Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Universities are driving innovation in media

The true role of universities has always been the improvement of society. Developing leaders is a key part of that.

The scholars of universities immerse themselves in the values, ethics, culture, and history of a society and then communicate it to the students.

Those of us in the humanities tend to think of innovation as something that happens outside, in the world of business, especially in the digital world. However, courses in innovation and entrepreneurship have started to take hold in schools of communication.

Versión en español

Beyond commercialization

For academics, who seek knowledge for its own sake, there is something slightly perverse or unclean in considering their work from the point of view of its application in the business world. But innovation goes far beyond mere monetization.

Innovation can be viewed as being more like the work of the artisan or artist than the business person. Artists and artisans spend much of their time at their desk or in their studio trying and discarding things. The potter is always trying to improve technique. The painter makes many sketches in search of the right expression. The art of writing is rewriting. Innovation, then, can mean incremental improvement as well as revolutionary leaps.

In that sense, the work of artisans and artists bears a strong resemblance to the work of engineers and scientists. For the latter, the essence of innovation is trial and error. If a test does not achieve the desired result, it is not a failure but a learning experience; we have learned what won't work.

Creativity in commercialization

In a commercial context, finding a new way to monetize institutions and organizations involves creativity, just like the writing of a poem. It's not art; it's business. But it is creative and requires imagination. It is the art of positioning a product and making it indispensable to the public.

"Carry a thousand songs in your pocket and listen to them all day" (iPod). "In your hand you can hold your social networks, a GPS, the latest news, family photos, a video camera, free long-distance calls, all your favorite songs, and much of the knowledge of humanity" (the smartphone). "Have all your favorite TV shows and movies at your fingertips and watch them wherever, whenever, and on whatever device you like" (Netflix).

Silicon Valley's commercial success focused the world's attention on the culture of innovation and entrepreneurship. A kind of fever infected economic development directors everywhere. All of them were trying to identify and replicate the . elements of that mythical place and create "the next Silicon Valley”.

Universities get in the game
Among the institutions to get on the bandwagon were universities. Business schools began offering courses and degrees in entrepreneurship. They blended theory and practice and attempted to become incubators of the next disruptors of the old, exhausted business models.

The were trying to bring the innovation from the lab and the classroom to the marketplace. Everyone looked with envy at the model of Stanford University, in the heart of Silicon Valley, with its healthy cash flow from products developed by its students and faculty.

An industry that begged for new business models was traditional media, whose monopoly model had been thoroughly disrupted by digital upstarts. Many universities saw the need to prepare their students for a new labor market with a new set of demands.

Two years ago, I spent some time studying eight of the leading programs in entrepreneurial journalism and interviewed their leaders about their goals, strategies, and tactics. Since then, the programs have evolved and new ones have come on the scene.

A new labor market

In 2014, I attended a summit of 50 professors of entrepreneurial journalism at the City University of New York (CUNY). One of the conclusions was that there was a growing demand for these types of courses given the changes in the labor market, not just in the U.S. but around the world.

Professional journalists are unlikely to have long, stable careers in a single organization. The more likely career path will be to work in a series of projects that last for a few years, not a lifetime, and then move on to the next. The media brand where they work will be less important, and their personal brand will be more important. Their experiences and skills learned at each stop will define their marketability, and they will have to update their skills constantly to remain competitive.

CUNY has one of the more innovative programs in entrepreneurial journalism. Its course offerings include technology, marketing, and business, and students are expected to develop a media business as part of their final project. Many of their students come from outside the U.S. The demand is global.

Entrepreneurial journalism in Spain

In Spain, interest in these programs has been growing rapidly. In June of 2014, a meeting of professors similar to that at CUNY was organized by Juan Luis Manfredi, professor of the Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha. It was titled, "Entrepreneurial Journalism: The New Hope", and 25 communications professors discussed the importance of the new disciplines to a university's curriculum.

Journalist Silvia Cobo summarized the situation of entrepreneurial journalism ventures in Spain: there were some bright spots (for example, the exploitation of neglected niches such as local news), some disappointments (excessive dependence on advertising), and challenges (development of multiple sources of revenue).

[In June of 2015, Manfredi and the university co-sponsored another meeting with professional journalism organizations in Madrid, Innovation and Journalism in the University.]

Establishing a culture of entrepreneurship in research and teaching in the university faces some of the same obstacles it does in the marketplace. But there are many examples (including entries on this blog) of entrepreneurial journalists in Spain and the Spanish-speaking world who are surviving and thriving.

(Adapted, condensed, and translated from  "Innovación en comunicación: un arte que los humanistas necesitan aprender y enseñar," en Revista Empresa y Humanismo, XVIII, 2 (2015), 83-106.)


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