I’ve just returned from the first commencement of the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. It’s a happy day of accomplishment for the students and for my colleagues who’ve built this school. And so we send them out. More journalists, that’s just what we need.
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I’m trying to catalogue some of the lessons I learned in my entrepreneurial journalism course at CUNY. There’ll be more, especially after the students and I share our postmortem in the final class, Wednesday. But here’s a start.
The students presented a dozen businesses to a dozen jurors who had it in their power to award up to $50,000 in seed money (thanks to a grant from the McCormick Tribune Foundation). I have said from the start that I couldn’t be too open about the class because these are the students’ proprietary ideas and if one of them has the next Google (or New York Times, for that matter), I don’t want to ruin it. So I’ll be brief (Saul Hansell already deftly and succinctly described many of them). And, besides, maybe one of you would like to invest:
The jurors were quite engaged by a proposal to have the public help decide what followup stories journalists should do. Other likely grantees (if the entrepreneurs answer some questions and meet some conditions): a multimedia blog serving BedStuy; a service to help high-school athletes sell themselves; a content/social service helping people in their late 20s and early 30s with personal finance even if they think it is boring; and an already-started online magazine for and by Muslim women (which has already sold an impressive 1,500 subscriptions at $20 each). The rest did not receive grants but as I told the students after the judging, I have taken businesses to some of the people on that very jury who turned them down, but those businesses went on to get funding and launch. That’s how startups work: seduction. There are more very good proposals in the bunch: a hyperlocal tourist site in Oregon (it was too small for the majority of judges but that’s precisely why it was a particular favorite of some of the others); a social site for teen girls built on existing social networks; a metablog and search engine for the best of the music blogs; a hyperlocal green blog, community, and directory; a social network for big-team sports fans; a series of videos about successful black businesswomen; and a site that captures what’s really happening in leading cities around the world from journalists working there.
The jurors — again, the list is here; they brought many distinct perspectives — were, I’m glad to say, quite engaged in the process. They asked very good questions — that’s what yields many of my lessons learned, below. They were passionate in their deliberations. And here’s the best part: Jurors volunteered to act as mentors to the students’ businesses. I couldn’t have asked for more from them.
So, some lessons:
* You can never be short and clear enough in your elevator pitch. This was one of the first things I told the students when we started together. When my old boss Steve Newhouse talked with the class, he told them about a company he’d bought, explaining what it did in 17 words, which he counted on his fingers as he told the students they should all do likewise. But at our jurying session last week, I saw the judges get confused a few times, and hearing these pitches through their ears, I understood why. In Hollywood, this is called high-concept: the show you can describe in one phrase (‘It’s Cheers meets Survivor and the audience gets to vote Cliff off the bar’). We make fun of that; it’s a sign of dumbed-down TV. But startups are different from sitcoms. If you can’t describe what you’re doing — to customers as well as investors — in 17 words, then you’re probably trying to do too much or you haven’t worked hard enough to define what you are doing or you simply aren’t describing it well and you’re going to lose people.
* I also wasn’t tough enough on the competitive analyses. They all did them, but the judges hammered hard on the marketplace. It is almost inevitable that when someone with a startup is asked about competition, he or she will answer, “none.” But I told the students that’s never true and, besides, in a networked world, you actually want company in your space. It gives you something to link to and it gives you an analogue others will understand. You can always be better than your competition, unless there is simply too much of it (which was the judges’ issue with a few of the students’ businesses).
* In one of the early classes, Jim Kennedy, VP for strategy at the Associated Press, heard all of the students’ then-still-nascent ideas, gave feedback to each, and then said: Well, guys you’ve all proposed websites; what’s up with that? We felt properly chastened and old-fartish. This is what inspired more than one of the students to build their businesses where they should have been conceived, atop existing social networks and platforms. And during the jurying, Fred Wilson also pushed one student to include SMS or Twitter feeds from the audience’s mobile phones as news. We should have spent some more time cataloguing the possibilities. That’s what the web is really all about: new possibilities, new opportunities. Hansell is right in his blog post: A critical lesson from the class is that media enterprises can be started atop existing platforms. So next time, we will catalogue them.
