Entrepreneurial journalism is not an oxymoron

This week, we held the second annual jurying in the entrepreneurial journalism class I teach at CUNY. Damn, it’s fun. And it’s inspiring to see journalists act as entrepreneurs and to see journalistic innovation.

The students propose a new, sustainable, journalistic enterprise. We define journalism broadly. The winners were a platform for educators and students to share lessons in a complex field; a service for a large diaspora; and a company serving news radio over phone calls. (I’m being vague on purpose since these ideas are the students’ own.) Others included coverage of graffiti, one New York neighborhood, one street in a New York neighborhood with a strong social scene (call it nanolocal), Copenhagen, the web itself, and charities. There were also platforms for social bargain hunting and sharing, a new kind of political party, and explaining complex stories. They each emphasized using many media to do the job.

The winners received seed money to actually start their businesses thanks to a grant from the McCormick Foundation.

The jury: Adam Bly of Seed and Science Blogs; Ed Sussman, who’s working on a new Drupal-based community startup; Upendra Shardanand, founder of Daylife; Michael Rosenblum of RosenblumTV (who blogged the experience here); Susan Rerat, ex of Conde Nast; Matt Drapkin, a private equity man; Mark Josephson, CEO of Outside.in; Joan Feeney, a longtime colleague and consultant; and Jim Willse, editor of the Star-Ledger.

I love teaching this class. The students’ ideas change, sometimes radically, as the course goes on and as they learn more about business and challenge themselves (as guests and fellow students do) – they act like good entrepreneurs. They understand the importance of learning the business, not something I learned in J-school. They look at the world in new ways and see new opportunities.

Last year’s winner took jobs but two or three may still start their businesses. One lesson, among many, that I learned from last year is that new businesses like these need support, and that is why we received a $3 million matching grant from the Tow Foundation to start a Center for Journalistic Innovation, which will include an incubator to support development such as this – from independent entrepreneurs, companies, and the industry as well – with space, advice, and connections.

In the spring, I’m going to teach a truncated version of the course at the Sorbonne with Eric Scherer of the AFP. Dan Gillmor also teaches journalistic entrepreneurship at Arizona as does Rich Gordon at Northwestern. The more, the better. Journalism is not going to preserve itself into the next era; it must innovate its growth. That’s what this course really teaches – not just business and journalism but invention and change.

  • Last night I watched DRAGON’S DEN on BBC AMERICA.
    I thought your student’s ideas were much better and far more innovative.

  • Teaching the new kids is wonderful. But, how about teaching a short form version of the class for the many journalists who are being laid off? Given the state of the business, there is no way that most of those folk are going to find work. For them to continue in journalism, they are going to have to create new jobs. They are going to have to be entrepreneurs.

    bob wyman

  • Jeff,

    Sounds like some great ideas. However, it would be even more interesting to hear the business models proposed. The professor’s bias against paid content is well documented; were any of the students nevertheless bold enough to suggest a paid model?

    Kind regards,

  • Jeff,

    Glad to hear the judging went well. My Online Journalism class at Columbia College Chicago just presented final projects at Google Chicago yesterday. It was awesome. It’s always so inspiring to see kids thinking about journalism in new ways and then making them real. I just launched the official site for our own, less ambitious, journalism incubator this morning: http://www.j-incubator.net We’ve been using it internally to host the student’s projects. Now they’re live, so it’s live.

    Keep up the fantastic work,

  • It would be great to see the class made available along the lines of MIT Open Courseware.

  • Jeff, this was a lot of fun and energizing. The class was really well prepared and are definitely thinking about things that the existing media folks are not…

    I’ve got really high hopes for the ones we picked.


  • “The winners were a platform for educators and students to share lessons in a complex field..”

    Very interesting.

    Was it by any chance inspired by this lil’ ditty that I wrote last Tuesday?

    I’d be willing to bet that it was.

    I also might have about a half-dozen or more “sustainable” ideas
    that I’ve yet to publish.

    Eventually somebody with smarts will pay me for them.

  • Eric Gauvin

    hmmm… I like Patrick’s idea about the Multimedia Multiversity.

