Entrepreneurial journalism

In the middle of Mark Glaser’s good consideration of the Carnegie-Knight News 21 project, a year into it, he makes this intriguing suggestion:

So why not take the $6 million and create real new-media incubator businesses? Stanford University helped create Yahoo and Google, but those companies didn’t come from the journalism school. Perhaps the journalism schools could team with computer programming departments to create hybrid sites that combine the best technology of sites such as Digg or YouTube with the editorial standards that come from journalism.

We need that kind of innovation and daring in the industry — and it’s not coming from the industry.

This is why I added a course/lab in entrepreneurial interactive journalism into the CUNY curriculum; I’ll be teaching it next fall. The idea is that students will come up with and flesh out ideas for new businesses or products. I’m hoping that some of them may even come to life. But I’d like suggestions from you all on how to make this work, how to make it more than just prototypes, which journalism schools pump out regularly. What can bring the kind of entrepreneurial drive to journalism and media that Mark notes at Stanford around technology and media?

Mark’s story continues:

Ford, a fellow at Northwestern, told me he thinks journalism schools should be a place for innovation and experimentation as they live outside the commercial media world.

“In many industries, universities are the breeding ground for the cutting edge,” he said. “Whether it be science, industry, business or engineering, often university research can foster new development in a given industry. This has not always been the case in journalism schools. More often than not, students in J-schools are being trained on outdated equipment, with outdated technology, with the ultimate focus on theory and basic skills. This training can produce good, even great journalists — an admirable goal — but it does little to move journalism forward in innovation.

“Few are the media organizations with the resources and time to commit to experimenting with new ways of reporting and disseminating content. News21 is an experiment in itself, a chance for the time and resources to be committed for the sole purpose of trying something new. Whether our work resonates or not will be evident in coming weeks. In the end, it was a daring experiment, and will be worth its effort in lessons learned, if nothing else.”

I should add that there are elements of this at the Northwestern Medill program. I worked with Rich Gordon and the students there on the GoSkokie hyperlocal project at the same time that they created new sections for the Lee newspapers. Both projects, are sadly, history and I think that may be because they depended on big, old media companies to nurture them. That is no longer necessary. And I’d say it’s also not desirable, for big new ideas — Yahoo, Google, MySpace, Flickr, About, YouTube, Wikipedia… — could grow bigger faster on their own.

For the first time since William Randolph Hearst, journalists can think and act independently and entrepreneurially. So how do we help them do that?

LATER: Two minutes after posting this, Rich Gordon gave me the good news that I am wrong about the continuing life of those two projects: But your post is wrong that both projects are history. Lee killed the print property but kept it alive online. And it’s really great news that, as Rich says, “the Skokie Library took the GoSkokie ball and ran with it” at SkokieTalk, crediting the Medill project as the inspiration.

: AND: Terry Heaton and I seize on the same paragraph.

  • It seems to me that the type of person who goes into a traditional journalism program is one who wants to be some flavor of reporter.

    You are trying to break this mold by adding entrepreneurship to the mix. Very few reporters fall into this category, starting their own publication is usually as far as they go.

    Perhaps you should think about recruiting students from other programs, such as business administration into your class. Maybe even a few discussions with the computer science faculty could prove fruitful.

    None of the big innovators in the online world came from a literary/journalism background. This seems unlikely to change, but having a few entrepreneurial or technology types in a class of journalism majors might spark something.

  • “None of the big innovators in the online world came from a literary/journalism background. ” Really? While you were asleep at the wheel….I’ll leave it at that and let others give examples.

  • Rafat:
    You don’t cite any examples, which make your remarks a cheap shot, but what I had in mind were the creator of the web (a physicist), Google (two computer scientists), TCP/IP (a group of technologists), affordable servers (the founders of Sun microsystems – all Stanford computer students), Netscape/Mosaic (more computer science students).

    Now if you would like to cite some people who took print content and moved it online, feel free, but I think you live in a bubble if you think that constitutes “innovation”.

  • OK, I’ll bite: you’re asking for innovation in technology, I’m mentioning innovation in usage/form…meaning online publications. Since we’re talking about journalists, I’ll stick to journalism: Word.com, Salon.com, Slate.com, Wired (and its online variations over the years), Suck.com and plenty others, all started or co-founded by journalists.

  • Jeff,

    You make a very good point. Journalism is in need of innovation as are many traditional fields dominated by heady academia who tend to analyze rather than create. I worked for the Chicago Tribune on their Website initiative back from 1997 to 2000 and we experimented with many different methods of telling stories in intreractive ways that were very innovative back then. You can guess what happened. The Tribune opted to simply “shovel” their content over to an automated service which fed the Web site, and anyone with talent left for more stimulating opportunities.

    What’s amazing is that years later, the field stil demonstrates modest to little innovation even though journalism is undergoing some of the most dramatic changes as the media shift unfolds in real time.

    PS, to Rafat’s point—I don’t think just pushing your content online with a few message boards or even throwing in a blog is truly innovative.

