What the students taught me this time

More musings after another session of an entrepreneurial journalism course:
Four years ago, when I first taught my AU class (with the insightful Bill Day), traditional media were reeling from a double-whammy – the secular collapse of classified revenues, driven by pure-play Internet companies and the general economic downturn.
American’s grad program was awash with students from traditional media backgrounds. As Bill and I coaxed them to think through the business potential of new ventures, many of their proposals reflected what they knew: big organizations requiring multi-million payrolls and other cost-prohibitive expenses.
Through four versions of the class, that has shifted slowly, but inexorably. Today’s students tend to be younger, much more familiar with digitally native ventures – and much more comfortable pitching small, focused ideas that can be executed with very little investment.
So instead of 40-person organizations that were attempting to re-invent the newsroom of the past, this year’s group produced compelling ideas like:
– A tiny operation that combined concert listings with Storified reviews of the show from earlier stops on the tour to help users decide whether to shell out the bucks for tickets. (Watch for a test launch soon.)
– Community-driven sites combining the power of talk boards with tight editorial focus to help nurses in North Carolina, or schools struggling to pick educational technology in Georgia.
– A hyperniche sports site – not all sports in an area, not even high-school sports there. Just high-school football in the D.C. area. (Too niche, you think? It emulates successful sites in other football hotbeds.)
In fact, only one student dared to pitch a project that needed to generate millions a year in revenue to survive. That’s a tough putt – but she made a compelling case that her idea (an extension of existing video efforts at her current organization) made both editorial and financial sense. All she needed, she said, was 20-some employees.
(Any validation she wanted came the following Monday morning. Unbeknownst to her, her company had been considering a remarkably similar idea. They announced it to the world barely 48 hours after she had finished her pitch. Except they weren’t spring for 20-some employees – they were hiring 75.)
Ideas like these are what give me hope for the future of journalism. As Clay Shirky and Jeff Jarvis suggest (and teach), the future will be smaller, nimbler, and more collaborative – dozens or hundreds of small organizations rather than two or three massive ones.
I’ve left out a description of my favorite project from the class, lest I jinx it.

Let’s just say this: The premise of the class is that students must develop a project as a thought exercise. In other words, if I were to try something like this in the real world, how would I generate revenue? What problems would I seek to solve – both for my audience, and for my paying customers.

Someone in the class must not have read the word “if.”


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