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May 17, 2012, 9 a.m.
Business Models

The newsonomics of News U.

Journalism and education are both about knowledge. Could their post-disruption business models start to blur?

What’s the difference between being informed and being educated?

What’s the line between learning something new and being taught something new?

Are news media and universities just two ways to do the same thing: gain knowledge?

As Coursera, Udacity, edX, and several other offerings begin to unravel everything we thought we knew about post-secondary education, we can’t help but make links to the world of news.

You gotta love the geeky name that applies to this new hybrid for-profit/nonprofit industry: MOOCs, or massively open online courses.

For top-rank universities, the embrace of online education promises to be transformational, upending many of the millennium–old rules of academe, as education, learning, certification, payment for services, and measurement of teaching effectiveness all inevitably succumb to major rethinks. For daily newspapers, themselves becoming mainly digital news products ever more quickly, it’s a time ripe for redefinition, for declaring new and expanded roles as the digital age removes long-ago built barriers — some real, some always imaginary.

At first glance, the question of whether professors and journalists are in the same business seems almost absurd, doesn’t it? We know what a college is, and we know what a newspaper is. One’s got ivy-covered walls, demands on-site instruction, costs tens of thousands of dollars a year, and grants certificates of completion, or degrees. The other is a physical, throwaway product that until lately cost a quarter a day and now can go at the top end — in print — for $650 a year. No prizes are awarded for reading daily — or for 50 years.

Online, though, these historic differences seem to fade rather quickly. We read to learn, whether it’s a course on European history or the latest twists and turns of current European economic drama. Greek tragedies of two different era. We read to understand and make sense of things.

What indeed, then, might media’s greater role in society be, and how can it now harness technology to multiply its impact? MIT, Stanford, and Harvard, among others, are wandering into that territory — testing the reach of technology — without knowing where their travels will take them in this terra incognita. We know that news media may be well suited to new educational roles. Why? It’s what we produce — information and perspective, building blocks of learning — and it’s what we believe when we talk about “public service.”

This emerging blur between media and education joins others. In its mischievous disruption, that’s much of what digital does. It blurs.

As the tablet makes mincemeat of the historic differences among newspapers, magazines, TV, and radio, we see another bright line ready to dim: that seeming line between what a news organization and what a college each do. This is still another stopping point for all those leading the craft of journalism into the new age to ask what business we’re really in. What business does it make sense for us to consider, test, or ply? What fits with our mission?

Let’s take “mission” for a moment.

Our history offers lots of punchy “raise hell and print the news” missions. But scratch deeper and you find a commitment to learning and its cousin, community building — one that reaches beyond simply pitching the news.

How about The Wall Street Journal’s simply elegant, “The daily diary of the American dream.” Or: “The Scotsman. It’s thinking time.” Or The Everett (Wash.) Herald: “If It Matters To You, It Matters To Us.”

While we all know about The New York Times’ “All the news that’s fit to print,” consider its deeper declaration: “The Company’s core purpose is to enhance society by creating, collecting and distributing high-quality news, information and entertainment.”

Beyond mere words, we can see small educational extensions of the news companies’ basic businesses. Most every paper has participated in Newspaper in Education programs, providing papers and, sometimes, lesson plans for elementary and secondary students. The New York Times sponsors many talks, lectures, and other learning events in the city. Education in the pre-online sense has long been part of its brand, and its Knowledge Network has offered “adult and continuing education opportunities.” Consider the Texas Tribune’s forays in events, both as a business line and a way of extending its journalistic raison d’etre beyond publication. Many newspapers sponsor candidate forums or public debates on an issue.

Largely, though, newsies inhabit an industry focused on the day. We trot out the well used quote, “News is the first rough draft of history,” but we let others make sense — and value — out of the incredible riches of newspaper archives. Let others create courses, connect the dots, and create knowledge. We’ve always been into a snapshot approach to the world. What’s news today lacks sufficient lineage to yesterday — or to tomorrow. We see such innovations as Storify and a few Google efforts (Living Stories, Timeline) that are efforts to connect the dots of news time.

All these efforts, though, are piecemeal, not intended as new ways of gaining mass impact, as in massive — think thousands or hundreds of thousands of people — open online courses.

So in the emerging age of the democratization of education, let’s consider how news companies could rethink their role in news, and education. Let’s call it the newsonomics of News U. [Update: I should have noted Poynter Institute’s long-time and well-used News University, sometimes called NewsU, in the original post. The program, headed by Howard Finberg, offers more than 150 courses in journalism and multimedia.]

Coursera, which has gotten a huge amount of press, is more than a collection of online courses. Working with the University of California, Princeton, Penn and, of course, Stanford, the Palo Alto-bred company has pioneered an “interactive online learning system.” Read its near-revolutionary mission statement of this Kleiner Perkins-funded company:

We are a social entrepreneurship company that partners with the top universities in the world to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free. We envision a future where the top universities are educating not only thousands of students, but millions. Our technology enables the best professors to teach tens or hundreds of thousands of students.

Through this, we hope to give everyone access to the world-class education that has so far been available only to a select few. We want to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in.

What if we take the Coursera’s thoroughly democratizing aspiration and apply it to a modern news media company that wants to stake a greater claim to learning and community as part of its mission?

We are an entrepreneurial company that takes advantage of the best sources of news, information, and knowledge in our area to maximally inform our citizenry, at prices that bring civic literacy to everyone in our community. We envision a future where media and citizens work together, building on fact-based knowledge to better the community and tackle long-standing issues. Our technology enables us to broadly engage community as never before possible in building on community knowledge, feeding the democratic process of debate and decision.

We believe that civic learning and engagement are lifelong pursuits, and we are dedicated to using the most contemporary techniques, technological and otherwise, to empower people to improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities in which they live.

