What 18 students taught us

8 Mar

My friend and former colleague Bill Day and I just finished a great six-week course in entrepreneurial journalism for 18 graduate students in American University’s Interactive Journalism master’s program.

We set out to be intentionally provocative, because Bill and I have seen too many great ideas for projects and products turn into smoldering wreckage because of miscommunication between journalists and business folks. (OK, and partly because Bill and I just like being provocative.)

So we taught it as if it were a master’s level business-school class. We used case studies about interesting media start-ups. We taught the ABCs of financial statements (yes: We made journalists look at numbers) and the grandular details of different revenue models. And we required every student to pitch a sustainable news-and-information venture.

We heard some terrific ideas. But as Tom O’Malia*, a serial entrepreneur and director emeritus of the Lloyd Grief Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at USC,  reminds anyone who will listen: Ideas are cheap.

Entrepreneurial ideas are only useful if they can be refined into a workable business concept – one that has real, paying customers, and delivers clear value to those customers.

Tricky distinction, especially for reporters.

No, your audience is usually not a paying customer. (We won’t get into the tiresome paid-content discussion here – but even at newspapers and magazines, subscription fees from the audience are a small portion of revenues, and an even tinier portion of the profits. The real paying customers are the advertisers.)

We were gratified at how quickly the group caught on.

Many of the ideas were terrific, and got only better by the final pitch session. We’re going to be intentionally vague about the specifics – several folks are still working on their ideas with an eye towards actually executing them in the real world. Suffice to say our interest was piqued by proposals to:

  • Mine rich internal archives of entertainment reviews at a major media company
  • Connect reporters and people who have compelling information to, um, share. (“Leak” is such a loaded word, wouldn’t you agree?)
  • Attack a classified-advertising niche that has largely – and strangely – been left untouched. So far, anyway.

Great. But you know what was even better?

The weak ideas – the ones that started life as “Hey, kids! Let’s put on a website!” (All credit to Mark Potts for that line.)

Over just two months, those weak ideas got better. From vague beginnings emerged sharp proposals to create:

  • A unique alliance around a hyperlocal site to provide modest, yet stable, funding that doesn’t rely on local ad dollars.
  • Community and hobby-driven sites that focus on narrow, but attractive, niches. (All I’ll say about one of those niches: The hobbyists scraped together $15 million to construct a building for their pastime?!? That’s a niche I’d like to capture.)
  • A clever blending of non-profit status, cheap technology and Internet cafes to support women in West Africa.

The point here is not that all of these ideas will work. Perhaps none will.

The point is that 18 young people – hard-core traditionalists, inexperienced cubs, even some NGO and government types – innovated. They combined creativity, perseverance and some basic business principles to develop concepts that are worth testing in the marketplace.

And therein lies the future of journalism: Smaller, nimbler, more creative.

*(As an aside: Bill and I owe a huge debt to Tom for graciously sharing his curriculum and research.)

 

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  1. A lesson re-learned | Tom Davidson - April 26, 2013

    […] last taught my media entrepreneurship class at American University two years […]

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