* I also required the students to formulate marketing plans — which, in most cases, means an analysis of social and viral potential. It was very hard for them to come up with comparable audience numbers and that is the underpinning of any media business plan. I’m not sure what to do about that. I also pushed students to do market research: to interview their customers (it’s just reporting). Those who listened that that benefiteed (one business, for example, changed its target audience when it found that the original target wasn’t as interested as they thought).
* I’m glad I spent a lot of time on advertising, getting down to the details of CPM, CPC, CPA, RPM, and all that. It was foreign to all the students — as it is to many or most journalists — but as they well understood, this is how they’re going to eat. The idea of selling ads is properly daunting for them, but the good news is that ad networks are beginning to emerge that may help support media enterprises such as these. At the end of a three-hour class session on ads, I asked whether the students were OK with what they’d just heard and one said, with a wry grin, “Well, that’s journalism.” A fellow student didn’t see or hear his irony and jumped down his throat, lecturing him about why we have to understand how to sustain and support journalism or else they won’t have jobs and we won’t have reporting. It was one of those moments in class you can’t pay for.
* My not-so-hidden agenda in the class was to teach journalists about business and sustaining journalism and I hope that mission was accomplished. Whether they start their own businesses or become managers or just so they can make wise career choices, I believe it’s necessary to understand the pressures and opportunities presented by the change in the economics of media.
* Journalistic entrepreneurship is not an oxymoron. To my amazement, every single one of the students said they wanted to start these businesses; I was hoping one or two might be so ambitious and independent. Now, of course, real job offers with real salaries will properly distract some of them. But the fact that these young journalists want to think entrepreneurially surprises and delights me. The fact that they realize they may need to work independently should surprise no one. It is a lesson to the industry: Give this kind of talent an opportunity to invent and innovate and they will.
* But we need an incubator. These businesses need ongoing advice and nurturing, most do. Just during the semester, I quickly learned that each student-entrepreneur and business needed even more individual attention than I’d anticipated; they and their needs were unique. If we are going to get innovation in the news and media businesses, then we need to bring help and resources to the effort. Just as big, old media companies can’t just sit there and think that the future will come to them — when, instead, it’s passing them by — so the industry has to actively support innovation with incubation. I have plans. More on that another day.
Bottom line: I loved being in this class. The course itself was a risky venture but it surpassed my expectations. As I’ve said here, I felt as if I were on the board of a dozen exciting startups. It was energizing working with the students’ creativity and passion — which was only intensified, frankly, by the possibility of real money (a stronger motivator than grades). I hope this also sends a small message to the industry about the possibilities for and need for innovation. And I hope at least one of these students might end up being the Pulitzer, Hearst, Ochs, Sarnoff, or Paley of this century. Could happen.
Saul Hansell just wrote a wonderful post at the Times Bits blog about his experience as a juror in my entrepreneurial journalism class and how much entering the field of journalism has changed with so many new opportunities:
. . . . The ideas covered a wide range of topics — a hyper-local site for Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn to a global magazine for Muslim women — but what struck me was how much an aspiring publisher can now count on technology services to accelerate many parts of starting a business. Google’s Ad Sense, of course, was on nearly everyone’s plan as a source of advertising revenue. There are specialized ad networks too that were relevant to some ideas. One of the judges, Courtney Williams, who runs the interactive division of Radio One, a black-oriented radio station group, offered to include the Bed-Stuy site in his new black-oriented online ad network.
One proposal for a music site wanted a music blog search feature and figured it could simply count on Google’s custom search engine capability rather than embarking on the daunting task of building its own search engine. An idea for a site about how to live the eco-conscious life, planned to use Meetup to connect to users.
Social networking, of course, was high in everyone’s minds. Several people planned to use Ning, the social-network-in-a-box service started by Marc Andreessen. But the most discussion was about Facebook, and in particular whether today you could start an entire online service entirely within Facebook. Several ideas –i ncluding a concept on personal finance for young people, a service meant to match high school athletes with college recruiters, and a site meant for teenage girls — all contemplated whether they could piggyback entirely on Facebook.
Even the most old fashioned idea–the magazine for Muslim women — was accelerated by technology. The magazine, called Sisters, has actually started, run in part by Doaa Elkady, a CUNY student. She told the jury that the market Sisters is aiming for would prefer a printed magazine to an online site. What is interesting is that Sisters is starting by distributing a digital version of the magazine in PDF format, and it has 1,500 subscribers paying $20 a year already. She asked for $6,000 for advertising that could double the subscriber base and enable the magazine to start a printed version, its ultimate goal.
