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Innovations in teaching business journalism innovation

By Randall Smith

Last fall, I was approached by two documentary filmmakers from Los Angeles. Both had big dreams.

A few weeks later, I was visiting with Jim Kennedy, vice president of strategy at the Associated Press. He talked about some fascinating new projects .

And several weeks later, I was talking with David Cohn about his innovative media business, Spot.us.


Randall Smith


Those conversations launched a fourth one with Ton Stam, a chaired business professor at the University of Missouri.

“I think that we should do a class,” Stam said.

And with that inspiration, Stam and I worked all weekend late last October to put together a syllabus that would take both business and journalism students deep inside media organizations that are reinventing themselves.

Our goal was to teach our students about business and to write a lot about it. They would be exposed to the inner most workings of a company: budgets, senior executives and industry dynamics. The project would require a lot of work.

Stam recruited two other business professors to help teach, and I found five businesses that either had a new idea or problem that could use help from a highly motivated student team.

Logos for media innovators

Here is the list of our recruits:

  • The Associated Press, the historic wire service that’s had revenue declines due to the changing media landscape;
  • Spot.us, a unique start-up that promotes crowd funding of curated stories;
  • Kachingle, a Silicon Valley start up that encouragesreaders to contribute voluntarily to their favorite websites;
  • The Media Policy Center, a Los Angeles non profit that wants to film a documentary on the future of democracy;
  • The Chicago Sun-Times, a metro that is trying to maintain its suburban presence.

Here are some of the lessons that we learned on our path to teaching business journalism in an entirely different way this spring:

  1. You must have access to the top people. Every week, our teams met with either the owners of the businesses or the top executives. In the case of the Associated Press, the team met weekly with Jim Kennedy and talked once to Tom Curley, the chief executive officer. The Chicago Sun-Times team met with publisher John Barron, and the Kachingle team met with founder Cynthia Typoldos.
  2. You must go to them. Our five teams spent several days with the entrepreneurs at their businesses. That meant trips to New York, Los Angeles, San Jose and Chicago. Talking on the phone is one thing, but seeing the operation and the supporting cast is a must. Group dynamics are an important piece of any operation, and you can’t be truly contextual without seeing things for yourself.
  3. You’ve got to do the research. We lectured on media, internal/external analysis, marketing and finances. After each of the lectures, students did more research and wrote five page stories/papers (minimum) on how those various aspects touched their particular business.
  4. Student teams must be self-selected. Like everything else in life, you must work on something where there’s a sense of passion. Oftentimes, I awoke in the middle of the night to see my phone buzzing because the students were exchanging so many emails. Our estimate is students worked on this class an average of between 20 and 30 hours a week. The point is that there must be a commitment and a genuine curiousity.
  5. Finally, there must be a sense of competition. At the end of our class, we asked our students and businesses to make presentations about what they learned. Those presentations were judged by a group of business executives and journalists. You can see our presentations at: http://www.rjionline.org/events/rjinnovation-week-recorded-sessions#monday

We had a number of positive comments from the participants:

Said Jim Kennedy: “I have led class projects with a number of institutions through my work on APstrategy, and the RJI experience was unique. Most often, the participants look to be led by the business mentor, sometimes spoon-fed. That was not the case with the Reynolds team. When one of the students shot up out of his seat in the first 15 minutes of their on-site visit and drew a market-opportunity graphic on the easel in the office, I knew I had some real rocket power at my disposal. They took our idea and advanced our own thinking, which is all you can ask for from these collaborations. It was a great experience all the way around.”

Said David Cohn: “The journalism/business class lead by a co-hort of professors at Missouri is amazing. I wish they had a class like that when I was a graduate student working on my masters in journalism. I would have learned a ton of practical skills along with a deeper appreciation of running a business. That’s what I’m doing now and I’m learning ala trial by fire. That said, the students were a big help, giving me a solid ground upon which to think about the future of my business, our obstacles, our potential and more. I’m left not only inspired by the students – but energized to tackle the ideas they presented.”

One final takeaway: We had planned to offer this class only during the spring semester. But the word has gotten out to both businesses and students, and new companies are approaching us about another run in the fall.

Some have hired our students for the summer. And the hiring was not been limited to students in this class – we were able to find jobs for several others.

This is a graduate course and it was filled with about half with MBA candidates and the other half with master’s/PhD candidates in journalism. Surprisingly, some of the MBA students in last spring’s class are now active in the journalism school.

If you’re interested in our syllabus or learning more, please contact me at: smithrandall@missouri.edu

Randall Smith is the Reynolds Endowed Chair in Business Journalism at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia.

In Basics, Entrepreneurs, Featured, Networking.

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