Supporting journalistic entrepreneurialism & innovation

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,, and — 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.