So, I spent the first week of 2017 in Phoenix, Arizona, as a fellow of the Scripps Howard Journalism Entrepreneurship Institute. There were 15 of us taking part, with 12 lecturers drawn from around the US, one each from the UAE and Mexico, with me rounding out the group. We’re all either in the early stages of, or about to start, teaching a class in journalism and entrepreneurship, and the week was all about making connections, sharing best practice, and learning from thinkers and trendsetters in both education and journalism.
The event was overseen by Prof Dan Gillmor, and he invited a range of excellent speakers to participate in person or via Skype. There was a particular focus on the role of verticals – that is, digital media companies focusing on a niche, rather than attempting to match the broad scope of the legacy organisations and some of the better-known pure players such as BuzzFeed.
Steven Levy, veteran Silicon Valley journalist and now Editor of Backchannel, delivered a keynote address with the hopeful conclusion that high-quality reporting could just be the very thing that eventually sustains business models for more publishers. From a UK perspective, The Economist, the Financial Times and, to an extent, The Times have all demonstrated the possibility of this. But on the other hand, The Sun’s paywall was a failure. The Blendle model which has worked so well in Holland, has in its favour the fact that there is little global competition for Dutch language content.
— Richard Jones (@rlwjones) January 4, 2017
Which arguably brings us back to verticals. One of the week’s most interesting sessions was courtesy of Rafat Ali, the one time founder of Paid Content, and now the person behind travel site Skift. For shame, I’d not heard of it, but it already employs more than 30 people, with a mixed revenue model consisting of paid-for insight reports and conferences, alongside a focus on more traditional forms of distribution including e-mail newsletters. Doing things that others can’t or won’t do, and to a level that customers are prepared to pay for, was a key theme of this and other talks.
The week finished with all of us having the chance to pitch our own ideas to Dan. One of the most useful aspects of that process was being introduced to Balsamiq, a tool which allows you to create wireframe mock-ups of apps and websites. I’ve already incorporated it into my teaching on the Journalism Innovation class here at Huddersfield, and students have found it a very helpful bit of software. The connections I made with all of the other fellows are due to continue over the next few weeks too, with a series of webinars hosted by Michelle Ferrier of Ohio University, so the benefits of the Institute didn’t stop when I left Phoenix.
All that’s left is for me to record my thanks to all of the fellows, the Scripps Howard Foundation for picking up the tab, the University of Huddersfield for my flights to the US, as well as Dan and Joanna Sanchez-Alvillar at the Cronkite School for all their hard work organising the week.