Monday, April 22, 2013

Universities can lead in incubation of new media models

Ninth in a series on entrepreneurial journalism programs at universities and media organizations. 

Mark Briggs, the man who wrote the book about entrepreneurial journalism, believes that universities are among the best places to experiment with new business models for news.

Universities embrace experimentation and risk-taking, he says. "Those are two traits that are not very inherent in legacy news organizations. That's why I've always felt that the university was in a prime position to be the startup incubator for testing new ideas in digital news and publishing."

He favors the model of a lab where students are encouraged to propose new products and applications and try them out on real audiences. Since the students have no investment in the old ways of doing things, they can approach some of the problems facing media organizations with an open mind. 

Mark Briggs, author of
"Entrepreneurial Journalism"

What have they come up with? Some examples can be seen at Arizona State in its Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship  and New Media Innovation Lab, and at Northwestern University's Medill School. J-Lab, a journalism innovation center housed at American University, has also encouraged innovations through grants

Abandon legacy methods

Briggs is a popular speaker on media innovation and author of several books, including "Entrepreneurial Journalism: How to Build What's Next for News." I caught up with him via Skype just as he was leaving to give some presentations in Ukraine.

"Experimentation is really important right now because we don't know what the new models are going to look like, especially when it comes to the business side and revenue for news. I think for too long in the digital space we've tried to force legacy business models on new platforms."  

One of those legacy models is the banner ad, which he says is broken and irreparable. "What's the next model? We don't know. That's why we need experimentation." 

Among the experiments he mentions is so-called "native advertising," which in many ways resembles what used to be called advertorial -- material that has a thematic link to the editorial content but is presented and labeled as separate.  (A graphic produced by Solve media explains some of the key features.) 

Lean startups and the "minimal viable product"

Universities can learn a lot about experimentation and risk-taking from the culture of the most successful innovative community in the world -- Silicon Valley -- Briggs says. And in the digital world, a trend in Silicon Valley is toward creating a "minimal viable product" that requires very little time and capital to build. 

This is a trend best described by Eric Ries in his book "The Lean Startup." "Build as little as you can to get meaningful data on your product with a particular audience," Briggs says. "This model works well with the university environment."

(Some say journalism schools aren't innovating fast enough. Eric Newton, senior adviser to the Knight Foundation, and officials of five other funders of journalism programs, said in an open letter to university presidents last summer that they need to abandon the status quo or face becoming irrelevant.)

YouTube's revenue potential

Briggs is also intrigued by what he calls "the YouTube economy," in which a a growing number of video bloggers have carved out huge followings for their offbeat or snarky takes on the news, society, or daily life. 

Many of these bloggers are capturing millions of subscribers to their videos and have logged hundreds of millions of  views, which can translate into significant money. How much? Briggs says there is little information out there except anecdotes of the kind that suggest a particular video channel employs five or 10 people and is profitable. (Posts like this one, with guesstimates of revenue, are about as specific as you will see.)

"I don't think YouTube gets the attention that it deserves because it sits outside of the news industry's echo chamber. The pundits, the future-of-news people, like to talk about the New York Times, or the traditional players, or the fairly new upstarts like Buzzfeed or the Huffington Post" rather than YouTube.

Briggs's day job is digital media director for King-5 Television in Seattle, so doing something with their digital content on YouTube seems like a natural. "We're trying to do some of our own experimentation around that. There is very serious money being made on YouTube."


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