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Oct. 27, 2020, 2:11 p.m.
Reporting & Production

The Journalism Creators Program at CUNY teaches participants to launch their own news products, from wherever they are

One lesson from pandemic times is that journalism education doesn’t have to happen in person, and remote learning can open up more opportunities for journalists to launch their own products.

Here at Nieman Lab in 2010, we were just two years into covering journalism innovation and more broadly, what the future of news would look like. We covered the overnight success of Mediagazer, we looked at the beginnings of journalism’s role in community organizing, and we doled out tips on starting your own news outlet. (We even had our own app).

In 2020, the product needs of news consumers are different. You don’t need an app if your target audience doesn’t want to navigate the App Store. How important is a website if your readers only want to check WhatsApp? And how much time do you invest in planning before you just get started?

Starting in 2010, CUNY’s entrepreneurial program brought news entrepreneurs to New York for four months to shadow media executives, learn about the startup landscape, and develop business models. But as the news industry — and the consumption of journalism — have changed rapidly over the last decade, the program needed to change too. This year, Jeremy Caplan, the director of teaching at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, decided to revamp it.

“It’s become possible for individual journalists to branch out and develop their own independent projects and make them into sustainable projects,” Caplan said, acknowledging how more and more journalists are leaving legacy news outlets to start their own newsletters and ventures. “Platforms and user behavior changes that have enabled that. Rather than having to have people think about creating big companies, we can have them focus on creating niche, small, independent ventures.” And Caplan wants to give students the chance to focus on “the nitty gritty of the product development process.”

The new Journalism Creators Program at CUNY, which kicked off earlier this month, is now 100 days long (down from four months) and fully remote. It was previously in-person in New York City. It’s supported by a grant from the Facebook Journalism Project. Media companies like Substack, LION Publishers, and Media Lab Bayern are also supporting participants through scholarships.

CUNY isn’t abandoning in-person education long-term, Caplan said. But remote learning works better for the students in the entrepreneurial program because it gives them time to focus on building their products while honoring other commitments (jobs, families) in their lives. Removing the in-person requirement makes the program much more accessible. The cost of the program is $4,000 for all participants. Previously, the cost to out-of-state participants was over $10,000.

The courses are mostly asynchronous, meaning lectures are pre-recorded and participants can complete the program on their own time, from wherever they are.

“We once had someone working overnight while they were in our in-person program, which I wouldn’t have recommended, and I didn’t know until later,” Caplan said. “With the in-person program we really assumed a full commitment for those four months that people were in New York with us and in-person. Now we see the benefit to allowing people to weave in education with their other ventures, particularly if they’re building something as they go, which they are in this case. That’s something that we are placing more emphasis on and prioritizing now in a way that we didn’t a decade ago.”

Other universities in the United States — like the University of Colorado, Boulder, the University of Memphis, and Arizona State University — offer entrepreneurial journalism degrees, certifications, and courses. LION Publishers launched its Startup Labs bootcamp earlier this year, while the Facebook Journalism Project announced its accelerator program to support publishers facing industry challenges.

But for Caplan, CUNY’s program is unique because it supports and encourages smaller, community-focused ventures. No one is being asked to develop the next BuzzFeed.

In its first decade, CUNY’s entrepreneurial journalism program was a launching pad for several interesting journalism ventures. According to the school’s website, it’s awarded certificates to 130 news entrepreneurs from 37 countries. Nieman Lab covered a few of them, like Purple, a text-message service; Coda Story, which does deep dives into single stories; and Volt Data, a Brazilian data journalism venture.

Now, by zeroing in on product development, Caplan hopes the new program will be even more helpful to future students. The new curriculum begins with “opportunity exploration,” which means identifying a niche and understanding the audience’s needs. Then it goes into product development, growth, and building engagement for that specific community, and eventually addresses sustainability with revenue streams and building a revenue portfolio strategy.

“It’s really user-centric, audience-centric, and people-centric,” Caplan said.

For this first remote cohort, Caplan said he received 163 applications from people in 56 countries. Starting off small, the program accepted 20 participants. Of those, 65 percent identify as women and 60 percent identify as people of color. Only seven of the participants are from the United States, while the other 13 are from countries in Asia, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa. Ani Hao, a participant based in Hong Kong, is working on a business model for her newsletter New Wave, which features essays and interviews with feminists of color. Emmanuel Alexandre Jr., based in New York, is building and scaling his video platform, Manosalon, that will tell the stories people of color in America and in the African diaspora. Andrew Mills, in Doha, wants to produce a “trustworthy” newsletter about life in Saudi Arabia and the news coming out of the Arabian Peninsula.

The technical challenges of teaching remotely remain. The participants are scattered all over the world, and across timezones. Caplan said it was important to take cultural differences into account while redesigning the program. Each project’s scale, and scope is going to be different, which means the faculty will learn a lot from the participants too.

But by focusing on some foundational elements, the participants will be able to apply them to the context of whatever niche they’re looking to serve. While Caplan said some courses will address buzzy topics like newsletters and memberships, the program overall is designed to teach participants about the values that those strategies demonstrate rather than just pivot to trendy tools.

“We’ve chosen to focus on lasting topics that aren’t specific to the whims of the day. It’s really about understanding consumers and people’s needs and that’s not contingent on one platform or another, and it’s not contingent on whether you’re producing a website, or YouTube show, or whatever it is that you’re creating,” Caplan said. “It’ll be an important topic this year, next year, and in 10 years when people are producing digital holographic content for Apple glasses or whatever they’re doing… But one thing that’s important for our program is flexibility. We’ve always changed the program each year in ways that reflected new realities. We’ll continue to do that so core elements will remain constant. We’ll adjust them and improve them based on what works, new case studies, and new examples.”

The 2020 cohort of the Journalism Creators Program at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. Photo courtesy by Jeremy Caplan.

POSTED     Oct. 27, 2020, 2:11 p.m.
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