Indeed, most of the students asked for between $5,000 and $15,000, with which they felt they could get their ideas up and running. (Most figured they would have to work part time to pay their own rent.) Even if those numbers were wildly optimistic, the fact remains that in today’s world you simply don’t need to be hired by a publishing company with ad salesmen, layout artists, and printing presses to get your ideas into the world.
It seems to be a great time to be starting out in journalism. Just don’t ask advice from anyone who has been in the business for more than five years.
I will write about my experience in and lessons from the class in greater depth this weekend.
Eleven businesses are up for the chance to receive an award of seed money (thanks to a two-year grant from the McCormick Tribune Foundation). It’s a wide range: hard news, hyperlocal, sports, personal finance, teen, green, culture, world news, even a magazine. They’ll each have five minutes to present the business and the jurors will have about seven minutes to ask questions and push and probe. Then we’ll retire to the jury room (wine, beer, humus, and kebabs to be served) and decide which businesses deserve seed money. The class requirement was that the students come up with a sustainable journalistic enterprise. At Clay Shirky’s suggestion, we’ll also judge them on innovation. But at the end, it’s all about risk: The jurors have a bit more than $45,000 available. They don’t need to grant any of it; it’s up to them. They will act as investors and put the money where it will have the best chance of succeeding.
The jurors are a stellar bunch, all very generous with their time and advice: Fred Wilson, VC; Joan Feeney, editor and a founder at Entertainment Weekly and CondeNet; Betsy Morgan, ex of CBSNews.com and now CEO of Huffington Post; Catherine Levene, COO of Daily Candy; Ed Sussman, head of digital at Fast Company and Inc.; Courtney Williams, an executive at Radio-One; Jim Willse, editor-in-chief of the Star-Ledger; Debbie Galant, founder of Baristanet; Rikki Tahta, founder of Covestor; Andy Weissman, VC, now of Betaworks; Clay Shirky of NYU’s ITP; Saul Hansell of the New York Times. Others who’ve spoken with the class and given them advice but couldn’t make today’s session: Steve Newhouse, Advance.net; Jim Kennedy, vp of strategy at the Associated Press; Marcel Reichart, vp of strategy at Burda; Craig Newmark of craigslist; Steven Johnson, founder of Outside.in; Dave Morgan, founder of Tacoda; Scott Meyer, CEO of About.com.
Only in New York could we have assembled such a cast of expertise in journalism, media, management, advertising, marketing, startups, and venture capital.
I’ll write about the class more after the jurying.
Having never organized a conference, I was nervous about so many things before the Networked Journalism Summit we held at CUNY on Wednesday (thanks to the MacArthur Foundation). I think it went off well. Scott Anderson of Tribune put together a good collection of summary bullets. The students blogged the sessions at NewsInnovation.com and we’ll put up video and audio when we can. Robin Hamman called our event “stonking.” I sure hope that’s good.
What matters most to me coming out of this is inspiration and ideas turning into action. We will follow up on that action to see what really happens. But I was delighted to hear Jay Rosen say that at the Summit he signed up five partners for his next effort in beat reporting backed by social networks. Henry Abbott said: “I made stars in my notes when I heard an idea that made me think: I should do that on TrueHoop. There are about 40 stars in my notes. Cool!” Here’s the first of those stars in action: collaborative curation of video. Debbie Galant called to say that she has new things to do to try to fix comments. Dan Pacheco is still processing. One local organization was inspired by Jim Colgan’s experiment in crowdsourcing at WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show and also plans to ask its audience to find and compare the price of a six-pack of beer in their market. That might sound small but I think it’s big because it is about mobilizing the people formerly known as the audience to join in and prove that together, we can learn more than we could on our own. That’s a major cultural shift in news and I am confident it will lead to bigger ideas and more collaboration. That’s what counts. Enough talk, now it’s time for working together to expand journalism. More followup when we poll the participants on what they’re up to next. We will keep sharing lessons and best practices. That, I hope, was is the value of the day.
