Sunday, January 20, 2013

Road to entrepreneurial journalism passed through Bolivia

Martha Paz, Universidad
Evangelica Boliviana
My path to developing courses in entrepreneurial journalism began in 2006 in an unlikely place -- Bolivia, the poorest country in South America.

Bolivia historically was controlled by interest groups that crushed upstarts who tried to challenge their control of business and politics. Entrepreneurship? There is a word for it in Spanish, but people in Bolivia were not used to using it.

I was a Knight International Journalism Fellow training journalists at the major news organizations in that country. I was also developing a journalism course to offer at the country's oldest private university, the Universidad Evangelica Boliviana, well known for producing top journalists like Martha Paz. She had left the country's biggest daily to return to her alma mater and head the communication department.

Something innovative

Martha wanted me to develop an innovative course for the students. As we talked, she focused on my background as a newspaper publisher and my experience running the sales, marketing, circulation and management side of a news organization. The students, she said, were not interested in working for the existing news organizations. They wanted to start their own. Could I show them how?

Por supuesto. Certainly. We could start by talking about possibilities. What kinds of media would they like to see that did not already exist? Then each student could do a market scan, identify some competitors, do an analysis of their strengths and weaknesses. Then they could refine their product idea. Yes, this could be a course.

We called it "How to Start and Run Your Own Media Organization." Several professors had their own ambitions of starting media. They registered for the course and attended the class. Four of the classes consisted of presentations by media entrepreneurs -- the publisher of a newspaper for university students, a TV sports journalist who syndicated his own show, the publisher of a weekly business newspaper, and the head of a major advertising agency.

Make a plan, pitch investors

Each student had to develop a portfolio that included an analysis of the competition, marketing plan and business plan; a cover, a table of contents and sample articles for print projects; sample video or audio for broadcast projects; and details on frequency of publication and means of distribution.

There were at least two arts magazines, a television show focused on an indigenous community, a popular music magazine, a religious magazine, several radio programming ideas, and one graphic novel series, if I recall.

The course culminated with a pitch session to potential investors that I modeled on some I had seen at  tech councils and business incubators back home. Each participant had five minutes to present their plan to a panel of three professors playing the role of investors. We grilled them, graded them and gave a prize to the best idea. I don't remember who won, but I know that I learned more than they did in the process.

Restless professionals

In 2008, when I arrived in Guadalajara, Mexico, to launch the digital media training center that became the Centro de Formacion en Periodismo Digital, I found the same kind of restlessness among professional journalists. They were tired of  low salaries, poor treatment, and the censorship they had to endure in traditional media organizations.

At the very first seminar we held at the University of Guadalajara, the participants urged me to develop a course on starting and running a media business.

Working with the University's experts in online teaching methods, I designed a six-week course on the Moodle platform that we gave for the first time in the spring of 2009. More than 70 people from 10 countries applied. We accepted 35.

The six week course covered business models, a market scan, competitive analysis, marketing plan, business plan, and newsroom leadership. Course contents included readings, audios and videos, but most importantly the students had to submit several assignments each week to the course website and had to make comments on their colleagues' work.

 Of the original 35, we picked the best 17 to come to Guadalajara for three days of hands-on training with digital tools. They came from Guatemala, Colombia, Costa Rica, Peru, the U.S., and Mexico.

Spring 2009, Entrepreneurial Journalism class, from six countries
Four years later, about a third have continued forward with their projects, that I know of. One of my trainers, Alfonso Fonseca, seated at the bottom right, has become the chief digital strategist for the governor of the state of Jalisco.

Online master's with entrepreneurial focus

Manuel Moreno Castañeda,
Rector, Sistema de Universidad
Virtual, U. de Guadalajara
Manuel Moreno, the Rector of the University of Guadalajara's Virtual University, which offers all the online courses, was urging me about this time to develop a master's degree program in digital journalism to be offered completely online.

The focus, I decided, should follow the lines of the Entrepreneurial Journalism course. Students would develop a project idea over the course of their master's degree program, culminating in some form of new digital media.

A team of about 10 of us -- journalism professors and experts in online course design -- worked for several months to come up with the syllabus. In the end, about 50 percent of the course credits were dedicated to the same elements in the basic course -- proposing a project, refining the idea with a competitive scan, marketing plan and business plan, getting feedback from a mentor and then launching the project. A fourth of the credits were for developing the project proposal itself.

Enthusiasm for master's

The University announced this online master's in digital journalism late in 2011, after I had left. Immediately about 130 people registered with the school's website and asked for information. Of that group, 35 paid the application fee and submitted all their paperwork.

Then came an innovative screening process. Each applicant had to take a three-week online course in which they proposed a new media project, began refining the idea and completed other exercises, including an online assessment of their English. (English is not required, but applicants are encouraged to take courses.)

From those 35, 20 were accepted, 19 of them working journalists and one communications official for the state department of education.

Rosalia Orozco, director,
Centro de Formacion en
Periodismo Digital
After one year, 11 of the original 20 are still in the program. The work load may be a factor. Online courses are by no means easier than in-person courses, says Rosalia Orozco, director of the program. Students need to put in 15 to 20 hours a week. The dropout rate of 40 to 50 percent is typical not just for online courses but for public universities generally in Mexico, she says.

International participation

The second class of 18 has just been selected, including participants from Ecuador, Peru and Colombia. Orozco said the first year has been a learning experience. The professors are making adjustments based on student feedback. The hardest thing has been to find professors who can teach the practical skills such as editing of video and audio; the University requires that teachers in a master's program must themselves have a master's, and not many experienced professionals have that degree.

This year, the 11 students remaining first class will develop their projects with the help of professional journalism mentors.

Then we will have the first group of entrepreneurs from the program. And it all started in Bolivia.


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