Which business models can you still teach young journalists?

It’s a paradigm shift that unsettles many longtime editors and reporters. Journalists today need to worry about the business of news. Especially young journalists need to get involved in the new media business strategies or tackle the lack thereof in their news organizations. They need to take ownership in those strategies. In addition, it also seems inevitable for starting journalists to strategize for themselves as legacy media organizations will most likely fail to guarantee lifetime employment for most of them.

So, here’s the challenge that I’m facing as an instructor every year. Our curriculum in VCU’s multimedia journalism master’s program includes a Buiness of Media class every spring. This class is targeted at journalism students with no business background. They know how to report news and produce multimedia at the point they take this class, but have spent very little time thinking about the business of their future employers or a business of their own. Textbooks mainly focus on business models for newspapers and TV stations, but do not account for the drastic changes in our profession.

I was somewhat relieved to find out that I am not the only professor that struggles with that challenge. I was on a panel at the recent AEJMC conference in Denver with Walter McDowellAmy Jo CoffeyRobert Picard, and Dan Gillmor (moderated by Jacob Groshek) that explored the challenges to media business models and ended on discussing new teaching models.

Here’s what I have tried so far in my class (and presented on this panel). I have decided to spend about half of classtime to review the legacy media business models and the challenges they face and then turn to new business model development. Students in the class have to interview media managers on their new media and multimedia strategies towards the middle of the semester. They call up media organizations and have managed over the last two years to interview a variety of high-profile managers at news organizations such as CNN, Gannett, Tribune, or Media General. Since this is a 10-week online class, we have used our class website (Blackboard) to share interview summaries, transcripts as well as audio files and evaluate them in online discussions. Each of the two years, the students determined the strongest and weakest strategies.

This year, I also assigned students into five groups to develop new business models or projects for Gannett, McClatchy, Tribune, Media General and the Washington Post. They were given two weeks to evaluate these companies based on their own research and the interviews that were conducted and then had to propose a niche project that enhances journalism online and helps to increase revenues for the company. These projects were then again discussed and evaluated by all students in online discussions.

Project proposals from the student groups included new content distribution channels for Gannett, a special coverage module for McClatchy, and a revised social media strategy for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. While not all of the business projects were ready for implementation at the end of a two-week development process, they showed that journalists can take ownership of news organizations’ strategies.

Feedback from the journalism students also showed that they very much valued this experience and wished that they had had even more time to spend on the development. And that will definitely be a task for next spring …

You can view and download my presentation from the AEJMC panel: Messner – AEJMC 2010 – Teaching media business

If you are interested in more information about my Business of Media class, you can also download the syllabus and send me an e-mail for additional material.

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