Matter’s Corey Ford: Bring Project-Based Teamwork to Journalism Education
When Corey Ford was studying journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the late 1990s, he barely heard the word entrepreneurship. That was back in the day when journalists were told to steer clear of the business side and just stick to telling stories. “I definitely didn’t get anything remotely entrepreneurial when I was there,” says Ford, who began his career in public broadcasting and went on to earn an MBA at Stanford.
As managing partner of Matter, a San Francisco startup accelerator that supports and invests in media ventures, Ford is delighted to hear that journalism students today are being introduced to – and sometimes immersed in — the concepts and culture of entrepreneurship, even at the undergraduate level.
J-schools around the country are launching “maker spaces,” entrepreneurship degree programs and courses, entrepreneurial partnerships and startup competitions in efforts to prepare students for a world where they have to create opportunities for themselves. That includes UNC, which now has the Reese News Lab, an incubator where students can devise, test and prototype ideas and products.
Based in the funky, startup-dotted SOMA, or South of Market, neighborhood of San Francisco, Matter is currently training its third class of entrepreneurs. The startup accelerator, launched last year by foundational partners KQED, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and PRX, provides intensive support to small teams of early-stage media entrepreneurs. Each team, chosen from hundreds that apply in a competitive selection process, gets $50,000 and five months of runway to “needfind” with potential customers, prototype solutions and “fail fast” so they can move forward.
MediaShift caught up with Ford to get his thoughts about what and how journalism educators can teach students about entrepreneurship.
What should entrepreneurial journalism courses teach?
Corey Ford: First, I think, journalism education needs to think about moving from just focusing on individual journalists to working in teams and hopefully multi-disciplinary teams. That’s a big Achilles’ heel in journalism schools: They’re essentially all storytellers. Educators should bring together business, design, technology and storytelling all in one. You want to have teams of people who are diverse and look different in terms of their skill set. It’s really hard to innovate without having different points of view and different skills sets. Journalism educators should try to build a more diverse student base or build partnerships with other places. You could have a journalism school partnering with a design school and a CS (computer science) school.
What’s the best way to teach entrepreneurship skills?
Ford: I’m a big believer in learning by doing, project-based learning. Project-based learning is about building a culture of feedback loops. More and more we’re taught you have to come up with that perfect idea. You have to battle the idea of perfection; it’s about trying new things, building things, getting feedback and iterating. And doing what I call “falling forward.” A hypothesis may or may not have worked but you use what you learned. You can build off that learning for the next experiment. That’s failing forward, not just failing.
The other thing that’s really important is to think about the venture you’re doing as having to be three things: to be desirable to the user/reader/customer, to be feasible and to be viable, to have a sustainable business model. It’s important to be clear on what the goals are. Traditionally, J-School projects were about the journalism aspect first and that’s extremely important but it’s about how do you create a place where innovators can be successful; people have to learn to navigate what I like to call the drunken walk of the entrepreneur.
Traditionally, there’s been a wall between business and journalism. If you want to think about new models and how to make journalism viable, you can’t be afraid to cross that wall and experiment. I don’t think journalists have been trained to do that; we’ve been trained to run away from that.
What can journalism instructors do to help cultivate an entrepreneurial spirit in students?
Ford: One beautiful thing about being a student is you actually have this time and a safety net to really take risks and experiment. When you hit the real world it can be much harder to find that time. The thing about being in school is there’s this beautiful experimentation runway; that’s an amazing opportunity to give your students.
Journalism educators can create a space where students have support and can get validation for what they’re doing.
You also need to create an environment where you get students away from the career office. Those people can kill the entrepreneurial spirit. You need to think about how to connect students with alumni, people who are 18 months down the road. There’s nothing better than examples of people who have succeeded by taking risks and who are just a little ahead of where the students are.
How does Matter work and what can journalism educators borrow from what you do?
Ford: We have a 20-week program that begins with a one-week boot camp focused on a user-centered, prototype-driven, design thinking process applied to early-stage entrepreneurship.
These entrepreneurs come in with existing ventures but at the beginning we mix people up into different teams. We give them a project to work on that’s not related to their venture. The way adults learn is by doing and diving in and getting their hands dirty. The first challenge we give them has nothing to do with journalism – we have them redesign the golden years experience. There’s a massive shift in society with the Baby Boom generation at retirement age and there are opportunities that come with that. We tell them to “needfind” and then build a venture based on what they discover. We give them a blank canvas. We take them out of their comfort zone, take them out of their own world.
What can journalism instructors do to make a class feel more like an incubator?
Ford: There is a challenge in doing this at a school environment. What you need to do is reinforce the process rather than the outcome. You can tie grading to the process rather than to the final project. Educators can analyze how students are pushing their learning forward on a weekly basis. A course like this is going to fail if it’s about a midterm and final. This can’t be a course where people show the product and just cram the night before.
Another challenge is carving out time for the team to get out into the real world. You have to block out fieldwork ahead of time.
What books or exercises or resources can journalism instructors borrow from the Matter approach to teaching entrepreneurship?
Ford: This can’t be a book-learning class. There’s no book or amount of reading that is going to help all that much. It has to be experiential. That means using design thinking exercises and the “lean startup” model. You also have to talk about managing fear and taking risks. Seth Godin’s books are great on that.
What do you think of the efforts to launch entrepreneurial journalism classes and teach entrepreneurship skills in journalism school?
Ford: I think it’s a great thing. Journalism students still can see the world from a baby’s point of view. They’re not trapped in the dogma of journalism, and they have time and space to explore. Journalism schools need to leverage the asset they have in students, so they’re all about becoming places where mission-driven people can experiment.
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 has directed summer study-abroad programs for ieiMedia, the Institute for Education in International Media, and is the author of The Student Newspaper Survival Guide. Follow her at @jourprof.