Tweet: Report from my entrepreneurial journalism class: Cause for optimism
Wednesday was the best day of my year: the jurying for my entrepreneurial journalism class at CUNY. The jury awarded four businesses a total of $57,000 (thanks to a grant from the McCormick Foundation). Here’s how it works.
Because one of them could be the next Google – or Condé Nast or ESPN or AP or, better yet, something entirely new – I won’t reveal too many specifics. One of the products is a platform for news assignments I hope we’ll help deploy soon; another a mobile sports application; another a creative, algorithmic answer to filter failure; and the fourth – the one that is already public – a clever omnimedia project about the provenance of fashion called ClosetTour.
It was a tough decision for the jury. Other impressive ideas were a human – rather than algorithmic – answer to filter failure (aka editing); a specialized women’s travel service; a specialized local real estate service; a cool food idea; two business-to-business ideas; one hyperlocal/hyperinterest site; one service for a local Hispanic ecosystem; a service for NGOs; a commercial service for artists; and one idea whose three-word elevator pitch is so clear I’d give it away if I said more than one word (“news”).
There are some key insights in the students’ ideas. A few were built around the need not just to create content but to curate it. Most are highly targeted. Some saw the potential in specialized local services. Some saw the need to go mobile to service the public. Some are international. Some are multimedia. A few saw the need to make news fun, others to make news useful. Some realized that news will be created by new people in new relationships with media. You’ll be interested to know that some plan to charge users (and I endorsed those plans, unlike Mr. Murdoch’s).
This was a great class. My favorite part of teaching it is holding our board meetings, when I work with them one-on-one on every aspect of their plans: elevator pitch (utterly critic, or jurors and customers will be lost); needs statement (why does the world need this thing?); market analysis (whom are you serving?); market research (aka reporting); competitive analysis; product plan; revenue plan; marketing/distribution plan; operations (cost) plan; launch plan; and the ask (how much they want from the jury and what they’ll do with it).
Because I was out for a few weeks after my surgery, we started holding our meetings on Skype video, which works quite well, and continued in person at my whiteboard (how were companies started before dry-erase?). While I was out, friends Joan Feeney and Steven Johnson filled in, along with my associate for the class, Dan Shanoff (who not only knows journalism and the web but – bonus points – has an MBA). All three were on the jury, so they saw the incredible transformation the students and their ideas – not to mention their presentations and confidence – undergo over the term.
This is my third year teaching the class and a few things are predictable: Some high proportion of students will come into class declaring that they don’t need to worry about all this business and revenue stuff because they’ll be not-for-profit. They also tend to want to do good for its own sake. I beat their altruistic, communistic instincts out of them and turn them into passionate capitalists, emphasizing that no matter where the money goes at the end of the day, they’d better have money left over – aka profit. Their enterprises and their journalism must be sustainable or they and their businesses won’t survive. I don’t do this just to corrupt them but to give them – especially these days – a strong dose of hard reality. My not-so-hidden agenda is to teach journalists business so we can be better stewards of the business.
The jury this year was again stellar: in addition to those above, David Carr of the NYT; Fred Graver, comedy writer and entrepreneur (you should see his business plans); Charlie O’Donnell, VC from First Capital; Mark Potts, founder of GrowthSpur; Betsy Morgan, former CEO of Huffington Post; Lee DeBoer, entrepreneur; Upendra Shardanand, founder of Daylife; John Paton, CEO of Impremedia; Peter Hauck, Nancy Wang, Jeff Mignon, and Jennifer McFadden, my colleagues on the New Business Models for News Project; Elizabeth Osder, consultant and teacher.
The students get four minutes to present their ideas, the jury four minutes for questions. After almost three hours, we retire to the jury room (wine-and-cheese equipped) and the deliberations are worth the price of serving. Some complained that one student’s idea – a content idea – wasn’t really a business, that someone should just hire the student to make it a book or a site or a show. David Carr issued a winning defense of the strategy, arguing that journalists won’t all be hired; they need to make their own way to the sea (he always talks in metaphor); that is, they will need to make their own work into businesses to make it sustainable. He also urged this student not to turn out something in just one medium but to make it take advantage of every bit of functionality that will be on the mythical tablet we’ll all soon be using. He won the day.
We discuss the ideas and the students’ innovation and potential to succeed (do the have enough resources and the right skills?), identifying where the jurors see the most heat until we have, by a process of painful elimination, landed on the likely recipients. Then we debate how much money they actually need.
Finally, importantly, jurors volunteer to mentor various businesses. CUNY provides an incubator to help them succeed. I will work with the students to agree on benchmarks they must meet to receive the next piece of funding.
Two years ago, the students who won grants got jobs instead, though one student in particular made use of her proposal by bringing it into the major paper where she works. That’s one of the goals of the class and program: to infuse legacy institutions with innovation and entrepreneurship. Last year, three students won grants and they are all starting their businesses now. Next year, I’ll report back on the progress of this year’s winners.
The morning before the jurying, I was invited to meet with some of the lions of journalism – former top execs at the AP and Dow Jones and various metro papers – to present and discuss our New Business Models for News. My message: that the future is entrepreneurial not institutional, that news will come from ecosystems instead of corporations, that the transition may be too painfully impossible for their former companies. I invited them to leave their meeting and come to join our jury. I wish they had.
The starting point for an entrepreneur, I told them, is not what has been but what can be. In some cases, the opportunity they see will be to undercut the old order – ‘craiglisting’ content next. In some cases, the opportunity they see will be to do journalism in new ways that were never possible before we had this incredible linking and collaboration platform. I spent my career working with the institutions and I still will. But now I favor working with the entrepreneurs. I believe they are our future. It’s that future I saw Wednesday afternoon.
This is why I am going to devote myself more and more to entrepreneurial journalism at CUNY. More on that later.