Thursday, 21 January 2010

What journalism schools should teach about entrepreneurialism

Entrepreneurialism is in the air, with three events two UK and one transatlantic focusing on the subject in the past few days.
So I thought I’d draw together what is being done, look at the common threads in the discussion, and in the process make a stab at drawing together a template for what those who teach/train journalists should be equipping them to do.

First, what is entrepreneurialism?
It’s equipping journalism students and, indeed, working journalists, to spot a business opportunity, and then create a business, that will enable them to make their journalism pay.

Why is it necessary?
Because jobs in established media companies are scarce and getting scarcer. I blogged recently about where I think the jobs will be in 2010, but for increasing numbers of journalists, if you want to practise your craft, you’ll have to create a business that enables you to do so.

What should be taught?
Jeff Jarvis of Cuny, the City University of New York , organised a transatlantic conversation about that this week. You can listen to the conference call between teachers in the UK and US here, and find the source material to what I summarise below here
and here.

At Cuny they set out to tackle the fact that journalists didn’t understand their own business by establishing a course in which students must create a business plan for a sustainable (which they define as profitable) journalistic enterprise. Cuny won grants of $100k to give as seed money to the best of the ideas students come up with, as decided by a jury of experts.

Here’s what students learn:

How to create a plan for a sustainable (profitable) journalism business
That plan includes
·        An elevator pitch – how to sell the idea briefly and effectively
·        A needs statement – why does the world need this business?
·        Market research and analysis – deciding who their customers are, and talking to them about the idea
·        Competitive analysis – who do you have to beat?
·        Product plan – what is it?
·        Revenue plan –  how’s it going to make money?
·        Distribution/marketing plan –  how will people discover it?
·        Operations plan –  how will it operate? What will that cost?
·        Launch plan –  what are the phases and milestones?

Here are some of the business ideas currently being developed
1 Making an iphone app around sports
2 Infrastructure for the assignment of news assignments to journalists, bloggers and students
3 Distributing radio shows in the student’s home state in Africa over the phone as phone calls
5 Serving the Ugandan diaspora in the US and the UK
6 A platform for educators to share their curriculum and news about science

Jeff Jarvis’s view is that what he characterises as the big old dumb media company is not going to be replaced by some big new smart media company. Rather, its going to be replaced “by an ecosystem of a couple of hundred individual players who operate under motivations and means and business models. That’s the world our students are going in to.

“There will be jobs in established media but students also need the means to start their own jobs

“So much is changing, we don’t know how journalism will look as a career in 10 years time – even five years. But our hunch is that there will be a demand for journalism, for our traditional skills – which is why we still teach them.

“But we need to be prepared to meet the type of demand that there is for journalists and journalism in the future, and the old model is only going to be one way, and maybe not the main way, of making a living as a journalist.”

Academic journalism courses must be dovetailed with media companies

Cuny also ties in with media companies, and that seems to me to be key.

Indeed, any journalism course that is not allied with a publisher – of a local or national news website, newspaper or B2B or consumer magazine is going to look increasingly cut off from the real work of journalism.

Specifically, at Cuny, says Jarvis: “We just added a course in hyperlocal built around running The New York Times blog, The Local, in Brooklyn. We are working with The Times and others to also tackle hyperlocal advertising opportunities and challenges (funded by the Carnegie Corporation).”

One contributor to Jeff Jarvis’s conference call was George Brock, professor of journalism at City University in London, who also gave the opening address at the news:rewired event organised by His contribution to the call was refreshingly honest: “I wish I could say that we have flourishing courses here at City on entrepreneurial journalism, with new business models and so on. But we don't, yet.

“Our magazine course does require students to shape and present a new business idea which then gets taken apart by experts and by the class. ...But this kind of exercise is not yet general for our 600-plus graduates and undergraduates and I'm keen to spread this sort of learning so that it reaches all our students and strengthens their hand in the years ahead.

“Two dimensions which I think are important: (1) sustainability and (2) the chemistry of teamwork in a small outfit.

“1) In almost anything to do with entrepreneurial activity, there's a huge concentration on the elevator pitch and preparing for the mauling from the audience. TV shows like Dragon's Den (apologies to the US - this is a massively popular British TV show featuring a jury of hard-bitten business gurus chewing, and mostly spitting out, new business ideas) only reinforce this. A business idea for sustaining a new form of journalism is not about making a quick killing: it needs legs, strength to survive imitation by new competitors, the ability to create a platform which lasts.

