A Note on Journalism Education

These three areas of exploration — relationships, forms, and models — play themselves out in the curriculum and programs at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in various ways. I offer a description of the areas in which I work as an example of a few ways in which one school is trying to work in this age of change.

To begin with business models: When the school opened its doors in 2006, we offered a course in entrepreneurial journalism. It was really just my pedagogical ploy to teach journalism students the business of journalism in the belief that — especially now — we must produce more responsible stewards of the trade. Having each student build a plan for a new enterprise was a device to have students explore the dynamics of the business and how to sustain it: how news organizations must build a product and an audience before they will have the critical mass necessary to garner advertising revenue; how Google had disrupted the advertising business by exploiting an abundance rather than controlling a scarcity; how much journalism costs. At the start of every term, we list on the whiteboard the questions that most every startup — from Gutenberg on — needs to answer. The students must prepare a plan with:

  • An elevator pitch. If you can’t succinctly describe your business to customers, users, employees, and investors, then you don’t yet know what it is.
  • Problem statement. What problem will your business solve? I don’t care what you want to do, I tell students. I care what the people out there (dramatically pointing finger at window) need you to do. That is why their first assignment is to go interview those people, not about the students’ ideas but about the users’ needs.
  • Market analysis. Who are your customers? How large is your market? What ties them together? Where do you find them?
  • Competitive analysis. Often students will say they have no competitors. But, of course, they do. Competitors offer startups the opportunity to improve on what they do and to learn from their mistakes.
  • Product or service plan. What is this thing you’re offering? What does it do for users? How does it work? What does it look like?
  • Revenue plan. This is usually advertising — and we spend more than one class each term on how advertising works today. It can include other revenue streams, of course, depending on the business.
  • Marketing plan. How will people find your service? Saying “it will be viral” is not sufficient.
  • Operations plan. What will your costs be as a minimally viable product and as a sustainable business? What are your staffing and technology needs?
  • Launch plan. No longer does a product need to come out fully birthed. Now it can start with one feature and grow from there.
  • Capital needs. If you have a rich uncle or an investor, what are you asking for? What will those funds pay for?

I was fortunate from the start to receive a grant from the MacArthur Foundation that allowed us to give up to $50,000 per year in seed money to students’ businesses as juried by a group of entrepreneurs, journalists, publishers, investors, and technologists. Money can be a much better motivator than grades. Of course, it also can be corrupting. I learned many lessons in those early classes: First, the awards of money tended to overemphasize the theatrics of the final presentations in students’ minds. Second, juries sometimes compromise on safer choices. Third, giving money to students with nothing more than a plan is like throwing a hothouse orchid onto Times Square and expecting passers-by to water it. They need much more ongoing mentoring than that. But the money did make this class more than just an exercise; many students were serious about starting a business.

The discussions around their businesses and the crisis in the industry led us to perform research about new business models for news, modeling what the business of a metropolitan ecosystem of news would look like after the death of the daily paper (not that we’d wish for such an occurrence, but so we could examine what the ecosystem — from beat businesses to new news organizations to networks — could provide). This work was done by Jennifer McFadden, Nancy Wang, and Jeff Mignon, led by Tow-Knight’s Peter Hauck. We presented the work at a Knight Foundation event at the Aspen Institute in 2009.

In Aspen, Alberto Ibargüen, president and CEO of the Knight Foundation, asked our founding dean, Steve Shepard, what his new school would stand for uniquely. Steve replied: entrepreneurial journalism. Knight soon matched a generous, $3-million challenge grant from Leonard Tow and Emily Tow Jackson at the Tow Foundation, allowing us to create the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism. We then had the great fortune to bring in Jeremy Caplan, a journalist and a holder of an MBA from Columbia, to spearhead the educational work of the entrepreneurial program, creating the nation’s first M.A. and an Advanced Certificate in Entrepreneurial Journalism.

Jeremy is a wonderful and hard-working teacher who keeps cramming more learning into the program. He teaches a course that offers in essence an MBA-in-a-box in the context of media. He arranges meetings and discussions at an amazing list of New York start-ups in media and technology. He recruits mentors for every student and we both take great advantage of working in the center of the universe, bringing in an enviable list of guest speakers from New York’s media and technology communities to share their experience and advice. Jeremy also recruits experts to teach workshops in technology skills. If students need special skills, they may take classes at General Assembly, a coworking space turned school for entrepreneurs. Together, Jeremy and I meet with the students as a group to discuss issues, such as the ethics of being both church and state in a startup, and to collaboratively solve students’ problems. My favorite part of teaching at CUNY is the time I get to spend one-on-one with these students at the whiteboard, identifying their opportunities and problems and next tasks. I think of it as being on a dozen startup boards. Jeremy handles the recruiting. We have found that the best students come into the program with an idea for a business. But the best students also often change that idea when confronted with the real needs of real customers or the reality of competition or a new opportunity that presents itself. In entrepreneurship, as in journalism itself, the key skill we must teach today is the ability to listen and to change. As I write this, we are also planning to offer specialized and intensive three-week training in how to start and run a beat business.

I am pleased to report that eight years after starting our first class in entrepreneurial journalism, we held an event at CUNY for others teaching in the field in 2014 and had about 60 professors in attendance and more watching online. The field we helped start is growing.

