Journalism Schools Become Incubators for Media Startups, Entrepreneurs
When Adda Birnir joined the first class of the new entrepreneurial journalism program at the City University of New York in 2012, she thought she had a great idea for a new business: creating software that could optimize web content for a tablet.
Four months later, Birnir launched her company, and it continues to this day. But it’s not the business she started with.
Instead, Birnir launched Skillcrush, an online tech education company that targets women in media professions. Rather than selling software, the company sells knowledge, using a newsletter, a blog, e-books and collaborative online classes to give people the skills they need to thrive in a digital economy.
“If I hadn’t participated in the program, Skillcrush wouldn’t exist. I came to CUNY focused on a completely different product,” said Birnir, 27.
“One of the things we learned in the program is if you think something is a good idea you have to validate it in the marketplace,” Birnir said. “The startup mantra is you have to get outside your head or your office or your small group. There wasn’t a lot of interest or traction in our original business; it was only when I started talking about this side project that my professors…got excited.”
Skillcrush is part of a crop of new media businesses — app developers, software companies, web and mobile publications — that are beginning to sprout out of journalism and communications schools around the country. Over the past three years, J-schools have launched media entrepreneurship tracks, graduate programs and certificate programs aimed at cultivating a new generation of media entrepreneurs. I’ve profiled projects from three schools: CUNY, Syracuse and the University of Texas-Austin.
These programs don’t simply teach students about theoretical concepts; they give students an environment where they can incubate their ideas. In most cases, professors force students to actually produce something tangible: a website, an app, a device.
Now those products are starting to show up in the marketplace, fully hatched.
The Narratively Story
One of the most successful of these J-school-supported ventures is Narratively, a digital storytelling platform that was launched in September 2012 by Noah Rosenberg, a classmate of Birnir’s. Rosenberg was already pretty far along in developing Narratively when he enrolled in the CUNY certificate program in entrepreneurial journalism — and probably would have launched the site even if he hadn’t participated in the program. But the heady atmosphere at CUNY spurred him on, giving him a cohort of fervent aspiring entrepreneurs to learn from and collaborate with.
“To be in a room full of people with similar ambitions and passions — people who have all these ideas that they can’t sleep at night — it’s really cool to be in that environment,” said Rosenberg, now CEO and editor-in-chief of the New York-based website.
Like many aspiring entrepreneurs, Rosenberg and his team went to Kickstarter for seed money. The response was the stuff of entrepreneurial legend.
“We raised nearly $54,000 in about 33 days,” Rosenberg said. “It could have totally bombed. But we put it out there to the world, and within minutes people were donating and emailing us. That told us there was an audience, people who saw a need for this product.”
Narratively now has a community of 350 writers, illustrators, photographers and filmmakers producing content for the site. They’re paid modestly, but they get to do the kind of thoughtful, edgy, “human-first” reporting few mainstream publications publish anymore, Rosenberg said.
Rosenberg and his team are still figuring out how to finance Narratively. “The business model is changing; it’s changing almost every day.”
The company started with advertising and then sponsorship — the CUNY graduate school sponsored content for the month of February — but now it’s looking into syndication networks and taking outside clients (doing video shoots for non-profits, animation for companies like GE, lesson plans for educational publishers). The company is also planning to explore paid memberships, e-books, storytelling workshops, and partnerships with TV and film companies.
Many of these ideas came directly from informal conversations and brainstorming sessions Rosenberg had in the CUNY program. And a year after earning his certificate, Rosenberg doesn’t just keep in touch with his classmates; he continues to collaborate with them, co-sponsoring events, supporting one another’s projects.
“The four-month program was really just the beginning,” Rosenberg said. “I’ve partnered with SkillCrush, and we’ve done ad swaps and things to promote each other’s businesses. It’s cool to have this network of people who have been through the same things.”
Kickstarting an experiment in immersion journalism
In the fall of 2012, around the time that Rosenberg was launching Narratively, a pair of graduates of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University were realizing their own dreams of entrepreneurship.
Leah Stacy and Pete Wayner wanted to find a way to bring travel, stories of social good, and multimedia journalism together. While taking a class called Idea2Startup the previous spring, they came up with the idea for The Bly Project, an experiment in immersion journalism. The project is named for peripatetic immersion journalist Nellie Bly, author of “Around the World in 72 Days.”
In September they, along with filmmaker Kevin Kennedy, set out on a three-week road trip, driving from Rochester, N.Y., to Austin, Texas, stopping in seven cities along the way.
“We basically immersed ourselves in America,” said Stacey, the editor-in-chief of the project. “We hit the road and did interviews with everyone we met.”
They asked each person two questions:
“What is your version of the American dream?”
“What are you doing to pursue that dream?”
The answers were captivating in an election year when the country seemed so divided. And they were particularly resonant for the two recent J-school graduates.
“We were part of the graduating class who felt we would never find employment,” Wayner said.
While working toward their degrees, Wayner and Stacy kept hearing about the dismal job market and how young journalists had to take crappy jobs for little pay with few rewards.
“We were part of the first group that said, ‘Stop, wait a minute. We may have to make our own positions.’”
And so they did. While the Bly Project, funded with $3,895 in Kickstarter contributions and another $2,500 in money they made freelancing, hasn’t been a moneymaker for them, it has helped establish their careers, giving them the clips, business savvy, personal branding and confidence they need to succeed as journalists.
“This isn’t for salary or wages; this is for the experience,” Stacy said.
The next frontier: App development
While the first generation of entrepreneurship classes focused on marrying journalism skills to business skills, new permutations of such courses are focusing even more on technology.
The class brings together 13 journalism students and 13 computer science students. The first week Quigley broke the students into teams of five and challenged them to come up with an idea for a mobile app they could develop in one semester.
One team is working on Nerv, a mobile app that pulls in Twitter posts about four different cities — Austin, San Francisco, Portland, Ore., and Boston — and three different topic areas — news, culture and nightlife.
“Twitter has a lot of noise, a lot of things that distract you,” explained Cody Permenter, a journalism student working on the Nerv team. The new app aims to cut through that noise by selecting the most credible, informative and relevant Twitter feeds.
“The value we are providing is we’re aggregating legitimate sources into one place,” said Jonathan Long, a computer science student working on the Nerv team.
“We’re making Twitter useful,” Permenter added.
Another team created the Glos Guide for Journalists, a phone app that provides quick reference tools and tips for journalists and journalism students. Last month the team learned their app had been approved for sale in the App Store. The app is now available for 99 cents.
“They have a big plan,” Quigley said. “They want every journalism student in the country to buy it.”
A couple weeks ago, Quigley realized just how serious the Glos Guide team was when the students stood up in the middle of class and walked out.
“I asked where they were going and they said, ‘We have to go down to Wells Fargo to set up a new account. Apple has to have a place to deposit the money.’”
Rachele Kanigel is an associate professor of journalism at San Francisco State University, where she advises Golden Gate Xpress, the student newspaper, and teaches reporting, writing and online journalism classes. She was a daily newspaper reporter for 15 years and has freelanced for magazines and websites, including U.S. News and World Report, TIME and Prevention. She directs summer study-abroad programs for ieiMedia for Education in International Media and is the author of The Student Newspaper Survival Guide. Follow her at @jourprof.