Saturday, March 23, 2013

Medill builds on 30 years of entrepreneurial journalism

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

Rich Gordon, Director of Digital
Innovation, Medill School of
Journalism, Northwestern U.
Rich Gordon is bemused by the recent proliferation of university programs in entrepreneurial journalism. The Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University has been doing it for 30 years.

"We had classes here in our master's program where we required our students to create new publications and address the content, the audience, and the business plan of these publications," Gordon, director of digital innovation, said in an interview.

"I assume other schools didn't do it because it wasn't considered appropriate for journalists to be talking about business, students didn't want it, faculty couldn't teach it, and the job market didn't ask for it. I don't think the term 'entrepreneurial journalism' even existed a few years ago."

Demand for new skills

All that has changed. Traditional print media are now looking for people who can help them develop products to challenge the competition they face from Internet media, says Gordon. He got his chops in precision journalism at the Richmond Times-Dispatch and Palm Beach Post in the 1980s, and then in developing digital media at the Miami Herald in the 1990s.

Medill is well positioned to take advantage of the new realities. "We're teaching the art of media product development," he says. "It means solving an equation that involves audience, content, and revenue. That's what entrepreneurial journalism is."

Traditional media are turning more to universities to help them develop new digital products, Gordon believes, because they themselves were never very good at product development. They did not have to be. They were virtual monopolies. They did not invest in new product development before the Internet presented them with hordes of new competitors.

Journalism schools have responded by adding faculty who may not have a Ph.D. but do have skills that are in demand: creating digital media products, audience development, and generating revenue.

Medill's team concept

The master's program at Medill lasts four academic quarters, one calendar year. In the last quarter, all students do a capstone project. Some focus on writing and reporting, while others choose paths that lead to one of Medill’s “innovation project” courses.

There are usually about 30-40 students who participate in these classes each year, and they create three to six products. They build prototypes and do rigorous audience research.

While some other entrepreneurial journalism programs have each student develop a product, Medill's students work in teams. "At the core, entrepreneurs are born, not made," Gordon argues. Not every student has the skills or abilities necessary to be an entrepreneur. But working in a team, each student can contribute something based on their skills and interests.

Even those reluctant to embrace business skills have benefited. "Our alumni will tell you that having been exposed to audience development and the business side is a huge advantage in the job market."

Student work

One of the student projects in the fall of 2012 was a web application, Chicago School Select, to help parents in the city of Chicago choose a public school. Parents there can choose any school, not just the one closest to their home.

"The students did focus groups and audience testing with parents to understand what their pain points were. They found that parents are frustrated with the selection tools that exist. 

"There's no shortage of data on the web, but parents don't want more data. They want to see the schools ranked on how involved parents are, the attendance rates, the discipline, the test scores. They want to be able to say, 'These are my priorities; which schools fit'?" The app walks parents through a decision-making process.

Projects have led to the launch of a Web site and weekly magazine for young adults in suburban Chicago, an innovative Web site for teens in Davenport, Iowa, and a hyperlocal Website in Holland, Mich. 

Programmers in the newsroom

Medill has also been a leader in getting journalists to collaborate with computer programmers to create new digital products.

In 2007 Gordon won a $639,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to allow Medill to offer scholarships to its master’s program in journalism to people with backgrounds or experience in computer programming. As part of their coursework, the scholarship winners enrolled in one of the innovation project classes. 

Nine students have graduated from this program, and all are now working in jobs where they combine their journalism and programming skills.

Gordon believes there is a significant number of people in full-time programming jobs who are unfulfilled and would jump at the chance to participate in journalism projects aimed at building better communities or better government. In fact, that is the kind of language used to promote Medill's journalism scholarships for programmers.

Medill also regularly offers a class, in partnership with Northwestern’s computer science department, in which journalism and computer science students form small teams and create prototypes to solve a wide variety of real-world problems for journalists, media organizations, or media consumers.

Washington Post partnership

Medill also recently announced that the Washington Post will be its first industry partner for the "programmer-journalist" scholarship program. Through this partnership with the Post, and potentially other industry partners, computer programmers can have their tuition paid for a master's degree in journalism at Medill followed by a paid internship. 

It represents a commitment by the Post of more than $80,000 to cover tuition for three students, plus the cost of the internships, Gordon says on his blog. He goes on to quote Greg Franczyk, director of software engineering for the Post, who sees many similarities between hacker culture and journalist culture in that both value passion, dedication, and "improving their community and improving the world."

"When a journalist is chasing something, there's a passion there. They are going to find the answer one way or another, whether they have to stay up seven nights in a row or travel around the world," Franczyk said. "In computer science, it’s kind of the same thing -- that’s why many programmers start work at 11 a.m. They were up late trying to solve a problem."

Northwestern University, Medill School of Journalism, Interactive Publishing
Duration: Four quarters, one calendar year 
Requirements: 13-15 courses, three to four course credits per quarter
Tuition: $12,716 per quarter


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