“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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
“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.
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.