All the News That’s Fit to Blog

September 16, 2011 | Salute to Scholars, The University

NEWJOURNALISM
GRADUATE SCHOOL OF JOURNALISM

All the News That’s Fit  to Blog

Journalism courses now prepare students to be entrepreneurs in the growing world of New Media.

By Neill S. Rosenfeld

What are budding journalists to do when Old Media are tottering and New Media are battling for eyeball time? Go into the news business for themselves?

Well, maybe yes, as the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism’s new Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism sees it. “What Stanford and MIT bring to the technology industry in nurturing innovation, we hope the Tow-Knight center will bring to journalism,” says dean Stephen B. Shepard.

The center is backed by two $3 million grants from The Tow Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, plus donations from other foundations and the J-School’s in-kind contributions of staff, technology and space.

In December the center awarded its first $40,000 in business-incubation grants to four Internet ventures — on health care transparency, news-based gaming, Nigerian police and a Brooklyn advertising cooperative.

Why innovate? At least 166 U.S. newspapers have folded or gone digital-only since March 2007, obliterating 35,000 jobs, says the Paper Cuts blog run by Erica Smith of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Local television news lost 1,200 jobs in 2008 and 400 in 2009, reports the Radio Television Digital News Association/Hofstra University Annual Survey; radio jobs held steady, but news directors are spread thin, typically overseeing three stations and having other assignments.

But the Internet is booming. A Pew Research Center poll says the Web is the primary source of national and international news for 41 percent of Americans, up from 21 percent in 2002; 66 percent rely on TV, down from 82 percent in 2002; 31 percent cite newspapers, down from 50 percent in 2003, while 16 percent favor radio. (Figures top 100 percent since respondents could name two news sources.) Epitomizing the trend is Newsweek magazine, sold last year for $1 plus the assumption of tens of millions of dollars in debt; it soon merged with the Daily Beast website.

With his 2008 challenge grant, cable-TV pioneer Leonard Tow (Brooklyn College, 1950; see cuny.edu/tow) started the J-School down the entrepreneurial path. The foundation was “concerned about the fate of print journalism in the digital age and the impact of its decline on the health of our democracy,” says its executive director, Emily Tow Jackson.

To match that grant, Shepard turned to Alberto Ibargüen, president of the Knight Foundation, which had funded summer stipends for J-School interns.

By then, associate professor Jeff Jarvis was teaching a course about inventing self-sustaining news products. “When I was coming up in journalism, I was told to stay away from business; it was corrupting. As a result, we became poor stewards of journalism,” he says. “As tough times hit, we weren’t prepared. We have to prepare our students to become leaders.”

All incoming students receive an orientation to entrepre- neurship. Meanwhile, the J-School won approval for an entrepreneurial certificate for mid-career journalists and is seeking state clearance for the nation’s first M.A. degree in entrepreneurial journalism. For select students, it would add a fourth semester to the normal graduate degree focused on business training and research.

Offering support, the Lawrence N. Field Center

for Entrepreneurship at Baruch College’s Zicklin School of Business sends professors into J-School classrooms and pairs M.B.A. and journalism students to develop business plans.

Nothing is guaranteed in the frothy world of 21st-century New Media. “Your product has to fill a need that the market is willing to pay for,” says Monica Dean, the Field Center’s administrative director. Success likely rests on attracting advertisers or subscriptions.

Will any of the four ideas underwritten by the Tow-Knight Center or the 10 earlier projects backed by $100,000 by the McCormick Foundation become blockbusters — or even self-supporting? “It’s too early to know,” Dean says.

Here’s a look at some prior winners:

• Joe Filippazzo’s $30,000 grant has led to two online products. Knotebooks.com lets any professor or student create personally customizable notebooks. Once a free Knotebook is set up, users can shift to easier or more complex explanations with a click, without having to search the Web.

In addition, under a National Science Foundation grant with SUNY Stony Brook, Filippazzo and partner Tom Clark developed a spinoff course-management tool for physics students called LabKnotes, which goes public this fall. Although the NSF rejected a later grant proposal to bring this to the CUNY Graduate Center, they’ve uploaded “an entire graduate-level physics course from the Graduate Center for them to test out.”

LabKnotes is more easily “monetizable,” perhaps via an annual license fee, but how will Knotebooks make money? “A number of parties in the educational and journalism space are interested in our technology, and we’ve had bites from venture capitalists, but there’s no proven revenue stream yet,” he says.

Filippazzo begins a CUNY doctorate in physics this fall, but his ultimate goal remains marrying science with news. He says that entrepreneurial coaching by J-School and Baruch faculty was invaluable and that “half the meetings we’ve had were the direct result” of the CUNY collaboration.