“2) On an assumption that was perfectly good in the past, many journalism courses assume that their students will join large journalism outfits of several hundred if not thousands of people. This is a particular kind of working culture and jobs in them tend to be relatively specialised. Working in teams of, say, less than 10, is a different business and requires a degree of flexibility and skills of collaboration which are worth drawing attention to.

“My hunch is that the very best way to teach this is in experimental local news sites working on the ground in central London, just north of the financial district where we're located. At the moment, our students on all platforms make their own papers/magazines/programmes/blogs from that local material but for internal consumption. If we could find a way to do that while helping experiments in local news in real time, the enterpreneurial aspects would be a natural part of the experience.”

I imagine all journalism courses get students to create a publication print online or both as part of their studies but very few insist that this be a viable business that will attract readers and advertisers and create the revenue to pay journalists. In future they should.

Some are working towards that.

Goldsmith’s College MA students created an online magazine called EastLondonLines, designed to serve the disparate London boroughs that will be linked when the East London overground railway reopens in a massively extended form later this year.

It sounds like a worthy effort

Birmingham’s City University has MAs in Online Journalism and Freelance Journalism with a strong focus on entrepreneurship and enterprise.

Newcastle University is introducing business and entrepreneurial training to a number of disciplines, including journalism, and has twinned with the BBC   and PA to “combine first-rate scholarship, and vocational training in multi-media journalism in a real-world commercial publishing environment.”

Entrepreneurialism isn’t just for students

The NUJ’s Making Journalism Pay conference was filled with examples of journalists who have – often out of necessity – become entrepreneurs.

There are two detailed reports on the conference
here and here. Below is my summary of entrepreneurial ideas that have worked.

Niche business news services that work

The conference heard from the founders of two business news services that took a lot of cash and promotion to establish but which are now profitable.

One was former Yorkshire Post business editor David Parkin who in 2007 set up It employs seven journalists in Leeds and Manchester covering business news for the north of England

As Dominic Ponsford blogs: “It’s a thriving and expanding business and shows that the advertising funded online model can work if you’re dealing with high-value readers and have low fixed costs.

Daniel Johnston is the founder of a niche news, analysis and community website set up in 2007 for the welfare to work industry. It sustains itself through advertising.

Making local media pay

Manchester confidential is a news and entertainment site for the city that is confident enough in its performance to plan to charge for content.

Eric Gordon, founding editor of Camden New Journal, an independent London paper launched in 1982,  runs a newspaper with a £2m turnover and a staff of 30. It operates on a small net profit which he believes a larger, more commercially minded owner would not accept, meaning closure.

He told the conference: “Even now, despite the slump, we’re getting by.

“It’s so important to look at the market – and whether you’re going to get advertisers.”

New markets for your skills

If traditional media companies can’t or won’t pay you to do what you do well, you need to find someone who will.

Gavid MacFadyean, director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism, said 75% of investigative journalism is now carried out by foundations or NGOs.


Paul Staines runs the 2m-page-views-per-month political blog Guido Fawkes.
And is a founder of – an advertising network that represents 40-odd political websites. He told the conference that the single highest paid blogger on MessageSpace has sales on average of £3,872 per month.

The top 10% of bloggers had monthly sales averaging £2,861 in the fourth quarter of 2008 – and that you can add on perhaps 30 per cent to those numbers now.

Staines also makes money selling stories to newspapers, from T-shirt sales and appearances.
He can get £20,000 from a newspaper for a political scandal story.

“The thought that a rival newspaper is going to get it drives them mad and they pay up for that reason.

“I have achieved the Marxist ideal. I own the means of production and distribution. I have job security, I can’t be fired and do much better than many journalists.”

Dominic Ponsford says: “When it comes to niche business and local media I think we are going to see ever more small web-based start-ups taking a slice of the pie.”

He told the conference how his title, Press Gazette, which has had a troubled recent history under a variety of owners,  is made to pay:

  • Reach a mass audience online
  • Reach an elite audience in print 
  • Attract people to linked events

I suppose its fair to say that, as journalists have only had to be entrepreneurial in the past few years, it's no surprise not many are much good at it right now. But that will change. It has to change if journalists are to be equipped to survive.

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