Some of my thoughts after we cleaned up the guacamole:
* BUSINESS MODELS: When I asked Backfence’s Mark Potts what he/we most need to get to the next level, he replied, “a business model.” No one has a good business model for this stuff — let alone for the future of news. But as Jay Rosen points out, the crowd was oddly calm given our presence in an overcrowded, leaky canoe headed up the creek with no paddles in hand. I didn’t intend this, but the business discussions at the Summit certainly lead straight into the next event we’re holding out of CUNY’s News Innovation Project — a session exploring new business models for news. This is urgent work.
There were sparks of good news about business. Jeff Burkett of WashingtonPost.com said they were getting double-digit CPMs for ads on their new blog networks, close to what they get for the site proper (though he wasn’t exact and we didn’t quiz him on sell-through). Stephen Smyth of Reuters is about to start up a similar network. Rick Waghorn of the UK is learning to sell the old-fashioned way: calling on restaurants and auto dealers.
I think it’s clear that there are easy, low-hanging steps the people in the room could take to improve the current business model: Local newspapers should set up ad networks among quality local blogs, allowing the papers to expand their content and reach without cost and risk and encouraging more bloggers to do more good work (‘produce less, gather more’ should be their chant — and the way to encourage others to produce more so you can gather it is to support their work financially). National outlets should organize national ad networks. Mark Potts said it’s likely that the only way to succeed at small is to be part of something big. We must also make it easier for advertisers to buy small and collaborative media. In the networks we create, we must give advertisers what they demand in data on demographics and performance, which small sites don’t have, but which big sites can help provide.
But those business models aren’t new enough. We need to investigate and experiment with more ways to tackle the business and ecosystem of news. I’ll post later about the idea of doing a zero-based analysis (how ’80s MBA of me) of journalism. And I’ll start brainstorming here on new business models.
* MOTIVE MATTERS: Well, duh, people aren’t going to do this stuff just because we want them to.
Jay Rosen said he learned that people need to be motivated to contribute effort to a project like NewAssignment. That motive needn’t be money; it could be self-interest of all sorts: I need to know, I want to know, I wish someone would look into this. . . . But it’s most likely self-interest.
So start with money. Earning payment for creating content or coverage is clearly a key motivation and we must have better systems for paying (and more revenue to share). As Merrill Brown of NowPublic pointed out in his session, this also makes contributors more reliable; as NowPublic is assigned news stories by the AP, it has to be able to rely on people to take on the work, and paying them is one way to assure that. Money matters.
We also heard from the folks at the Ft. Myers News Press and Gannett that pocketbook issues are likely to draw more interest and effort from citizens who join in collaborative products: How does this affect my life?
I raised the idea I’ve learned from my students at CUNY and at Burda that we need to turn the relationship around and enable our communities to assign us to stories we should report, on our own or collectively. They will tell us what matters to them.
This from the liveblogging of the social session on the topic of motive:
Travis Henry, YourHub — “The number one reason people post or contribute on my site is because… they want to see themselves in print. Then they start caring about how many hits they get.”
Melissa Baily, New Haven Independent — “We have these junkie types who crave more information about the town.”
There are lots of motives. But helping out the newspaper or big-media site is not one of them.
And in the end, we mustn’t forget that we, the media, do not own the product of this collaboration. The community does. Jarah Euston said there was some resentment when her Fresno Famous was sold to the Fresno Bee. The community thought they owned this; that’s exactly what you hope will happen when you enable people to collaborate through you: they take on ownership. That’s thinking like a platform: you provide it and people build atop it. At the end, who owns the wisdom and effort of the crowd? Why, of course, the crowd does.
* THE POWER OF PRINT: One theme we heard again and again was the power of taking citizen content and printing and distributing that: People, we were told, love to see their pictures or words on paper. It’s a boost to the ego, a validation, and one motive (among others) for producing this content. Perhaps more important is the fact that advertisers, particularly local advertisers, still buy print and so this is how to make this citizen content profitable (as has been done at NorthwestVoice and its California cousins and at Martin Huber’s MyHeimat in Germany).
So I think we can make better use of print to promote, to distribute, to encourage collaboration and to sell advertising. But I do think we could be seduced into making too much of print’s connection. We still have to develop the online revenue model. We shouldn’t think that taking disjointed quotes from the public and putting them in print in a ghetto of a feature makes the old products interactive (when this conversation should affect the entire process of news).
