In the US I’ve met two academics who are pioneering a new form of journalism training that will likely become increasingly important to aspiring journalists all over the world.
It is called “entrepreneurial journalism” and is being taught in places like the University of Southern California and Washington D.C.s American University, as a response to the changing media landscape.
The reality for US journalism graduates – and those in New Zealand as well, is that they are as likely to find themselves working for tiny online-only media start-ups as they are to take the traditional route through local newspapers and metropolitan dailies, or in the newsrooms of TV and radio stations.
Those who get their first break in the traditional media are, often as the result of redundancy, increasingly going out on their own, or joining small start-ups with uncertain economics, some of them not-for-profit by design. To succeed, first and foremost, they need to be good journalists. But they also need to develop an entrepreneurial sense, whether they are simply trying to make a living as a freelancer, or are setting out to start a news website or develop an app.
They need to appreciate the scale of the change in the news business that has happened while many of them were happily oblivious to it in high school. Many aspiring journalists will have no interest in studying new media business models, publishing platforms and audience analytics. But the ones who have an appreciation for the business of news will help decide the future make-up of the media. That’s an exciting opportunity and it is the obligation of journalism training schools to help prepare them for it.
New media tricks
We have a relatively large number of good quality journalism schools in New Zealand. I myself went through AUT’s school of communications studies graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in 2000, the year AIT as it was known became a university. I took lessons in “desktop publishing” and used Microsoft Frontpage to design websites. Oh how things have changed – for the better.
The focus then, and to a large extent still is, on teaching trainees the basics – ethics, story structure, beat reporting, short hand. Students are exposed to the latest technology and platforms, which is great. But it is time to widen the scope, to foster the next generation of New Zealand media leaders, across print, online and broadcast. We also need to encourage ongoing journalism training that counts.
The idea of “intrapreneurship” needs to be explored in the New Zealand media. This involves existing media management types or journalists, being given time and training to develop a media project for their employer. This is a way to incubate new ideas and products while giving journalists skills that will serve the longterm interests of them and their employers.
At the University of Southern California, David Westphal, a career print journalist who is now editor in chief of the Center for Health Reporting, teaches students how to think like news entrepreneurs.
The day I visited him he had a pile of students’ papers on his desk. They weren’t essays or articles for marking. They were business proposals. Proposals for media start-ups. Among them could be plans for the next BuzzFeed, Gizmodo or Huffington Post.
David said many of the proposals come with non-disclosure agreements, as the students are serious about making their plans reality. Driven by an interest in journalism, they also want the autonomy to pursue their own vision and are hungry to develop the skills to do so.
Here’s how the course Entrepreneurship in the New Media is described by USC:
The course will build toward students’ creation of a feasibility plan for a new-media business – one that they might actually implement after graduation, or one that they might aspire to. The business plan might be a non-profit, a for-profit or a hybrid. Students will also keep class blogs tracking developments in the world of entrepreneurial journalism.
The next step is exploiting the potential of this technology-driven publishing revolution.
The course has attracted early to mid-career journalists looking for fresh ideas and skills to reboot their careers. Masters graduate Kim Nowacki is typical of the types of students Westphal is teaching. In her Masters thesis, which is published online and is worth a read, she writes:
Three years ago I watched with a growing level of frustration and sadness as my traditional-media-employer fell further and further behind when it came to thinking, let alone acting, Web-first.
As the access to the Internet grew, it was touted as bringing about the great democratization of the media. In other words, the Internet allowed anyone and everyone to be a publisher with much thanks to free, simple-to-use platforms like Blogger and WordPress. But that didn’t just apply to J.Q. Citizen Blogger. It also applied to, well, journalists, who before were constrained to a publishing platform run by editors and publishers.
In Washington D.C. I visited J-Lab and met its founder, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jan Schaffer. Jan has developed the MA in Media Entrepreneurship at American University. It’s a 20 month masters programme and here’s how it is billed:
This is a 10-course, 30-credit curriculum over 20 months aimed at the working professional who is interested in either developing his or her own idea into an entrepreneurial venture or building an intrapreneurial project for a current employer. Classes meet one night a week and every other Saturday. Courses include entrepreneurship and innovation, communication law, media technology management, finance and marketing.
Jan isn’t just interested in journalists. Such is the definition of journalism changing, Masters students at AU are also coming from “NGO, advocacy, government, technology, public communication” backgrounds. At J-Lab she has also funded new media start-up pilots, many of which have become sustainable (more on that and a full interview with Jan in an upcoming FutureNews piece).
Get busy innovating
It is only by assisting fledgling journalists – and news veterans keen to to gain the skills to innovate in the news business, that we’ll find a future direction in the media that is sustainable and serves the needs of audiences.
We have great entrepreneurial journalists operating in New Zealand, who should be giving bootcamps at journalism schools on the subject of entrepreneurial journalism. Scoop’s Alastair Thompson (see video below) immediately springs to mind. i’ve had numerous fascinating conversations with Alastair about the economics of display advertising and sponsorship. He’s totally happy to share his knowledge.
A few things I’d like to see developed in our journalism schools:
- Papers or masters programmes in entrepreneurial journalism.
- Annual boot camp for journalists in the news media who want to upskill as news entrepreneurs.
- Development of “intrapreneurship” collaborations between media companies and universities, giving students the opportunity to intern or work on media projects being developed in the real world.
- A tie-up between journalism schools and start-up incubators/accelerators such as the Icehouse and CreativeHQ to identify promising media start-ups for ongoing support and investment.
- Part-time resident journalist positions in journalism schools for senior journalists (hell, there are enough of them out of work, consulting or freelancing – Cameron Bennett, Rob Harley and Chris Barton to name but three.
Other ideas, stuff already going on in universities I’ve overlooked? All ideas appreciated in the comments section.
Alastair Thompson on Scoop’s beginnings