We need better entrepreneurial journalism courses. Here’s how to fix them.

I have an immense respect for the work of Jeff Jarvis at CUNY.

While other people talk about revenue models for journalism, Jarvis actively teaches his students to explore for-profit businesses (see his curriculum here). However, I find myself wanting more from Jarvis and other professors that teach entrepreneurial journalism. What exactly, are they teaching students? What is the success rate of these programs? I often wonder what the ideal entrepreneurial journalism class would look like.

Below is my best guess on the class I wish I had when I went to school based on my experience with Technically Philly and Technically Media. And to you teachers out there: I know it’s easier to blog about teaching than to actually teach, this is more of a thought-experiment from someone who has been both a student and a business owner.

I think these classes should be less “Entrepreneurial Journalism 101″ and more “Y Combinator” or “DreamIt Ventures.” Make the class an open collaboration between students to learn from one another and test their ideas is a safe environment.

This is a simplistic break-down on how I’d do it:

Lesson One: pay me. The hardest transition from worker to owner is the notion that someone would actually pay you money for your services. Every freelancer goes through this when trying to figure out rates. Getting past the “payment” barrier is the most important hurdle in becoming an entrepreneur. To do this, I’d base the entire class on how much money students made. Why? Because good presentations skills do not pay the rent. On day one I’d walk in and write something like this on the whiteboard:

  1. F = $0
  2. D = $1 – $100
  3. C = $101 – $150
  4. B = $151 – $250
  5. A = $251+

As a rule, students could not accept money from their friends or family. I’d also throw in some awesome prizes for those who make more than $250. Why so low? Sure, $250 isn’t enough for a full business but I remember how hard it was for Technically Philly to make its first sale. To paraphrase T.Boone Pickens, the first $250 is the hardest.

Lesson Two: Pick a niche. Theory is nothing without a working prototype to tinker with. In J-school there is enough pontificating, I’d rather get to work. I’d have students all research and create a niche publication on WordPress, Tumblr or other free CMS options. Their publication will act as the testing ground for everything they learn throughout the course. We won’t focus on design or coding, though students who are having trouble updating their site should be able to get the help they need. Some courses encourage collaboration with other departments such as computer science students. I’d rather keep the class focused on making money and not on the tools or technology.

Key to this lesson will be avoiding redundancy and duplicate content. For example, I don’t think I’d let any Phillies blogs make it. Also key here is defining the target audience. We wouldn’t have to get too specific but publishers should at least be able to complete a basic user persona.

Lesson Three: Case Studies. Most journalists know how the New York Times and NPR make money. However in journalism school we need to study online businesses, not only media companies. For nearly a decade many bloggers and news sites have made money using their content as marketing for something else. There are also companies that are really good at targeting content towards Google and AdSense. Others charge for subscription services. I’d ask students to tell me how sites like CopyBlogger (WordPress products), I Will Teach You To Be Rich (courses and books), All Facebook (conferences) make money. Maybe there’s even an untapped revenue source in mail subscription products. I’d also love to ask students what their favorite sites are and we can break down its revenue model as a class.

In journalism school, too many professors and students think that advertising and donations are the only way to make money online. That’s mostly because journalists only read publications about journalism. By getting out of the industry it’s evident that there are other ways to make a living.

Lesson Four: Presentations. After studying various business models, students will present their vision for their publication in a four-minute talks that will focus on revenue ideas for the site. Other students will then also chime in to help brainstorm additional revenue plans. Each student should end their presentation with a list of ideas to experiment with over the course of a semester. At this point it may be wise to allow students to group up and work together with two or three people on each publication.

Lesson Five: Get to work + speakers/mentors. The next few weeks should be the rapid testing of all of the proposed revenue ideas brainstormed by each student. Each class will instead become a lab where students will work on creating content, selling and helping one another. Meanwhile the first few minutes of the class will be speakers brought in for inspiration. Speakers should include other media entrepreneurs, investors, startup founders and event organizers to help inspire and answer questions. This is also a chance for students to network for their post-graduation life.

Additionally, classes will become labs around common revenue models such as “hosting your first event,” “selling your first ad” and more. This “lesson” will take up the bulk of the class schedule.

Lesson Six: Revenue check-in. At this point students should write short essays about the problems they are facing. As an adjunct, this would be a crucial time to offer insight or find experts to help students get over the hump.

Lesson Seven: Final Presentations. The last class will be case studies of each publication. How much money did it make any why? Each student, of course, is able to keep any profits they make and (hopefully) is encouraged to continue working on the publication after the class.

Again, I know it’s easy to play armchair professor. But journalism students are hitting the job market without the skills that are most in demand. Many students I talk to still have ambitions of being a sports reporter or a fashion columnist and are just hoping that a publication picks them out of the hundreds of other grads just like them.

We need to better inform students about the realities of the job market ahead and teach them how to stand out while giving them the skills to stand on their own.

This post is one in a series about the business of online journalism. To sign up for future updates, including a possible online course targeted to individual content creators and college journalism students, register for the mailing list.

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