When I put Debbie Gallant of Baristanet and Jim Willse, editor of the Star-Ledger, on the spot about what they should do together, neither was enthusiastic about reverse publishing, as we call online-to-print. In fact, Debbie turned up her nose at the idea. Jim said that perhaps there should be an online exchange of content (Ledger high school sports coverage for Baristanet local stories) and he talked about an ad network (though he later said — and this is the real challenge — that in local newspapers, ad sales teams are not built for this). I saw them huddling together later. We’ll find out what they were concocting.
* COMMUNITY BRINGS COST: Another clear lesson from the best practitioners at the Summit was that there is a cost to community — a coordination cost, as Jay Rosen called it. This is the cost of managing, enabling, wrangling, curating.
It is also the cost of cleaning up the bad comments from the bozos. And there is the cost to the brand, the esprit and civility of the community, and its reputation if and when a few misbehave.
Many of us measure the value of content and conversation by the volume of comments. But perhaps that is the wrong measure; perhaps we need to measure the quality. Debbie Gallant is looking for some software to help with her comments. Newspapers too frequently have to deal with cesspools of racist comments that collect here and there. Mark Potts and others have tried to get people to use their real identities – which, Mark points out, may be more useful for people when they are your neighbors.
But Robin Hamman of the BBC has gone a step farther — one I agree with — and is moving off the idea that community and interaction must happen on your site. Instead, the BBC is trying to organize the discussion happening elsewhere, whether on our own blogs or on Flickr or YouTube. I think that’s smart.
Should we close comments? No. But should perhaps we can find ways to — wash my interactive mouth out with soap — to edit, curate, or judge them (and how much cost does that add?). When we create external networks of blogs — in, say, blogrolls — we are selective; why not with commenters (Nick Denton is headed this way at Gawker Media, but then Nick is a believer in the velvet rope).
The long and the short of it is that we are dying for a new paradigm for interaction. We all value the interaction. We all have had to deal with the bozos — and, unlike editors in the early days of the internet, we at the Summit did not dismiss all interactivity because of the bad behavior of the few. Indeed, we value interactivity so much so that we are saying quality matters. Short of overcomplicated systems like SlashDot, we just haven’t figured out how to enable and manage this. I see beginning efforts to curate interactivity in services that pick the people who pick the good stuff (champion Diggers or Glam curators — more on them later).
* ENABLE AND EDUCATE: As we begin to see ourselves as members of networks rather than owners of content, our relationships with our communities shift. I heard a lot of this at the Summit: We are figuring out how to facilitate our communities to do what they want to do. We are figuring out how to mobilize them to collaborate (what is the price of that six-pack?). We sometimes need to educate people and be educated.
And all this means that our people need different skills — and it also may mean that we need different kinds of people. Just as we thought the key to survival in the new age was learning how to make a podcast, the earth moves again and now a key skill is organizing people. Dan Barkin from the News & Observer and Robin Hamman from the BBC talked about that as people in the room wondered of Robin: Are there any more at home like you? Where do you come from? Where do we find you’s? And I wonder how we train them out of journalism school.
There’s much, much more but those are the big buckets I saw. Much more to come….
Wednesday morning, the Networked Journalism Summit at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism opens. Students will be liveblogging at the summit blog and I’ll ask the participants to tag their posts, photos, videos, etc. “netj.” Rachel Sterne from Ground Report also plans to broadcast from the summit.
That is my attempt to map the perimeter: solutions lie within. Division of labor is the key creative decision in acts of distributed reporting. Grok the motivations or it can’t be done. Watch for ballooning coordination costs as ramp up succeeds. Where the small pieces meet the larger narrative the alchemy of the project lives. Shared background knowledge raises group capacity. Extant communities already coordinate well.
No one is saying that collaborative, pro-am, networked journalism is the cure to the industry’s ills or that it will replace the professional model. I believe that it is one means by which journalism can and should expand now — even as journalistic organizations’ revenue and often staffs decline. New Assignment is one way to try this — with Rosen et al or on your own, as Brian Lehrer at WNYC has done. And tomorrow’s participants will hear about many other endeavors in other models. I hope they leave with information and inspiration and new ideas to implement and experiment with. When they do, we will report back on their plans and will follow up with progress reports.
