In January, Media Shift did a piece about teaching Business of journalism students. The author, Deb Wenger is associate professor and director of undergraduate journalism at the University of Mississippi’s Meek School of Journalism & New Media. Her article focused on whether journalism schools even ought to be teaching the business side to students.
I was featured heavily in the article and the author chose to bold face this argument from me in favor of such business courses in journalism curricula: "The issue is that we need to be independent, not that we don’t recognize the importance of understanding the business side."
I think that pretty succinctly argues why exploring business matters in journalism education and why the old “church and state” arguments about separating newsrooms from understanding business are poppycock.
Shortly after that article appeared, my old friend Al Tompkins from Poynter Institute asked me to talk about teaching the Business and Future of Journalism at a June 10-12 seminar called Teachapalooza VI. The gig sounded like fun but I had vacation plans so I had to decline Al’s Invitation. Al then asked me to write a piece about how I teach this class.
Since I am retiring from Arizona State University’s Cronkite School on May 10, it struck me that this was an opportunity to memorialize my efforts of the last 10 years to make the business of journalism a viable part of journalism education.
Let’s be clear. What follows is my take on teaching the Business and Future of Journalism. I do not pretend it is THE way. I have made a number of subjective choices which support my own views of what journalism students want, need and will effectively handle. I understand there are as many ways to teach such a course as there are professors.
When I started teaching at the Cronkite School in 2006 any course on the business of journalism, especially a required course, was rare in journalism education.
So let’s do this from a historical perspective.
The course was required from the beginning and it met considerable yawns from students. At that point the relevance escaped many of them. I don’t have syllabi from those early days before our move to the new Cronkite building in downtown Phoenix, but I know I tried to teach the basics of the revolution in media. I assigned books such as The Search by John Battelle and The Long Tail by Chris Anderson. I also fumbled around a lot.
By 2009 I was beginning the class with what I called “the Journalism thing,” I established the importance of journalism and why we needed to find ways to support it despite the decline in revenues. In 2009. the second week of class I did a “business primer.” It described where journalism business models had been and where they were going.
A key slide in that presentation was entitled “The model.” The bullet points read like this:
•Product gathers eyeballs
•Eyeballs have value to advertisers
•Advertisers buy the eyeballs the media outlet delivers
•Key to that formula was always mass
•Truth about that formula was not everyone was always ready to buy a car, a house, or a couch.
•Advertisers paid for the total audience and not just for people interested in their products.
•Advertisers have always looked for ways to pay only for those people ready to buy.
•The web offers them that holy grail.
Yeah, I know the slide was too long, but in my mind it was a pretty darned good summary of the issue.
In that second week I also introduced students to profit and loss statements. I later expanded that subject considerably.
I moved on to the corporate business model and stock market, the past, present and future of advertising, paid content, third party aggregators and discussed whether the industry was ready to move forward.
That year I had various parts of the class read The World is Flat by Tom Friedman, What Would Google Do by Jeff Jarvis , The Long Tail, and Wikinomics by Don Tapscott. I was still focused heavily on the theory of change. In that semester I ended the course with a pretty thorough discussion of new models and approaches. The final project that year was a long paper on students’ vision of the new media future.
By 2011 I had made Ken Doctor’s Newsonomics the main book in the class but I used a lot of readings from the web. I also dramatically increased my focus on a lot of the developments in the business such as local and hyper local publications, niches, pay walls, aggregators, products customized for particular readers, mobile and curation. I also began expanding the concept of advertising to include all possible revenue streams.
That semester I also started my move toward discussing disruption, innovation and entrepreneurialism. By then I had also made social media am entire week of the class. With the help of a former student named Jennifer Gaie Hellum I focused much of that on how students should use social media to create and preserve their personal brand.
It was always important to me to make the class current and focus on breaking news. The summer of 2013 was a big one in media circles so I made the events of that summer the heart of the first few weeks. We looked at the history of media through the lens of the events of that summer. Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post, Aereo was threatening TV, the cable business showed signed of stress and the Boston Globe was sold to a rich local who also owned the baseball team. We concentrated specifically on Bezos and explored why that deal mattered. Web articles were the primary reading material that year.
We discussed whether we were in a post-advertising world and that was the semester I started making the point that perhaps the biggest disruptor for media companies was the loss of institutional control. I made two other big innovations in the class that semester. Both were pointed toward making the class more interesting and fun.