Too high-minded? Or is that simply another way of saying, with the aid of technology, what The Guardian, Journal, and Times first said more than a century ago?

What’s increasingly possible here — recognized by the pioneering elite educational institutions, but available to media institutions as well — is the ability to both increase the institutional reach of their brands and to provide transformational learning opportunities at small incremental cost.

Few traditional media have the know-how internally. One fascinating exception: U.K.-based Pearson. It owns the global Financial Times news franchise, Pearson Education is a leading K-12 publisher, and Penguin Books is positioning itself well to extend ebook links between “media” and “education.” While at Pearson, the press and the educational press share a home, most media will have to partner to test forays into learning, or to position themselves as Pearson does as “always learning.”

Beyond high-minded mission statements, what are some practical ways we can test media/education links? How about these to start:

  • Build on in-depth series you’ve done or have in the works. Think of “courses” as an extension of the work. Pulitzer- (and other award-) winning series are naturals here and can take students into environmental science, health policy, hydrology, engineering, sociology, business management, and history, just to name a few academic areas.
  • Take a page from One Book projects, in which communities settle on single books to read and discuss, by trying One Series courses that try to achieve maximum community reach. Topics like immigration, bullying and water planning come to mind, will draw new audiences.
  • Add courses to the kinds of community engagement initiatives such companies as Digital First Media (and Steve Buttry, its leader in that area) are championing.
  • Match up burgeoning ebooks initiatives (“The newsonomics of 100 products a year”) to coursework. Sell the book; provide the course at a low cost? Local history courses are a natural here.
  • Think next-gen Newspaper in Education program. While some newspapers put real effort in bringing the news alive in the classroom, many long regarded it as just another way to add a percentage point or three to circulation numbers. What would a digitally revitalized, 2012 NIE program look like?
  • Membership programs — think “you’re more than a subscriber to me” — are all the rage from Boston to L.A. Membership needs to have some real benefits, and news-based learning opportunities can be among them.

So where do media companies look for partners?

Consider that this is much more than putting words into lesson plans, or creating education replicas of news products. At the MIT/Harvard-based edX, video lectures, embedded quizzes, interactive learning, online labs, and much peer interaction. So these new MOOC companies themselves could be partners.

Other natural partners would be educators themselves, as school districts and community colleges, as well as the bigger, more prestigious colleges in the forefront of this movement.

The Knight Foundation — the funding pacesetter of the new journalism — should be of help. Its DNA is media and community-building. Just last Friday, Knight’s Eric Newton challenged journalism school educators to adopt a “teaching hospital” model to create greater community engagement and betterment. If transformative technology needs to be applied to enable media to become educators as well, maybe Knight would be a source of aid.

So where is the money here? Is there a business model to be found? The facile Silicon Valley answer may seem unpalatable to current newspaper company owners: Become more essential to people, and the money will follow. And what can be more essential, and more relationship-building, than lifelong education?

We see three other major web concepts in the business thinking of the MOOC founders: freemium, gathering data, and aggregation.

On business model, most MOOC courses are free to students at this point, a wonderful price point that brings in lots of customers, er, students.

On data, Coursera’s goal is to “analyze student data to obtain a better understanding of online pedagogy and student learning…and understand human learning at a scale and depth that has been never been possible before.” Think of the power of that data.

On aggregation, look at edX’s statement about the project, “The gathering of many universities’ educational content together on one site will enable learners worldwide to access the course content of any participating university from a single website, and to use a set of online educational tools shared by all participating universities.” Become the go-to source, globally, nationally or locally for something people value, and the digital world rewards you.

One other way we can look at building value and revenue here. Let’s take the prism of manufacturing. Publishers manufacture content (and ads), use it for a single purpose — the paper, the site — and then discard it. News is a raw resource, whose value is poorly amplified; better for publishers to move up the food chain and find higher-end uses for it in the creation of learning and knowledge.

Establishing new relationships and deepening old ones should create a future pipeline for products and services still to be born.

Forget Udacity — let’s think audacity. The audacity to think, in spite of news organizations’ shrinkage, they can make a larger, not smaller, contribution to their readers and communities.

Many non-profits, like NPR, like to tell the public that they are “mission-driven organizations,” words, I assume, that are meant to separate them from profit-seeking media. With news media profitability now only achieved by keeping the scalpel handy and well-oiled, the profit line works less as a defining difference. More important may be that, in comparison, much legacy news media seems mission-free. It still exists, but in economic decline harbors increasing doubt about its own purpose. With self-doubt and its apparent clout receding, it has grown less clear about its role in democracy, rather than more clear.

Maybe a mission-based exhortation to adapt the technologies of the day to further community education, engagement and civic problem-solving is a tonic for the deepening media malaise.

Let’s let The Guardian’s C.P. Scott bring us full circle, reconnecting journalism and education.

Scott’s clear-eyed, pre-cable, pre-web view of what journalists — and educators — do rings even more important today: “Comment is free, but facts are sacred. ‘Propaganda’, so called, by this means is hateful.” In fact, one of the greatest shared values of the news and education industries is that both are fact-based enterprises, operating against longer odds as misinformation and disinformation can be funded on a different massive scale.

In 1921, he wrote:

A newspaper has two sides to it…It is a business, like any other, and has to pay in the material sense in order to live. But it is much more than a business; it is an institution; it reflects and it influences the life of a whole community; it may affect even wider destinies. It is, in its way, an instrument of government. It plays on the minds and consciences of men. It may educate, stimulate, assist, or it may do the opposite. It has, therefore, a moral as well as a material existence, and its character and influence are in the main determined by the balance of these two forces.

POSTED     May 17, 2012, 9 a.m.
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