  • Merrill Brown


    We’ve talked about entrepreneurial innovation within the News21 program and in fact, I would argue that giving students an opportunity to do this kind of work is an important part of empowering them to be entrepreneurs. You know quite well that I think teaching entrepreneurial skills is critically important. The News21 fellows didn’t inherit a large infrastructure in which to do their work. And although we provided lots of support the students had to go out on their own, dig deep into their stories and then produce them for the Web, TV and print. I think graduating students going into the marketplace having developed those skills are quite prepared to join new ventures or to start their own. Many of them would like to do so.

    As for the Rafat Ali-Robert Feinman debate, I assume Feinman is saying that you, your career and BuzzMachine, and the rest of us with a bit of journalism in our backgrounds who have spent time in Web work have never done anything innovative. All I’ll say is that it’s disappointing that he doesn’t value your work or that of Ali. Anybody out there actually think that paidcontent.org isn’t innovative?

    Merrill Brown
    National Editorial Director

  • Merrill,

    Thinking about this, I’m not sure I agree with Mark that these goals should be conflated.

    It seems to me that the goal of News 21 is to improve the quality and ambition of reporting. Mark raises a separate goal: acting entrepreneurially, experimentally, strategically, bravely. I’m not saying that one project should do both or even that the same people need to do both. So I don’t see this as criticism of News 21, as something missing in that program.

    But I do see the need to find more ways to both goad and nurture innovation — including business innovation — in news. Anybody have an extra $6 million hanging around? Actually, the question is: What does it take to nurture such business experimentation? What is it at Stanford that spawned Yahoo and Google? Merely geography? Culture? Structure? Of course, it’s not just about the university but the profession. I know EE and physics and computer science professors who are forever looking for the next company to start. I don’t know journalism professors who think that way — in part because they could not… until now. The web allows, even encourages not just innovation but implementation. So we need to bring that into the culture of journalism, in both church and state. I wonder how to do that. And I want help in the small effort I’m undertaking in that class.

    As for Feinman, I think he’s throwing eggs and chickens. Yes, it’s true, people in other fields have been more innovative starting big web companies. That should hardly be surprising. But that doesn’t mean that people in journalism cannot or have not. You have certainly been entrepreneurial at MSNBC, among other things. I started a magazine. We had to do those things inside big companies. Rafat has built a most journalistic company on his own; just this week, I was holding him up as an example to my students. Jay Rosen’s NewAssignment.net is also entrepreneurial albeit charitable (and Jay would be quick to add: we’ll see whether it works). We need many more attempts and we need success stories to show the way. If there are 200 companies funded in the video search space alone (according to Battelle), where are the 200 companies funded or at least hatching in the journalism space?

    I think we’re just started trying to figure out how to nurture innovation — how to hatch more Rafats.

  • Merrill Brown:

    Paidcontent may turn into something innovative. But six month’s ago Josh Marshall asked readers to help fund two investigative reporters for his new site TPMmuckrakers. This was novel online, but isn’t conceptually different than Mother Jones or the Nation funding specific journalists from special funds.

    If you want real innovation, I think the new trend towards activist bloggers is worth mentioning. For example, just this week the blogosphere (TPMmuckraker again) asked readers to find out which senator had put an anonymous hold on the pending bill to create an online earmarks database. It took about two days for the readers to flush out the senators.

    This marshalling the public to dig out information seems innovative to me.

    What was just an aside in my original remarks seems to have taken on a life of its own. I’m sorry that journalists feel upset that we, the public, don’t feel their efforts are as important as they do. What’s the big deal with Salon or Slate? To me they are just online versions of a traditional magazine concept. Perhaps, I’m missing something…

    However, my real point was that journalists should reach out to technologists and business people to get a variety of ideas in a course on “innovation”.

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  • Jeff,

    Two words in your replies above stand out for me: ambition and innovation in reporting.

    I’ve only worked at two newspapers in my career thus far and at each we’ve talked about and formed strategic leadership committees around creating an ambitious and innovative culture. At each, we found through studies and surveys that it’s the very nature of creating “the daily miracle” that prevents ambition and innovation.

    If a reporter is busy editing video for a feature story, he’s not covering something else. The photographer who spends more time at a crash scene to get more photos for an online photo gallery, missed the winning touchdown at one of the local high schools.

    So, we go back to what we have to do and forego the “extras.”

    I think I know what needs to be done to break out of this role-based organization and create an ambition-based organization that rewards and celebrates innovation in journalism, but I’ve no idea how to do that AND produce the “daily miracle.” (See To Do list below)

    Until the organization changes, I’m afraid no amount of training and ideas is going to move us “traditional” newspapers along.

    It’s worth trying, of course, and I’m committed to the cause.

    If any of your students want to be part of the process AND produce great journalism, please give me a call.

