Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism aims to give students a startup mindset

by Maite Fernandez
Oct 30, 2018 in Miscellaneous

At a time when journalism schools are under fire for adapting too slowly to the digital reality their students will find in the workplace, a graduate program In New York aims to breed the next wave of media entrepreneurs.

Created three years ago, the Master of Arts and Advanced Certificate in Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY’s Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism empowers journalists to take the big leap and launch new media startups.

Among the program’s success stories so far are projects growing in popularity and name recognition, such as Skillcrush, a site that offers women resources to learn coding and to better understand tech, and, a news site that “slows the news cycle” by featuring one great, in-depth story each day. TIME magazine named one of the "50 Best Websites of 2013."

In addition to offering a compressed business school curriculum, the program requires every student to develop and pitch a startup project.

“One of our primary objectives is to prepare students to adapt to the changing market and to help lead the industry,” said Tow-Knight Center Director of Education Jeremy Caplan. “What's important is not just mastering specific tools, but developing a mindset that embraces creative thinking, problem solving, smart analysis and effective, efficient collaboration.”

Caplan spoke with IJNet about what the program has learned since its 2010 launch, what it takes to be a successful news entrepreneur and what journalism will look like in five years.

IJNet: The program was touted as the first of its kind when it started. What lessons have you learned from running the program for the past three years?

Jeremy Caplan: The Tow-Knight Entrepreneurial Journalism program was the first to offer an M.A. and an Advanced Certificate in Entrepreneurial Journalism, and we know we need to keep renewing our approach to stay ahead of the curve. We’ve learned from innovative programs at top business, journalism and design schools around the world and made numerous adjustments and improvements to the program since we launched.

First, we’ve ramped up our startup visits and guest speaker program to take full advantage of the entrepreneurial hub that surrounds our school. Last spring, for example, we visited Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, BuzzFeed, Kickstarter, RebelMouse, Forbes, Mashable and other area media/tech growth companies. We've also added more hands-on workshops and practical training led by industry experts in skill areas like business development, project management and online marketing. We've paired students with mentors and focused on personalized guidance throughout the program. And we've refined each of the courses we offer in response to student feedback and faculty input.

Another big lesson we've learned is that we need to experiment with reaching people online so we can expand the impact of our program and help more journalists around the world. That's why we're preparing to expand our online learning programs in the coming year. Stay tuned at for new online learning opportunities in the year ahead.

IJNet: At a time when j-schools are being criticized for not adapting quickly enough to the changes in media, why should students invest in a master’s program like this?

JC: One of the advantages of a program like ours is that it's more practical than academic. That’s an advantage for someone interested in practicing journalism and not just thinking about it. Our teaching faculty includes practicing journalists and media professionals, not theoreticians, and we update our curriculum each year.

One of our primary objectives is to prepare students to adapt to the changing market and to help lead the industry. The specific software, content management services and websites students use will change frequently, so what's important is not just mastering specific tools, but developing a mindset that embraces creative thinking, problem solving, smart analysis and effective, efficient collaboration.

IJNet: In your experience at the Tow Center and witnessing media startups go from idea to implementation, what traits characterize a successful media entrepreneur?

JC: Persistence and passion are the two most important characteristics. Starting something from scratch generally requires personal and professional sacrifice. It also requires a tolerance for occasional failure and a willingness to confront numerous obstacles throughout a project's development. In order to succeed as an entrepreneurial journalist, one has to have enough passion to persist in the face of challenges.

IJNet: How do you imagine journalism evolving in the next five years, and what do you think schools will need to do to adapt?

JC: Curation and aggregation will be increasingly important as the volume of information pouring out online grows exponentially. Schools will have to teach these skills because many journalists will find themselves curating information produced by others rather than producing content themselves.

A growing number of journalists will opt for free-agent careers, working independently and producing stories for multiple digital, print and broadcast outlets. Journalists will create and contribute to a growing array of niche sites and social media channels. Self-branding will be crucial for career development.

Capitalizing on the evolving media ecosystem, many journalists will distinguish themselves through their entrepreneurial spirit by starting up new sites, apps and services.

Subject specialization and expertise will be increasingly important. News consumers will increasingly have the luxury of seeking out niche sites with deep expertise in just about any topic area. Those sites will need journalists capable of delving deep into specific subject areas who can also clarify complex issues and present stories in creative ways.

Social media verification will continue to grow in importance. Schools should provide grounding in that skill set, just as they should help students master the basics of fact-checking generally.

Journalists will be sought after by non-journalism organizations more and more, as organizations of all sorts recognize the importance of content creation, social media and multimedia. Journalists are increasingly being hired by museums, consulting companies, government agencies and other “non-media” entities. That trend will accelerate and broaden the availability of opportunities available to those with journalism training.

IJNet: If you could give one piece of advice to an aspiring journalist, what would it be?

JC: Become an expert in something, whether it’s genetics, Arabic, statistics, refugees, or some other subject you’re interested in that will impact the news in coming decades. Your expertise will give you credibility, a crucial asset.

And sharpen your craft at every opportunity. Just as it takes 10,000 hours of practice to excel at a sport or musical instrument, it takes lots of time, effort and practice to excel at journalism. Taking lots of lousy photos and writing many mediocre stories is the first step toward excellence, if and only if you learn from each effort and seek out mentors who can help you [learn] from mistakes.

For more information about the program, visit the Tow-Knight site. Applications for the next class are due Oct. 31.

Image: Tow-Knight Center on Flickr, courtesy of Jeremy Caplan.

Maite Fernández is IJNet’s managing editor. She is bilingual in English and Spanish and has an M.J. in multimedia journalism from the University of Maryland.