“Did I give you a headache this morning?” Jeff Jarvis asked as he passed my cubicle one day this fall.
“You give me a headache every Monday.”
He doubled over with laughter.
Yes, that Jeff Jarvis — author of “What Would Google Do?” and other works explaining the media revolution that has changed the way news is consumed and produced, ending a lot of journalists’ careers long before we expected.
He is also a professor and director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, where I coach the international students. The term “entrepreneurial journalism” has also been known to induce headaches. “Entre-what? What’s that?” I’ve been asked more than once when tossing it around in conversation.
Translation: entrepreneurial journalism means creating sustainable new businesses from the journalism we already do, or have done. “Sustainable” is a euphemism like “development” in the nonprofit world. It means making money.
I first heard of Jeff from Steve Pratt of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, my teaching partner at the University of British Columbia two years ago (An Education, Feb. 29, 2012; Finals, April 2, 2012). Steve put “What Would Google Do?” on the reading list for our course. Among other things, he introduced me to metrics — using stats on what the audience is already consuming to determine what it wants, and making editorial decisions on that basis, a concept that still makes me uncomfortable. When I told Steve I’d be taking the basic course in entrepreneurial journalism that Jeff teaches with Jeremy Caplan, Tow-Knight’s director of education, I could sense his envy through the e-mail.
Students come to the course with an idea for a news product or business they would like to create. During the semester, they define their projects, research the market, assess the competition and start working out the financials. At the end, they present their projects to seasoned entrepreneurs for their feedback. (The audience at the spring final in the advanced certificate program includes actual venture capitalists.)
I am not a business person; I spent 35 years at newspapers with firewalls between the newsroom and the business side. Circa 1978, thinking I might enroll in a Columbia journalism program with an M.B.A. component because of course I was going to soar to the top in newspaper publishing, I enrolled in an introductory business course at the University of Rochester. There we set up hypothetical companies with products A, B and C. The way to improve any product, we were told, was to invest more money in it. “But what’s the product?” I kept asking. “It doesn’t matter,” I was repeatedly told. I never did apply to Columbia; business clearly was not for me.
But this summer, after teaching “English for the Media” at the University of Lower Silesia in Wroclaw, Poland, I realized that I had a product: my course needed to go online to serve journalists all over the world. “Entrepreneurial Journalism” seemed like a good first step.
Luckily, I had worked with Michiko Kuriyama of Yomiuri Shimbun, who came to CUNY last year for the certificate program. As we went through her assignments, I coached her in English but didn’t always understand what they were all about, and I certainly couldn’t see myself doing them. Market research? I’m a word person! Balance sheets? Do you think I remember what I learned about those in New York University’s art administration program? That was five years ago! But I got an idea of what the course required. Thank you, Michiko.
So yes, there were headaches, partly from the class’s crack-of-dawn start (9:15!); partly because Jeff’s mind is a perpetual-motion machine that often made my head spin (and Jeremy is no slouch); and partly because I was so far out of my comfort zone.
My classmates were well within theirs; they all seemed to have mastered, and to live in, the new-media world. Their projects were as impressive as they were varied: hyperlocals for Harlem, the Bronx, Staten Island, the Jersey Shore, north Texas; websites on fashion and the LGBTQ community; apps to help sport fans track their teams and social media users their news feeds; and so many others.
I like to think my old-media tendencies slipped out only a few times — when I admitted to using a Windows computer, for example, or when I declared that the early web producers sent to the culture desk at The New York Times around 2005 were not journalists. (I stand by my story; I checked with my friends. Of course, they’re old-media, too.)
Throughout the course, I remained a little disappointed that entrepreneurial journalism seems to be so much about the business plan, so little about the product. But then, while preparing for the final presentation, I made a breakthrough. “Show what it looks like” was the most obvious and probably the best suggestion for our presentations; it forced me to get down to work. Jeremy had recommended a course platform, pathwright.com, and I successfully transferred the first lesson to it just in time. I even produced a decent-looking slideshow, rudimentary spreadsheet and all, without begging my tech-savvy young classmates for help.
Those are just two of my learning outcomes — a category de rigueur on every university syllabus these days. Another is that the course has given me a new way to think. There is no “business side” anymore. Le business side, c’est moi.
“This is something you’re really going to do?” Jeff wondered in our conference a week before the final presentations. (Did he think I dragged myself out of bed and onto the subway for three months for my health?)
“Yes,” I replied. “I am.”
Yesterday, in his end-of-course notes, he wrote: “You’ve convinced me there is an opportunity here.”
And you, Jeff and Jeremy, have convinced me that it’s one worth grabbing. Thanks to you, I have a business plan, a presentation and even a product. The next task is to assemble 10 media professionals around the world with reasonably reliable Internet connections and a strong desire to improve their English for a free pilot class this winter. (Any more takers? E-mail me: firstname.lastname@example.org.) Then all I have to do is find a webinar platform, figure out how to hold classes across a dozen or so time zones and make sure my assignments work online.
The real headaches — and the real learning — are about to begin.