    Newspaper Culture Change To Do List:
    1. Stop producing journalism that readers don’t care about any longer.
    2. Use the additional time resource saved from doing #1 to dive deeper into local stories and tell them in more engaging ways using multiple platforms.
    3. Reward those who do #2.
    4. Empower reporters to make decisions and stop the top-down, do this and only this approach of many editors.
    5. Reward reporters for doing #4.
    6. Hire more reporters to cover more local events, especially sports.
    7. Make everyone in the organization accountable for increasing readership including sales reps, customer services reps and business types.
    8. Hold regular training sessions using time saved from doing #1.
    9. Reward those who use the skills learned in #8.
    10. Make everyone accountable, including corporate owners, to changing the culture from process-based to learning-based.
    11. Since everyone embraces #10 as the end result, the corporate owners should probably get used to lower margins. A small sacrifice to creating a powerhouse in local reporting which will, over time and in turn, deliver results for advertisers which will in turn boost those margins back up.

    I’m no expert. This is just a little of what I’ve learned in the past eight years I’ve been in the business. Call me naive. I’m going to keep trying.

  • JennyD

    Jeff, what exactly do journalism schools teach? There’s a lot of talk about here about what they don’t teach and should teach…entrepreneurial skills, etc. But I’m not sure what they DO teach.

    What are you going to teach? How will you assess whether your students have learned what you set out to teach them?

  • Jenny,
    I could have predicted that comment. Just because I’m not listing everything we are teaching doesn’t mean we’re not teaching it. I can send you to syllabi for the craft courses, the law courses, the ethics courses, the feature writing courses, the urban and health and business and cultural track courses, and on on and on. But that’s not my point in this post. My point here is that we ALSO need to prepare students for an industry undergoing volcanic change and we need to prepare them not just to survive it but to lead it through this change with innovation, imagination, purpose, and focus. Call that an extracurricular activity, if you’d like, but I say that if we don’t also figure out how to do that, journalism will suffer.

    What a magnificent manifesto! You can’t hear it, but I’m cheering at the end of your list. I agree wholeheartedly. I do, though, disagree with just one point: editing video may not be an extra; it may be the story. And luckily, it is getting to be easier to learn how to edit video than it is to type. I spent this morning learning and experimenting with a new program (Videocue, a Mac rendition of Visual Communicator and Vlogit, which I used to know on Windows machines) and it is amazing how easy and intuitive the tool is — like the tools that allow anyone to blog, podcast, wiki, etc. The tools and their priesthoods no longer stand in the way. And we are no longer imprisoned in our paper medium. So we can tell stories however best they should be told.

    So I’d make that an even dozen on your list, if you’ll entertain amendments: Go to where the people we used to call readers have gone. If they want their news in print, text, audio, video, or phone messages, let’s give it to them (and get it from them as well). And, yes, let’s concentrate on the news that matters (local, useful, unique) and not the boring stuff everybody else has that everybody already knows and nobody really cares about!

  • The Carnegie-Knight project was about wiring together the J-Schools those foundations see as the most prestigious, and making them leaders by calling them leaders. It wasn’t about innovation; it was about status. I think it’s unfair to expect entrepreneurship when the whole point was to strengthen the established schools and their wisdom about what a good J-School education is.

    Tim Porter headlined his post on the announcement of this $6 million initiative, “The priesthood gets funding for a new church.” He writes:

    The thinking behind the initiative lies in a study done, pro bono, by the McKinsey consulting group, which, interviewed 40 news executives of all stripes and concluded that journalism schools should be:

    “Teaching basic reporting and writing skills, as well as the paramount importance of getting the facts right.

    “Developing news judgment and analytical skills, including the ability to separate fact from opinion and use statistics correctly. As one interviewee put it, ‘An astonishing amount of journalism requires strategic thinking and planning.’

    “Mastering specialized expertise and critical language skills (e.g. economics, medical research, Chinese, Arabic, Farsi).

    Raising admission standards and helping the best and brightest land challenging jobs.”

    In other words, teach them how to do it, what to do and what not to do while doing it, topical knowledge, and cultural literacy and – this is important – direct those with the aptitude into the profession…

    See anything from those news executives about entrepreneurship, invention, change?

  • Jeff,

    Thanks for adding to the list. I’ll keep you posted on our little cultural evolution here in the Poconos.

    And, I’m not kidding about sending your students our way. We’ll embrace ’em.


  • Jeff,

    Thanks for adding to the list. I agree with #12 and if we’re successful in actually reaching our readers in all those ways, the investment will be well worth it (I keep telling anyone who will listen.).

    I’ll keep you posted on our little cultural evolution here in the Poconos.

    And, I’m not kidding about sending your students our way. We’ll embrace ’em.


  • JennyD

    Jeff, I would love to see your syllabus. And I’d also love to hear how you intend to scaffold the information/learning you will present in order to build knowledge. I do no underestimate this work at all. Terribly demanding. A mutual friend guesses you are putting in a lot of time thinking about this.

    I am deeply interested in the work of professional schools and what they think they are teaching and need to teach. I work in the equally opaque area of education and teacher education, and we debate these things everyday. For good reason…because it’s not clear what the answers are. And frankly, we’ve done a less than swell job at making explicit the link between our teaching and our students’ knowledge.

    So I am keenly interested in how you will design and implement a curriculum with these things in it, and will still teach the other stuff that needs to be taught…although I’m less clear on what it is.

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