Media entrepreneurship isn't a priority in J-schools. Here's what we can do about it.

by Patricio Contreras
Sep 23, 2019 in Media Sustainability
Person walking through campus

A decade after leaving a legacy media job in Caracas to return to her hometown of Ciudad Bolivar to teach at the local university, Venezuelan journalist Albor Rodriguez used a crowdfunding campaign to start her own digital news outlet.

Launching La Vida de Nos in 2016 didn’t just renew Rodriguez as a journalist. It also inspired her to turn the reporting workshop she was teaching at Andrés Bello Catholic University into a media entrepreneurship class, for which she would prioritize discussion and analysis about the media industry’s transformation. 

“My way of thinking, precisely because I come from traditional media and I knew the era of splendor of these organizations, is that we have to overcome grief for what we had and lost, and we must invent things with the resources we have now,” Rodriguez said in a 2018 interview for “Starting Point,” a report produced by SembraMedia and the Google News Initiative in Argentina. The report sought to identify how journalism school (J-school) professors from Ibero-American universities addressed the entrepreneurial mindset in their classrooms, and how they viewed the state of entrepreneurial instruction inside their educational institutions. 

The diagnosis wasn’t good. A majority felt that media entrepreneurship is not a priority within their universities. And, when it has a space, it’s isolated from the rest of the curriculum. Entrepreneurial journalism professors deal with a lack of knowledge about the subject among their students, and disinterest in it among their colleagues. This has contributed to a complete detachment from the local entrepreneurial ecosystem.

The disconnect between J-schools and media entrepreneurship is indicative of major tension between journalism in academia and the professional industry. 

At least in the U.S., this rift has historically been stronger and more persistent than in other disciplines, as a 2013 report published by Columbia University, “Educating Journalists: A New Plea for the University Tradition,” revealed. While the professional media industry demands a more practical focus, emphasizing skills and applied research, universities have instead prioritized academic research.

J-schools and news organizations, however, converge in one aspect: their struggles in the digital age. Both have resisted and, in turn, had difficulty adapting to technological disruption. They’ve experienced a loss of trust in their work, and have been forced to search for new business models. One of the most cited analyses on this subject is "Post-Industrial Journalism," and it is also addressed in the Reuters Institute’s Digital News Reports

Other factors are at play with universities, too, including institutional rigidity, long processes of accreditation, resistance among academics, and students’ perceptions that the media industry remains as stable as it was in 1980.

J-schools are not secondary actors, nor do they operate in a parallel universe. They are an integral part of the journalism ecosystem, together with both legacy and digital native news organizations, professional journalists and “the people formerly known as the audience,” as New York University professor and media critic, Jay Rosen, once described the proliferation of voices producing news and media content today. 

Not only should journalism programs help rethink the trade, how it is carried out and how it can be improved; they must also work to strengthen the industry. J-schools are a forgotten link today when it comes to entrepreneurial journalism. 

Some experiences, however, demonstrate a shift in how universities are approaching the entrepreneurial spirit. Take Betty Tsakarestou, for example. Tsakarestou heads an advertising and public relations lab, and teaches a graduate course on Leadership and Entrepreneurial Journalism at Panteion University in Athens, Greece. 

She began to introduce her students to entrepreneurial journalism and media innovation in 2015. “[I followed] the prototype of incubators and accelerator programs, going through all the methodologies like lean models [and] design thinking, and connecting students with entrepreneurial journalists or media innovators in Greece, Europe, or other countries through Skype calls,” she explained.

For the past two years her class has collaborated with a legacy media partner Antenna Music, to address innovation challenges focused on prototyping startups around audio, radio and music. Together, they have also used Startup Weekends — multi-day events where attendees pitch startup ideas, build teams and present prototypes — to bring students, professionals and local community members together in Greece.

Meanwhile, in 2010, Miguel Carvajal, a professor at Spain’s Universidad Miguel Hernández of Elche, did a postdoctoral stay in New York. He investigated new business models for journalism and met media entrepreneurs and professors like Jeremy Caplan and Jeff Jarvis at one of academia’s epicenters of entrepreneurial journalism: the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York. Today, Carvajal heads his own master’s program in Journalism Innovation, one of the few of its kind in Spain. 

“By focusing on innovation, we can incorporate not only the creation of startups, but also the creation of innovative entrepreneurial projects," Carvajal said in an interview for “Starting Point.” 

According to Tsakarestou, this trend has evolved simultaneously in North America and Europe, both as a theoretical conceptualization and a discipline that has incorporated initiatives like hackathons, innovation boot camps, incubators and accelerators. Various actors in journalism, including universities, can use similar models.

What happens to the rest of the world, in Latin America, Africa and Asia? What do we think can be done differently? The findings in "Starting Point" offer insights that can be applied to other regions of the world:

  1. Teaching entrepreneurial journalism is a recent phenomenon — very different from traditional courses covering the news business — and there is still ample opportunity for journalism schools to get involved in the topic. Of the professors we interviewed, 76% began teaching such courses between 2012 and 2018. In addition, we identified only about 50 Latin American universities — of more than 1,700 where journalists are trained in the region — that offered courses of this type. 
  2. The combination of experience is important: we found that 64% of professors had backgrounds as entrepreneurial journalists. If universities don’t have professors trained in this area, they can look for practitioners in the local media ecosystem.
  3. Almost half of teachers believe that their students don’t want to start news outlets because they lack financial resources and management skills. J-schools can develop workshops to introduce their students to an entrepreneurial mentality, while also establishing synergies with universities’ economics programs. 
  4. Expert guests are necessary, but they must diversify: 80% of professors had invited an entrepreneurial journalist to their classes, but few had invited a media investor. There exists opportunity to establish stronger ties with the local entrepreneurial community, generating a transfer of knowledge, technologies, networks and concrete opportunities.

These suggestions are not mandatory. Every journalism program, however, must think about its formative hypothesis: what kind of journalist does it want to educate? 

J-schools cannot be left out of the discussion about the present and future of journalism. They should not self-exile either. Today’s journalism must be reformulated, in newsrooms and classrooms alike, because students will either work in a weakened media ecosystem, or they won’t have any work at all. 

It’s up to us to contribute to a more auspicious future for them, for news organizations, and for the people formerly known as the audience.

Media Entrepreneurship Toolkit

This article is part of our Media Entrepreneurship Toolkit, which was launched with support from Civil. Check it out for more articles on how to launch a successful media startup. 

Patricio Contreras is a Chilean journalist, university professor and Coordinator of Academic Initiatives at SembraMedia. Follow Patricio on Twitter.

Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via Victoria Heath.