundraising, events management and promotions. And most recently, I’ve been the manager of digital strategies at the Newspaper Association of America, trying to relay revenue and audience successes by U.S. dailies and weeklies. As I go, I always hope to keep growing in order to understand every facet of the news industry.
On a larger level, biding time between a variety of positions and journalistic-related pursuits has become a media call of duty for all, not just me.
Journalists are no longer just the people who show up at city hall meetings, take notes, and relay what happened to the masses. They’re marketers, community uniters and teachers while, by the way, still writing for print, web, mobile, tablets, aggregators, social media and video platforms. And newspapers aren’t just stacks of paper relaying the news. They must provide full-service solutions to advertisers, multimedia experiences to their users, and hubs in which entire communities can engage and interact.
A Master’s Degree for a Journalism Entrepreneur
All we can really do in this evolving ecosystem is try to change right along with the changes.
That’s why come fall I’ll be one of the members of American University’s inaugural class of Master’s students studying Media Entrepreneurship.
Going back to school is not a choice I made lightly, nor is it one I actually ever saw myself making (unless I switched career tracks entirely). Dating back to the University of Georgia, it was a shared belief, shaped by professors’ pep talks, that the only reason to secure a master’s degree in journalism was to teach journalism. Particularly as a 19-year-old, that was far from my objective.
You improve by doing, by writing every day, by getting better at handling editors’ critiques, was the common refrain. I still agree with this premise. But I also think the onus is now on journalists the world over to understand how their publications are making money and who is reading their work. We have to not just be able to produce video, but know how to use the platform to add to the bottom line.
This type of big-picture data is no longer just an interesting tidbit; it’s a lifeline. True, there should always be some separation between the advertising and news departments so that editorial coverage isn’t influenced by the businesses featured in banner ads and daily deals. Yet this separation is no longer as cut and dry. The different departments of media have a responsibility to work together in order to market the best journalism and adequately figure out a way to pay for it far into the future.
As soon as this new way of thinking became clear to me, I realized it was incumbent upon me to learn about concepts like revenue generation, product development, and technology innovation. Initially, I was convinced the only way to achieve this business-based knowledge was to go to business school.
But then I came across AU’s new program, which only got approval a few months ago. Over the course of 20 months it blends communications and business training with a heavy eye on the latest digital advancements. Courses focus on finance fundamentals, managing both people and technology, keystones of innovation and media law principles.
The premise seemed to be MBA-style training specifically tailored to media professionals like myself who want to light the news world on fire with advanced ways of thinking about covering communities and shiny-new business models.
American University, of course, was not the first to start thinking about educational programs about media innovation. Yet it is one of the earliest to develop a full-fledged degree-granting program to the pursuit. Other pioneers in this innovation arena include Syracuse University, whose S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications created a digital media entrepreneurship center to coach future innovators; Arizona State University, which for the past few years has boasted a digital media entrepreneurship class that allows students to pitch cutting-edge news projects; and the City University of New York, which last year piloted a handful of entrepreneurship courses for journalism sustainability.
By the time I’m done with my coursework, I hope to be ready to develop an entirely new news product and then pitch it to financial investors so that it can come to fruition.
The prospect excites me, and at a time when my former colleagues and classmates are being laid off from newsrooms across the country, excitement might just be what’s needed.
Keyboard photo by Tristan Schmurr on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.
Dena Levitz is the manager of digital strategies for the Newspaper Association of America while also pursuing a master’s in Media Entrepreneurship at American University. This is an introduction to a regular column she’ll be writing about what it’s like inside one of the nation’s new entrepreneurial journalism programs. Dena has freelanced for publications like the Washington Post and The Atlantic’s Cities website, been a news writer for the Washington Examiner and the Augusta Chronicle, and worked as a weekend White House stringer for Bloomberg News. In her spare time she enjoys drinking a hoppy beer, chomping on a cheeseburger or quoting from one of the Rocky movies.