Dean’s Corner: The Changing Role of J-Schools

March 22, 2012 | CUNY Graduate School of Journalism

2012 Tow-Knight Fellows Brianne Garcia, Adda Birnir, and Brian Reich

By Dean Stephen B. Shepard

Chalk up another first for the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Late last year, New York State approved our plan to launch a two-year Master of Arts in Entrepreneurial Journalism – the first such degree in the nation. We’re offering it under the auspices of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, which we established in 2010.

Candidates for the new M.A. will spend their first three semesters taking most of the same courses required for our traditional Masters degree in journalism. In their fourth semester, they will take four specialized courses, including an immersion in the latest technologies and a seminar in new business models for news. They’ll incubate ideas for new digital products and spend an apprenticeship in a media startup in Silicon Alley, New York’s vital Mecca for new media businesses. At the moment, two CUNY students who started in the regular M.A. program have opted to stay a fourth semester to go for the entrepreneurial journalism degree. They’re joined by one alumnus and 13 mid-career professionals who will receive an advanced certificate for their semester’s work.

Our new M.A. reflects the role that CUNY and other top journalism schools are playing as our profession is transformed by technological change. Beyond teaching the eternal verities of journalism, we are researching ways to support quality work as the old financial order
erodes. And we are starting to develop new products and services that use digital technology. In effect, journalism schools are becoming more like the teaching hospitals at medical schools, which not only train students to be doctors, but also do research, treat patients, and staff clinics.

I’m proud to say CUNY is one of the pioneers. For our very first class that entered in 2006, Professor Jeff Jarvis designed a third-semester elective course, initially called “Creating Interactive Media Products.” In a memo I wrote even before the School opened, I said, “Our course is ambitious, calling on students to develop new product ideas, write business plans, and generally expand their thinking. Not every student will be up to it, not every idea will make sense. But the goal is for students to understand what’s happening in today’s media world and think like entrepreneurs.”

Jeff raised $100,000 from the McCormick Foundation to award stipends to the most promising ideas, and a dozen students signed up for the course for the fall of 2007, renamed
“Entrepreneurial Journalism.” Each student spent the semester on one project, then pitched
the idea to a jury of venture capitalists and media mavens. In the first five years of the course, with additional money from other donors, the jurors have awarded stipends to 17 students, ranging from $3,000 to $30,000 each. Several students have spent countless hours in a lab we set up in Room 444, trying to develop their ideas after they graduated.

Based on the promising start in this course, we ramped up our entrepreneurial efforts with the Tow-Knight Center, thanks to $6-million in grants from The Tow Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Combined with money already raised and in-kind contributions of technology, staff, and space from CUNY, the Center is capitalized at $10 million.

Last year, under the Center’s auspices, we pilot-tested a one-semester advanced certificate program in the ways and means of entrepreneurship, attracting 11 Tow-Knight Fellows, most of them mid-career professionals. This semester, we’ve enrolled 16 Fellows. Come June, two of them — Brianne Garcia and Michael Mccutcheon – will be the nation’s first recipients of the M.A. degree in Entrepreneurial Journalism. They are also the first to win scholarships in the name of J. Douglas Creighton, a founder of the Toronto Sun, who died in 2004. The Creighton scholarships are funded by John Paton, CEO of Digital First Media and a member of the CUNY J- School Board of Advisers.

Though we were among the first schools to stress innovation, we now have plenty of company. Northwestern has created the Knight News Innovation Laboratory, a joint-venture of its journalism and engineering schools that is funded by a four-year, $4.2 million grant from the Knight Foundation. Arizona State’s Cronkite School has established its own Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship, as well as a New Media Innovation Lab. Similarly, the Annenberg School at USC, in partnership with Berkeley, has a Knight-funded Digital Media Center. Also in the game: Maryland, Syracuse, and American University.

Our friends at the Columbia J-School are important new players. In 2010, Columbia set up a Center for Digital Journalism, also funded by The Tow Foundation. This year, it joined forces with the engineering school at Stanford University to create the Brown Institute for Media Innovation at both schools. It is financed by a $30 million gift from Helen Gurley Brown, editor of Cosmopolitan magazine from 1965 to 1996. Columbia’s share is $18 million, the biggest gift in the J-School’s history.

At CUNY, we do not expect to come up with the silver-bullet business model that will save journalism. We do hope to stimulate entrepreneurial thinking in our students, train them in media economics, and learn a few things about how innovation can work in our profession.