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Journalism profs need to embrace new technology

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The dilemma for journalism schools dealing with rapid technological change is to decide whether what they are teaching today will be relevant a few years from now. Many of the social media tools that are transforming journalism and society did not even exist just five years ago, said Mark Briggs, author of “Entrepreneurial Journalism.” 

"What should journalism schools be teaching five years from now?" he asked during a lecture to students and faculty at Tsinghua University Dec. 14. It is hard to predict, he admitted. His last three jobs — managing websites for newspapers and a TV station — did not exist when he was in journalism school. How can we prepare students today for jobs that do not yet exist?

In an environment of rapid technological change, he says, journalism educators need to do at least four things:

* embrace the new technology

* use the new communication tools and methods for better journalism

* help students explore, experiment and test their ideas with actual readers

* challenge students to help create the future

If he were creating a graduate program in journalism, he would create a lab where students could do research and development for legacy news organizations to help them adapt.

Creating new digital media

Briggs also talked about the subject of his book, entrepreneurial journalism, in which journalists launch their own news enterprises and develop the business skills to make them sustainable.

While legacy news organizations are laying off employees by the tens of thousands and cutting back on coverage, hundreds of new digital media have risen up to fill some of the gaps. He mentioned a few examples from the U.S. — West Seattle Blog, Texas Tribune, Sacramento Press, Tech Dirt and the St. Louis Beacon.

Successful digital media share a sharply narrow focus in content and some novel revenue streams that go beyond advertising and subscriptions to include direct sales of products, special events, media consulting and contracted focus group research, among other things. 

They thrive because they have developed a loyal following. “If you influence your audience, people will pay to be associated with your brand,” Briggs said. He noted that websites such as Paid Content, Treehugger and Tech Crunch started out as blogs and all sold for over $20 million. Talking Points Memo started as the political and investigative blog of Josh Marshall and has grown into a news organization with 20-some employees and offices in Washington and New York. 

Sell ads, not your soul

To be a successful entrepreneur, he told the students, you have to be comfortable with money, selling, openness, adaptation, partners and innovation.

Journalists sometimes have trouble with one or all of these. They associate money and selling with ethical compromise; they may be frightened of innovation; they might want to hide their business ideas from competitors. This last idea is particularly wrongheaded, Briggs said. “Ideas are cheap; execution is everything.” So get others involved in helping you develop your idea.

Of course there is risk. Many entrepreneurial news ventures will fail. But as he says in his book, the cost of failure is low. Developing something of value will require testing, experimentation and discovery. Sometimes the discovery is that you have built the wrong product for the audience. With the next try, maybe you will get it right.  

  • 17 December 2012