Teaching the business of journalism
The experiment should have been a disaster: Take 15 advanced journalism students and challenge them to spend a semester thinking about money, spreadsheets, marketing ideas and business plans. But it wasn't.
A decade ago, it would have been heretical for journalists to think about making money. Today, that thinking has become essential for media businesses to survive — and for creative people to support themselves.
After seeing journalists forced reluctantly into becoming entrepreneurs, I ran the experiment at Point Park University this spring. We talk often about using technology to tell stories in innovative ways, but young journalists — especially — also must think creatively about selling their ideas.
The students pitched business proposals, voted on classmates' favorite ideas, formed teams to support the most popular plans and spent 15 weeks on marketing, financial and business strategies. The U.S. Small Business Administration in Pittsburgh introduced them to entrepreneurs and provided essential guidance on forming a startup and seeking financing.
In the past, media businesses could afford to separate reporters and editors from sales staff and business operations, rightly fearing that money concerns would influence journalistic decisions. No more. News organizations expect journalists to be aware of their company's bottom line — and to be mature enough to not let that information influence their work.
On a recent trip to Harvard University, I met with a friend who is as an editor at STAT News , a medical-themed 2015 Boston Globe spinoff. The site has a national reach, and my friend, Megha Satyanarayana , manages a team of reporters scattered around the country. She edits stories, writes a daily column — and obsesses about web clicks and retention times, how long readers linger over items. After all, the longer users look at a web page, the more an advertiser might pay to reach them.
“I feel the education of journalists these days has to be x semesters of learning to be a reporter,” she told me, “but also two to three semesters of understanding the business side of journalism.”
That much business focus might be overkill, Joshua Benton , founder of Harvard's Nieman Journalism Lab , later told me. Not every journalism student will think like an entrepreneur and the world does not need tens of thousands of new media startups. But journalism schools should not inculcate the old ways either, he added. Graduates should at least have a basic understanding of how media companies make money — and understand that their jobs include keeping their employers in business.
The ethical boundaries still make sense: Journalists cannot pursue or avoid certain topics or targets just to make money. But they also must reach broad audiences, build their brands and get to know their companies' business people.
All five companies my students proposed held actual promise. Two attracted potential investors and for-profit business partners. Most of the students shied away from taking that next step toward becoming entrepreneurs, but they saw the path to getting there.
Andrew Conte is the director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University.