Medill Expands to Silicon Valley, Preps Students to Invent Products

Lean Startup thinking will inform student learning. Image: UNCG Research (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By Rich Gordon, EdJ Contributor

A recent survey of journalism educators reveals that “entrepreneurial journalism” can mean many different things: for instance, business literacy, journalistic freelancing, innovative storytelling or media product development.

At Northwestern University’s Medill School, we’re zeroing in on the last of these, with a new journalism master’s degree that prepares students to invent, launch, lead and grow publications and media products.

We call the degree an MSJ specialization in media innovation and entrepreneurship, but I would say more simply that we are teaching media product development for the real world.

Student have a part-time internship at a Bay Area media or technology company

The one-year program includes has two unique elements:

  • Three months in Medill’s new space in San Francisco, where students will take three classroom courses and participate in a practicum class through which they have a part-time internship at a Bay Area media or technology company.
  • Enrollment in a six-month-long entrepreneurship class — NUvention Web+Media — in which their team of journalists, software developers, designers and business/marketing students builds a real digital product and, possibly, a company that continues after the class is over.

The first students to enroll in the specialization started their coursework in June. By the time they finish in June 2017, they will have learned and gained hands-on experience with contemporary product-development techniques, including design thinking and research, the lean startup approach, and agile software development. Because these approaches have been widely adopted by both startups and established companies in media and other industries, we expect these graduates will be prepared to pursue a wide variety of interesting, rewarding paths.

This summer, in the core curriculum taken by all Medill MSJs, media innovation students gain foundational skills in reporting, writing, editing, interactive technology and multimedia storytelling. They also take “Frameworks for Modern Journalism,” a class in which they wrestle with the external forces — audience behavior, technology, business models, etc. — that affect the practice of journalism. To apply what they learn, students propose an idea for a media product and modify it based on insights from the course.

In San Francisco this fall, the students will take three classroom courses taught by professionals who’ve spent their careers in the San Francisco technology and media world:

  • Design Thinking and Research for Media Products will be taught by Pete Mortensen, an associate at Matter Ventures (a leading accelerator program for media startups) and Hema Padhu, whose company Padhu Group specializes in marketing for early-stage startups.
  • The Business of Innovation will be taught by Mary Lou Song, CEO of FuelX, a San Francisco company focusing on digital video advertising.
  • Mobile Web Development for Media will be taught by David Nguyen, chief technology officer for Shmoop, which provides study guides and test-prep materials for high school students and teachers.

In addition to these courses, the students’ two-day-a-week internship will allow them to learn about and work in areas such as research, writing, user testing, product management, media analytics, content strategy, audience development and social media.

The Chicago NUvention class is not limited to journalism students.

When they return to Chicago for the second half of their degree program, the NUvention class will provide an immersive, real-world experience. They’ll understand the needs of a group of people, build a product to address those needs, modify that product based on user feedback, and experiment with business approaches that could make it sustainable. They will also learn to collaborate with developers and business experts, because this class — unlike most courses in entrepreneurial journalism elsewhere — isn’t limited to journalism students.

I’ve been on the faculty team for NUvention Web+Media for three years now. It is a genuine startup experience, accompanied by all the joys and frustrations that come with building a team, a product and a culture. We follow the lean startup principles developed by Eric Ries, require students to watch videos from Steve Blank’s “Lean Launchpad” Udacity course, assign them to read Dan Olsen’s The Lean Product Playbook and use theBusiness Model Canvas developed by Alex Osterwalder.

The NUvention faculty holds students to real-world standards for business strategy and technology development. NUvention teams can’t just build a new content-centric website or app and claim it will be supported by advertising. Their product needs to solve real problems for real people, and the faculty pushes teams to seek revenue as quickly as possible — key lean startup principles.

Armed with their classroom education, their San Francisco internship, and six months on an interdisciplinary team building a startup, we expect these students will be literate in content, audience, technology and business — and will understand how they fit together. They could pursue a variety of paths after graduation.

A few may be genuine entrepreneurs, interested in starting their own businesses — maybe the one that they launched in the NUvention class. Their startups can take advantage of Northwestern’s extensive infrastructure for student entrepreneurs, including an incubator space (The Garage) and an in-house accelerator program (Wildfire).

Other students will discover in the NUvention class that they’d love working for an early-stage startup, an environment where we’ve seen that journalists’ skills — research, observation, content creation, social media, etc. — are incredibly valuable even in companies whose core business isn’t media.

Some will go to work in traditional news organizations. While news media have fewer jobs for reporters and storytellers than they once did, they have been adding positions focused on developing and growing new products — fields such as product management, audience engagement and analytics.

And some graduates will likely work for other kinds of companies, nonprofit organizations or government agencies, which now have the same need to publish and distribute content that media companies have. Today, after all, every company is a media company. Companies that embrace this reality also have websites, newsletters, social media channels and content strategies — and staff members whose job is to make them successful.

Perhaps our biggest challenge will be finding the students for whom this would be the right academic program. Every year, there are plenty of people looking into the possibility of a master’s degree in journalism. But, based on almost 17 years of Medill teaching, I can say that many have the same motivations they’ve always had: for instance, they are curious people who love to learn how the world works, they want to uncover crimes or corruption, they have a passion for storytelling in text, audio or video, or they want a career in the public eye.

These motivations drive most journalism students towards roles as reporters and storytellers — people whose passion is for the story level of media and journalism. We certainly want students who care deeply about the things that journalists have always cared about — the role of journalism in a democracy, the need for informed communities, the importance of compelling stories. But our new media innovation specialization is designed for people who want to focus on the product level: building media products and making them successful in all dimensions of success, including economic sustainability.

Rich Gordon is a professor and director of digital innovation at Medill, spearheading the school’s new specialty in Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship. At Medill, he launched the school’s graduate program in new media journalism and has developed innovative courses where students explore digital content and communities and developed new forms of storytelling that take advantage of the unique capabilities of interactive media.