Jan Schaffer

The Case for Learning about Media Entrepreneurship: An Important Gateway to Your Future

If you are enrolled in a journalism or communications program, you should shudder if your school never teaches you how to post stories to a content management system.

You should flinch if you hear the word “convergence[1] dominating course offerings but never hear about design thinking or audience-engagement strategies.

And while you should pursue grammar literacy, be wary if you are not learning how to parse the language and patterns of disruptive innovation, particularly the media disruption happening in front of you daily.

As U.S. journalism and mass communications programs revamp to prepare you to succeed in today’s rapidly evolving media landscape, there is—bar none—no better place to embrace and refine nearly every skill you will need to know than learning about media entrepreneurship and innovation.

In the course of envisioning, prototyping and launching, you will integrate multimedia production, social media distribution, design thinking,[2] data collection and analysis, and audience engagement strategies.

As added benefits, you will develop business skills, begin to understand how to develop a product, how to discover customers, and how to manage all these activities so that you can deliver a new entrepreneurial startup. Or you may go the intrapreneurial route and spearhead a new venture inside your existing media organization.

The Time Is Now

Face it: You will be stepping into a world where media entrepreneurship is at an all-time high.

Hundreds of downsized journalists are watering community media deserts by launching hyperlocal news startups. Scores of statewide nonprofit news ventures are bringing back accountability journalism to state capitals. Startup founders are embracing single-topic niche sites, doing deep dives into climate change, health care, arts and culture, public education, and more. And, of course, venture capitalists have turned the likes of Vice, Vox and BuzzFeed into $1 billion-plus unicorns,[3] so confident are they of a return on their investment.

Of course, all of these initiatives not only need your journalistic skills, they also need outreach, social media sharing, ad sales, contact databases, event planning, membership drives, grant proposals, and the creation of regular quarterly or annual reports to let supporters know what they have accomplished. That’s where innovations in public relations skills are critical.

How can there be so many new media ventures starting up at the same time legacy news organizations wring their hands, erect paywalls, and cut their way to attempted profitability?

Clearly, something more than new business models is at play here. It’s important for you to learn about this.

It’s clear that media entrepreneurs are articulating some new value propositions for their audiences. Nowadays, entirely new breeds of journalism are emerging from the imaginations of news entrepreneurs: mission-driven journalism, restorative narratives,[4] soft-advocacy journalism,[5] solutions journalism[6] and activist journalism.  Moreover, new media ventures are reaching out and engaging audiences in fresh, new ways, often building robust civic communications ecosystems.

In learning about media innovation, you will be part of the creative process and a contributor to these new trends.

So why should you learn about media entrepreneurship, intrapreneurship, and innovation?

Skills With a Purpose

Let’s count the ways:

Advancing Digital Smarts

To create a media startup, be it a website, an app, a tool, or something else, students have to know how to create a minimum viable product, update it, monitor metrics, and employ various social distribution platforms to attract users. Instead of learning these skills as end goals in themselves, you will integrate them in the context of turning your ideas into a venture imbued with your passions.

Identifying Opportunities

Entrepreneurs meet success when they have identified a need in the marketplace, a job to be done—one that no one else is doing. Or one they think they can do better. Craigslist identified a job to be done in classified advertising; Facebook in social sharing; Google for search; YouTube for video; Sirius for satellite radio. Again and again, mainstream media comes up missing in action in recognizing these possibilities. Media entrepreneurs, however, are identifying gaps or problems and using design thinking to craft solutions. If you want to be a media player, this is where a lot of the action is.

Engaging Audiences

It’s not enough to build a startup. An entrepreneur must find ways to engage a target audience to become successful. Whether that’s social media, crowdsourcing, commenting, news games, virtual reality, drones, or augmented reality, you will learn that media has to be more than a commodity these days. Media ventures have to be participatory experiences to find a following.

As news entrepreneurs quickly learn, engaging audiences is more involved than counting web page views or social media shares. The depth of engagement is what will convert readers into donors, advertisers, content contributors, or volunteers, as we found in J-Lab’s 2012 report,[7] “Engaging Audiences, Measuring Interaction, Engagement and Conversions.”