• Rebecca Jane Harshbarger, who reported in Uganda, won $10,000 to launch ugandansabroad.org. The site is aimed at the estimated one million Ugandans who live in the U.S., U.K., Canada and beyond. It covers culture, health, business, politics, immigration and women’s issues. (A recent story said solar-powered ovens could save Uganda’s forests, which have been stripped for firewood.) The grant built the site, hired freelancers and kept her afloat until she became a part-time New York Post reporter.

“I was a print reporter with some interactive skills, but I didn’t have any business experience,” she says. “The journalism school and Baruch gave me encouragement and showed me how to write a business plan and market the website.”

Although ugandansabroad.org is not yet self-sustaining, “It’s a pretty low-cost operation. The big issue is time. I’m hoping advertising grows the site so it can be more of a full-time job for me and I can pay for more content,” she says.

• Indrani Datta wants an intelligent way to curate the flood of links she amasses from Twitter, Facebook, and RSS feeds, not to mention articles from news sites, blogs and aggregators. Since she received a $13,000 grant in 2009 to start Highly Ordered Inc., she and her co-founder, Alan Grow (they met doing research and development at Bloomberg), have been building a prototype of their Web application. They envision a service that helps online news junkies prioritize news stream items by identifying trusted sources, relevant social input and favorite subjects.

“We’re focusing on people who face information overload or filter failure every day, like journalists,” she says. “If we can build people a powerful and user-friendly tool, we think they will pay for it.” Curation, she adds, “has always been a core function of journalism. We hope to find the sweet spot between human and machine curation.”

• Jenni Avins draws on her experience in clothing production “to bring fashion journalism into the realm that food has been brought into through great multimedia storytelling.” Instead of chefs and pastamakers, think clothing designers and Peruvian knitters. She used her $9,000 grant to build closettour.com and produce video webisodes like “Making It,” which shows her perkily exploring how clothing manufacturing persists in New York City, though far down from its peak. She also blogs on topics like an auction of leather fashion at Christie’s.

“So far the site is a showcase,” she says. “The webisodes got me into conversations with powerful, wonderful people, but none have figured out how to pay for that kind of long-form, multimedia content. Any journalist of my generation is finding himself in a similar place [in New Media]. The world is changing so fast, we’re all trying to figure out how to capitalize on it.”

Meanwhile, she polished off an article for Marie Claire magazine, started contributing to a fashion blog at NBC-New York (www.nbc newyork.com/blogs/threadny) and is working on a proposal for the oldest of Old Media — a book.

Winning Ideas for Innovative   Formats and Websites

Ten students drawn from Jeff Jarvis’s third-semester course in entrepreneurial journalism pitched their ideas for new businesses in December. Outside judges from media and business picked four winners:

• Former New York Times editor Jeanne Pinder received $20,000 to create a website that — through reporting, data mining and crowdsourcing — would bring the same transparency to health care costs that now exists for airline pricing. Why do some colonoscopies cost $800 and others $5,500? “For every other item we buy we have more information” than for medical prices, she told the judges. One reason is that most insured people pay only deductibles, shrugging off the far larger bills that insurance covers. “We should care about insurance costs, not just because it affects us and our families, but also because premiums are going up and governments and businesses are groaning under the burden of increased costs.”

Amy Berryhill received $5,000 to develop Meme Push, which she called an “edutainment platform” combining news and gaming in Q&A format; there will be links to full explorations of news topics. Think of a daily fantasy sports game probing, say, the ins and outs of team WikiLeaks and its star player, Julian Assange, which were in the news during her pitch.

Shane Dixon Kavanaugh, editor of Overflow magazine, a two-year-old, free, glossy quarterly about arts and culture in Brooklyn (overflowmagazine.com), got $10,000 to build an advertising cooperative to serve it and other hyperlocal media in the borough. “Overflow isn’t big enough to attract the Brooklyn Academy of Music or Volvo — we don’t deliver enough people — but if we band together with other publications, we can deliver a critical mass” to attract the advertising dollars they all need to survive, he said.

Musikilu Mojeed won $5,000 to help create NigeriaPoliceWatch.com, a partly crowdsourced website aimed at upgrading Nigeria’s national police force; he is now adding content and making professional contacts. “The police are inefficient, unprofessional and very corrupt,” he said. “They commit extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses … rapes and kidnappings.” Police don’t publish their station house phone numbers or addresses, even in major cities like Lagos. “My country really needs this kind of platform and somebody needed to step out to make it happen.” He shrugged off suggestions that he was risking his life by returning home to start the site, saying, “I’m a journalist.”