I’m woefully behind in my blogging thanks to doing things like organizing my networked journalism conference at CUNY — so I’m doubly behind blogging about the conference. But I wanted to point to Dave Winer’s post with a suggestion I, too, have been talking about for sometime: opening up a newsroom to bloggers. I’ve talked about the need to turn newsrooms into classrooms (where both tribes learn). Looking forward to exploring that.
By the way, the conference is way oversubscribed already (and I was nervous we wouldn’t get enough people with experience and interest in the field).
: While I’m linking to Dave, he argues that the social network is the same as the social graph and so we should keep calling it a network because it’s a much clearer description and less geeky and annoying. I agree.
I’m delighted to announce that I’ve received a $100,000, two-year grant from the McCormick Tribune Foundation to provide seed funding to news start-ups developed by students in my course in entrepreneurial journalism at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism. A jury of industry leaders from the media community in New York – experts in content, revenue, marketing, venture capital and startups – are speaking with the class, helping guide students through creating their proposals, and at the end they will select the projects (if any) likely of success as sustainable journalistic enterprises and deserving of investment from the fund. The full announcement is here.
How’s that for cool?
We’re teaching the class for a few reasons. First, it’s more likely than ever that journalism students today will need to work independently — and not just as freelancers banging down the door of major media but also possibly as the proprietors of new enterprises of their own; we’re seeing more and more of that. Second, journalism needs more such sustainable enterprises; this is how it will expand rather than shrink. Third, journalism needs more innovation; I think it will most likely continue to come from without rather than from within the incumbent companies. Fourth, journalists need to better understand the business of media — which they long ignored, because they could afford to — and they must take responsibility for sustaining journalism.
What’s so wonderful about this grant is that it makes all this real. The students are now competing not for a grade but for a chance to create a new product, a business, and a career. They won’t just be producing prototypes that sit on a classroom shelf. And as I told the wonderful folks at McCormick Tribune when we started discussing the idea, this sends a strong and needed message to the industry — that we must invest in innovation and the future, we have to put our money where our mouth is. Well, make that McCormick Tribune’s generously granted money.
I’m having an absolute ball teaching the course, working with the students on their good — possibly great — ideas. It’s as if I’m on the board of 15 startups. They need to create a proposal that covers everything any startup must cover: the need in the marketplace, the content/product/service plan, market research, competitive analysis, a revenue (read: advertising) plan, a marketing (read: viral) plan, an operating plan, a launch plan. We’re digging into each of these, pressing individually and as a group and with our guests to make the ideas better, find and answer the challenges. I’m not trying to turn them into MBAs, but they all must answer the question: why does the market need this and how will sustain itself. Journalistic sustainability is our rallying cry.
I am also privileged to assemble what is essentially a first-class board for the businesses in the form of the experts who are now speaking with the class. First, I had in Steven Johnson, founder of Feedmag, Plastic.com, and Outside.in — one of the first journalists to make his career on the internet, a true entrepreneurial journalist. Next, Jim Kennedy, head of strategy for the Associated Press and thus the chief strategist of the newspaper industry. I just love that Jim pushed the students farther than they or I had, telling them after he heard their ideas they they had good ideas for sites but they were still just sites. What’s coming next? he asked. And some students came up with inspired answers. Yesterday, I had in Joan Feeney, my partner in the development and launch of Entertainment Weekly; creator of CondeNet’s Epicurious, Style, Concierge and other sites, and a genius at other launches. She generously spent three hours giving the students her distilled experience from launching new editorial products and they soaked it up. I’m bringing in more experts in venture capital, revenue/advertising, marketing, design, and such. And I’m sharing my experience, good and bad. The first week, I gave them my original memo proposing Entertainment Weekly from 1984, then the memo from on high rejecting the idea (because, said Henry Grunwald, then editor in chief of Time Inc., one magazine cannot possibly serve TV and books because people who watch TV do not read), and the business plan that led to the magazine’s launch in 1990. But what’s also great is that the students are helping each other; yesterday’s class ended with a great dialogue that helped focus and advance one student’s idea and that’s what we’re going to do again next week.
The students’ ideas are impressive but I’m not going to tell you what they are, not yet, in case one of them turns out to be the next Google. (In which case, I’ve told them, I hope they remember their school and donate a fortune.) We’ll share more when we can.