I introduced a week on creativity and imagination. That commitment would grow substantially in subsequent years. In the fall of 2013 I also started what I billed as the strangest assignment the students had ever encountered in college. I sent them to three hot dog restaurants. I assigned them to concentrate on how the hot dog places differentiated themselves and what kind of customer experience they offered.
My point was that news has become a commodity and the successful journalistic businesses will successfully differentiate their products and offer an outstanding customer experience. I was so pleased students were engaged and stimulated by that approach it is still a crucial part of the class.
Mainstays of the class at this point were a far more extensive discussion of finances and financial statements with the help of John Dille, entrepreneurialism and social media. By this time the students final project was inventing a new media business either individually or in groups.
By 2015 I had made some major changes. I handled the history of business models in one week. I discussed all revenue streams in a week and I had chosen Geeks Bearing Gifts by Jeff Jarvis as the main text. I assigned one of five books to a fifth of the class: Page One edited by David Folkenflik, Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull, Where Good ideas Come From by Steven Johnson, The Innovators by Walter Isaacson and Entrepreneurial Journalism by Mark Briggs.
I was so taken by Where Good Ideas Come From I also taught one week of classes on it. For me, it is one of the very best books I have ever read and teaches innovation with wonderful effectiveness.
By this time I had morphed the class into one with a real emphasis on creativity and innovation as evidenced by the above books. I still taught financials, business models of the past and to come, and the hot dog exercises. I spent two weeks on tools of the future and what kind of innovative future we face. The future and how students could create that future had become the core of my class.
One of my favorite tools to get students to think creatively was to break the class into groups of five and assign them to write an outline for a science fiction novel about an alternate universe. That sort of an assignment really discombobulated students who always follow orders and never get out of the box. Some of my favorite results included “Baconland,” where everybody looked liked pigs and a two dimensional universe which came about when students were run over by a street roller and became two-dimensional figures. The students noted turning was very difficult.
Of course, my all-time favorite came about when a group imagined that Tim McGuire sneezed one of his legendary sneezes so hard it opened a wormhole in the universe. That sent everybody to “McGuireland” where every single person looked like Tim McGuire. Frightening indeed, but delightfully clever.
Students usually remember the hot dogs and the science fiction novel because it forces them out of their comfort zone and shows them that they too can become creative and innovative. I now believe that is the most important thing journalism students need to know about the journalism workplace: Innovators will win.
That last semester, and in several others. I also made preparing the entrepreneurial project a cornerstone of the class. I had separate weeks devoted to the entrepreneurial pitch, brand and audience development and entrepreneurial idea generation which focused on solving consumer pains or problems. In all of these, I invited experts from the university or the community to address those subjects with expertise I simply did not have.
In that fall 2015 class groups of students presented their final entrepreneurial business plans to a panel of local business experts and venture capitalists who provided them with frank, tough feedback.
This semester, my last of teaching full-time, I faced one final challenge. At the urging of innovative Cronkite Dean, Chris Callahan, I delivered the course online. I had to lose the creative novel, hot dogs and even the final project. I loved each of those because they created so much interaction and fun in the class. However, I believe that in the online version of the class I was able to deliver the basics quite well. Here is how I organized the seven weeks:
Week 1—Where we have been, how we got to today and why it matters
Week 2—The business model broke, can it be fixed?
Week 3—Disruption and the new competitors
Week 4—Business basics and making the commodity something else
Week 5—Innovation and Creativity
Week 6—The wild and wooly state of media in 2016
Week 7– Entrepreneurs
So now where do we go? Everybody who teaches a course like this will want to take it in directions they know and appreciate. Some instructors have a lot of emphasis on management, leadership and accounting.
I passed on that. I wanted students to understand how the enterprise worked, but I always believed it was vital they understood the tectonic shifts in journalism. In my head, I was preparing journalists to survive in a rapidly changing industry and even be thought leaders in it. I never strived to train business people. Other journalism departments may want to do just that.
I stridently believe such education is crucial for journalism students. I believe it should be taught by a journalist. I believe that these journalist/professors should understand business and they should be innovative explorers. It is imperative such professors be adaptive and flexible. The more platform agnostic they are, the better.
While I am retiring, I hope to stay active. I would love to continue this conversation on this forum or in your journalism school or newsroom. Next year, I hope I get invited back to Teachapalooza VII. These words will have to do until then.