  • “The Elephant in the Room”

    Once upon a time, there was an elephant in a room full of journalists.
    These journalists were very stubborn, arrogant, and some were extremely elitist.

    This elephant was a poor elephant
    but had a knack for making accurate predictions about what was going to happen.

    Often times, this elephant would try in vain to warn these journalists in the room – to help them.

    And, occasionally, this elephant would even appear to be completely wrong at first
    but would actually end up being completely correct – after a couple of months or years had passed.

    Some of the journalists in power would actually make it a point to punish this elephant
    for daring to speak the truth to them – in anyway they could.

    And sometimes they would even steal his ideas while presenting them as their own.

    Most of the other journalists would simply ignore this elephant altogether,
    as if he wasn’t there or simply didn’t exist.

    A few of the younger interns in this room, however, were quietly listening
    and would secretly give this elephant a little food money so he wouldn’t starve to death.

    Finally the elephant decided to give up on trying to help these journalists anymore.
    The room they were in was on fire, and was sure to burn down to the ground.

    Before the elephant left the room with some of the younger interns
    he tried once more to reason with the journalists to save their lives.

    “You’re all going to die unless you take my advice now,” the elephant remarked,
    “This room wouldn’t have even caught fire if you had simply listened to my advice in the first place.”

    “Fuck you,” replied one of the older journalists in charge
    before promptly crossing his arms and turning around to face the opposite direction.

    The elephant left the room as it burned with all it’s occupants to the ground.

    “Oh well,” thought the elephant as he walked to the bar with the young interns, “At least I tried my best.”

    The elephant may not have had the journalists’ respect or even enough money to pay his bills
    but at least he had his life, his youth, and enough pocket change to buy a beer.

  • Patrick, were you that elephant?

    It’s so weird – my past experience at the Inquirer and Daily News sounds more like Adrian Holovaty’s at the various news orgs he worked at – co-workers were HUNGRY to find out how evolve. Sure, some friction, but it was executive focus on immediate ROI or managing risk that kept things from moving forward at a faster clip.

    I like the “Multimedia Multiversity.” idea.

    I’m curious as to whether there are a growing number of courses that cover the intersection between computer programming and reporting. To my mind, the world needs a hell of a lot more people with Adrian Holovaty ‘s skill set.

    And I do not kid when I say I’ love to see MIT Open Courseware-like availability of these courses. It was information made freely available online that led me to my software engineering career. I am thankful for it.

  • Rebecca Harshbarger

    Thanks Jeff- that class changed my life profoundly, and opened my eyes to so many possibilities that I hadn’t seen before in journalism!

  • Yes Karl, I am that elephant.

    Here’s another one..

    The Arrogant Madness of Revolution

    “How dare he try to change our beloved craft, even if it is in the shitter!”

    “I know, you’d have to be arrogant to try to change somebody’s craft! Nobody does that.
    Revolutionize journalism? Pah-lease. Gimme a break.”

    “And how dare he call us out on our bullshit, we’re the ones in charge!”

    “I know, you’d have to be crazy to speak truth to power! Everybody knows that.
    Democratize communication? Pah-lease. Gimme a break.”

  • Finding an un-supportive workplaces isn’t that surprising. You find them in any line of work. So I’m just happy it isn’t an industry that’s closed off as you present -. Otherwise – you’d have no Django – and believe you me – Django rocks. It has inspired me to dip in and get some Python chops.

    When I look at EveryBlock, another of Adrian Holovaty’s works, I tend to believe he was energized by his encounter with journalists. I know I was.

    In fact Patrick, you are posting your comment to a blogger who is a journalist.

    An open minded one pursuing the future. They exist.

    Think about it.

  • Danny L. McDaniel

    College journalism degree programs need a heavy dose of business administration, management, supervision, and leadership courses that go part-and-parcel with journalism core curriculum. Very few journalism graduates know the first thing about the business and finance side to media operations, especially newspapers. Most operate like modern enterprises with compartmentalized departments, such as advertizing, production, distrbution, finance, etc. Only when you understand and talk to others that see a different side of the business model can you have a truly viable newspaper.

    Danny L. McDaniel
    Lafayette, Indiana

  • Rebecca Harshbarger

    Amen to that last comment! Completely agree!

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