The Most Incredible Four Months of My Journalism Career

The 2017 Fellows of Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism. Photo: Jeremy Caplan.

Four months ago, I could not have built a website to save my life. Chatbots were as mystifying as robots.

I was clueless about audience engagement or for that matter, even uploading a story online. I was a career print journalist, about to walk — trepidatiously — into a vast and rumpled digital topography.

Looking back, there is little doubt that the past four months have been the most exciting of my journalism career of 17 years.

It is with great pride I say that not only have I acquired digital skills — website building, analytic and social-driven audience development and cross-media publishing, among others — I have also launched a media startup. Rede is an agile journalism driven B2B platform providing news and information for the aviation community in India.

All this has been possible thanks to the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism in New York where I enrolled in January. Here is how the Tow-Knight program benefited me:

  • I have developed my own media venture.
  • I have acquired new skills as a journalist.
  • I have seen up close the raft of innovations sweeping American newsrooms such as The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Quartz.
  • I have explored the intersection of media, business, entrepreneurship and technology.
  • I have heard the experiences and lessons of several media startup founders.

Melting Pot of Ideas

To do these in New York has been critical. It is a cauldron of people steering innovations in media and technology and they are available to meet at the scores of events happening every day.

It was at one such event that I met Dean Baquet, the editor of The New York Times. I got Dean all to myself for 25 minutes.

Those events were an eye-opener in the manner in which journalism-driven conferences must be held. Events will be one of the several revenue generators for Rede.

The class prepares to visit The New York Times. Photo: Michael Rain.

Studying events and other revenue models is crucial for rookie media entrepreneurs like me. As Steve Katz, the publisher of Mother Jones, told our class, good journalism is not possible if one cannot sustain it.

At Tow-Knight, not only did we study several business models, but we also acquired entrepreneurial skills. I had the privilege to be under the tutelage of Jeremy Caplan, Jeff Jarvis, John Keefe (bot developer and product manager at Quartz), Marc Pultuskier, Hong Qu and Bob Sacha. They are exceptional teachers who are as learned as they are generous with their time and advice.

I was also lucky to be surrounded and study with 15 kind and talented individuals from countries as diverse as Peru and Italy. Each of their platforms are potentially pathbreaking and significant for journalism: Fader by Vragments, an easy-to-use virtual-reality editing tool; Alkunnash.com, a social media verification platform for Arabic news; Techtiv.ist, a weekly newsletter covering the intersection between politics and technology; ZNews Africa, an app and newsletter covering news across Africa; StreetMusicMap, a project nominated for a 2017 Webby; and Pink Power, a platform devoted to the LGBT community in China, among others.

US newsrooms made the mistake of pursuing innovations after they were confronted with falling circulation and declining revenues. You guys (Indian newsrooms) should not make the same mistake.
Dean Baquet, editor, The New York Times.

The Right Mix

The Tow-Knight program is as exhaustive as it is immersive. I would strongly encourage it for mid-career journalists who like me are averse to one-month workshops, which have severe limitations on how much you actually absorb, and one-year programs, which by their very nature, can be costly and time-consuming.

Journalism is similar to other professions in that its practitioners seldom get the time or opportunity to reskill. The job becomes a grind and we journalists can barely catch a breather to even contemplate new learnings.

Sadly, news organisations are skittish about helping journalists acquire new skills. So it is up to journalists to take the plunge.

Take my word: it is worth it.

The future is uncertain of course, but could not be more exciting.

I am now brimming with ideas: not just for my venture but also newsrooms in India that are willing to embrace innovations. As Dean told me, US newsrooms made the mistake of pursuing innovations after they were confronted with falling circulation and declining revenues.

“You guys should not make the same mistake,” he said.

Rafat Ali, founder of Skift, speaks to the class. Photo: Jeremy Caplan.

Long Flight Ahead

Entrepreneurship is hard. Media entrepreneurship is particularly hard.

To build a community of readers is a long haul. But my experience in New York has taught me that people are willing to help and a confluence of advantageous circumstances is around the corner.

Rafat Ali, founder of Skift, and Raju Narisetti, CEO of Gizmondo, have kindly agreed to help me with advice from time to time. (Rede is modelled on Skift, the business intelligence platform for the travel sector).

When I told aviation entrepreneur GR Gopinath about my venture, he quoted Emerson and said, “Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.”

“It is true,” Gopinath told me.

Fingers crossed. But the signs are promising.

My very first article on Facebook garnered more than 1000 likes. The traffic on my website shot up dramatically after I launched an aviation leadership series.

Rede’s first article was published on Facebook.

The articles confirm what I have long known: the Indian aviation community is starved of relevant information. It desperately needs a genuine journalism platform.

Rede is striking at the heart of that problem.

New Journey

As the Tow-Knight program winds to a close, I am about to embark on a new journey. The first step is to build a community of superusers for my platform.

My co-founders and I will produce more and more original content that will add value to the aviation community. Our aim is to make the community smarter, better informed and take better decisions.

Members of the aviation community respond to Rede’s launch of aviation leadership series.

Our mission is to help Indian aviation achieve its true potential.

I came to Tow-Knight as a print journalist. I leave as a digital media entrepreneur.

I came to Tow-Knight with a lot of trepidation. I leave confident.

I came to Tow-Knight to learn. I leave wiser.

For that, Jeremy, Jeff, John, Marc, Hong, Bob and my wonderful classmates, I am forever grateful.

It has been an honour.

PS: Tow-Knight would not have been possible without the support of my wife, Purnima Sharma, co-founder of VisualBest, a graphic design firm based in Delhi. She has held fort back home single-handedly.

Every media entrepreneur needs the wholesome support of family. I am one of the lucky ones.