Tow-Knight also has a mission to conduct useful research, benefitting both the industry and our students. Dr. Nick Diakopoulos examined the unexplored opportunities for new technologies in news and created a brainstorming game for use by students at CUNY and elsewhere and also for media executives. Peter Hauck ran a study looking at the digital presences of 1,000 local merchants and services in a neighborhood of New York and a town in New Jersey, revealing many opportunities for local media companies to help customers improve their online efforts. Now Tow-Knight’s Hal Straus is managing the creation of a series of papers on best practices for local beat businesses — in advertising products and services, sales techniques, marketing, events, and print. And I have been devoting a great deal of my time to working in the local news ecosystems of New Jersey as well as New York to try to find ways to sustain, improve, and grow them. I described much of that work and its lessons thus far earlier in this essay. In New Jersey, I have been working with the Dodge Foundation — Chris Daggett, Molly de Aguiar, and Josh Stearns — and Montclair State University — Debbie Galant, Ju-Don Marshall Roberts, and Merrill Brown — and in New York with CUNY’s Center for Community and Ethnic Media, run by my colleague, Garry Pierre-Pierre.

Now to forms: I would say that we — at CUNY and in journalism schools across the country — have been remiss in not doing more to invent and incubate development of new forms of news. If anyone should support innovation and if anyone can afford to experiment and fail, it is universities. But we face a paradox in professional schools at a time of disruption in our field: Students still come to schools such as ours to learn the fundamentals and the eternal verities of the craft, as our founding dean, Steve Shepard, puts it. They aspire to be what they see rather than what they cannot yet imagine. They still get jobs in the field as it is. And so we must prepare them for that. But we also must prepare them as leaders, as inventors and entrepreneurs, and as disruptors themselves. We have found at CUNY that a three-semester program (plus a paid, summer internship) is barely enough time to teach all that we must teach. How do we carve out time to challenge the thinking behind some of the skills we have just taught so they can invent surprising new ways to accomplish journalism’s mission?

We do have opportunities for innovation in our curriculum: My colleague Sandeep Junnarkar and the teachers he leads in our interactive program encourage students to bring all relevant media tools to bear to tell their stories in new ways. My colleague Steve Strasser is moving the student magazine he runs, 219 Magazine, to Medium so students can work in a new form, find an audience, and be motivated to think graphically. And Travis Fox, the head of our visual journalism program, is instituting a course in reinventing TV news with professors Bob Sacha and Simon Surowicz at the same time that Tow-Knight is starting a series of events to offer visions for what TV news could be.

Finally, to relationships: Since our school began and I started in our interactive program with Sandeep Junnarkar, I have said that we had one fundamental challenge: It is difficult to teach students interactive journalism when they don’t have a community with whom to interact. In the old days, when I attended journalism school, we wrote our stories for an audience of one: the professor. Now, students can indeed reach the public online. But one can’t just gin up a community out of nowhere. This is why Eric Newton of the Knight Foundation champions the teaching hospital model for journalism schools — not only so students get experience working on real stories but more importantly so they can serve and be answerable to real communities. We tried to address this at CUNY when we started The Local, a blog serving Fort Greene, Brooklyn, in partnership with The New York Times. That proved to be both too small and too challenging for many reasons. We have been looking at more ways to open various teaching hospital wards.

Then, on a trip to California to introduce our new dean, Sarah Bartlett, to technology leaders including Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn and a partner at the venture capital firm Greylock Capital; Dick Costolo, CEO of Twitter; Ev Williams, cofounder of Blogger, Twitter, and now Medium; the strategy team at Google; Craig Newmark; and others, I subjected her to a draft of the first part of this essay, on relationships. She got off the plane and said she didn’t disagree with my thesis about reimagining journalism as a service business built on relationships. But then she asked whether I thought we were teaching that in depth at CUNY. She suggested creating a new degree.

In January 2015, we will offer the first M.A. in Social Journalism, the study and practice of engaged communities in the time of social media, under the direction of Dr. Carrie Brown, formerly of the University of Memphis. You have just read the thinking behind that program. It will include two courses in listening (starting with the community and its needs rather than our content), two in journalism (reporting collaboratively), two in data (data as a means of listening, data as news, data as a means of judging impact and success), and two in tools (how to understand the dynamics of how people use such platforms as Twitter), with an intense business training, and a full-time, mentored practicum working in the community each student elects to serve (whether that community is based on geography, demographics, interests, needs, or even an event — real or virtual). We will also conduct research and hold events in engagement and journalism.

I’ve described only the ways in which the thinking in this essay is borne out in our programs at CUNY. Obviously, these are just slices of our program, which changes constantly around new needs and opportunities. We face the challenges every journalism school faces today: how to teach change; how to teach enough tools so students leave proficient in them without letting that rob vital time from the teaching of the basic skills and verities of journalism; how to stay ahead of change in the field while still preparing students for the jobs that exist today. It’s not easy. But there is no better time to teach journalism and no better time to become a journalist. Youth, I tell my students, used to be something to get over. Now youth is an asset. Our students today are not only more technically skilled than we could be, they see the world in new ways. I urge them to guard that fresh perspective and to use it to question and challenge all of our assumptions so they can imagine and build a new future for journalism.

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