Engagement might entail hiring a graphic artist to do a before-and-after visualization[8] of a streetscape to invite a community to consider redevelopment options, as did in 2009. It might involve launching niche newsletters[9] on numerous topics as The New York Times has done. Another option is webcasting[10] civic meetings as does in San Antonio.

Developing Data Skills

To be sure, students need to learn how to collect, analyze, and visualize data to do enterprise reporting. A media entrepreneurship student, however, will also learn about the need to gather data to report on the outcomes of any grants or donations or to measure impact of stories. And you will see that you must build contact databases to even begin to send out a newsletter, produce events, or launch a crowdfunding campaign.

Building Revenues

Courses in the business of media have long been overlooked in many communications programs. A grounding in media entrepreneurship will challenge you to figure out how to build a business with multiple revenue streams to help sustain and grow activities. And it can teach you that there are other creative opportunities in the media world than simply enjoying the act of writing.

Pitching Ideas

Good ideas go nowhere if you can’t convince others of the merits. Pitching is a skill that can attract advisors or investors to a startup. But the same skill can attract an editor’s support for a story idea or an intrapreneurial initiative that begs to be launched inside a media organization. Media entrepreneurship courses will require you to distill your ideas into a cogent framework that identifies needs, opportunities, and challenges.

Different Definitions

Be sure you understand what your school means by media entrepreneurship before you enroll. A spring 2016 survey[11] of educators teaching media entrepreneurship courses revealed striking disparities in how professors defined the field. I conducted the survey for CUNY’s Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism. Some respondents saw media entrepreneurship as starting a project that can be monetized. Others saw it as using multimedia tools to tell stories. Still others defined it as building a freelance business. Go for the programs that prepare you to envision and establish a new idea.

There’s some other good news about media entrepreneurship and innovation programs. They can help reassure your parents that you will have excellent job prospects in the future.

Media entrepreneurship programs can play a key role in preparing you for many different futures. They can be the fulcrum for the ultimate Gateway Degree,[12] one that can get you a job just about anywhere, not just at a news outlet or a public relations firm. Integrating research, writing, digital, and business skills, as media entrepreneurship programs do, opens the doors to careers in startups, nonprofits, the diplomatic corps, commercial enterprises, the political arena, and tech giants, in addition to law and medical school.

That’s because participating in such a Gateway program means you’ve learned how to generate a specific outcome.

It also means you’ve opened the door to many new definitions of success that you can achieve as a graduate.

Jan Schaffer is executive director of J-Lab:The Institute for Interactive Journalism,[13] a journalism incubator where she has vetted thousands of proposals and funded 220 media startups and innovation projects around the U.S. She teaches media entrepreneurship at American University and social journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She has been on the SXSW Accelerator Advisory Board since 2012. Reach her on Twitter at @janjlab.

Leave feedback on this chapter.

  1. Terry Flew, "Media Convergence," Brittanica,
  2. "Design Thinking," IDEO U,
  3. “Unicorn (finance),” Wikipedia,
  4. Mallary Jean Tenore, "Defining Restorative Narrative, a Strength-based Storytelling Genre," IVOH, May 20, 2016,
  5. Jan Schaffer, "A New Kind of Activist Journalism: When Finding Solutions are Part of Journalists’ Jobs, Too," NiemanLab, June 4, 2013,
  6. Solutions Journalism Network,
  7. Jan Schaffer and Erin Polgreen, “Engaging Audiences, Measuring Interactions, Engagement and Conversions,” J-Lab, August, 2015,
  8. Jan Schaffer, "A New Kind of Activist Journalism: When Finding Solutions are Part of Journalists’ Job, Too," J-Lab, June 4, 2013,
  9. Email Subscriptions, The New York Times.
  10. Nowcast San Antonio,
  11. Jan Schaffer, "Teaching Media Entrepreneurship. What Does That Mean?" Medium, June 28, 2016,
  12. Jan Schaffer, "Reimagining Journalism School as a ‘Gateway Degree’ to Anything," MediaShift, November 19, 2014,
  13. J-Lab,


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Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship Copyright © 2017 by Jan Schaffer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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