Making Failure Acceptable: Entrepreneurship in Journalism
February 3, 2014
Mike Williams


Why should entrepreneurship be part of journalism? Ask any entrepreneur to describe their success-to-failure rate and they will tell you successful ventures make up a small percentage of their attempts. The majority of their startups usually go nowhere, yet they accept this as a critical part of the process. They understand what is learned from today’s failure may lead to tomorrow’s big success.

During four intensive days of exploring journalism entrepreneurship in a workshop sponsored by the Scripps Howard Foundation, a dozen educators recently gathered at the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University to consider entrepreneurship and how to apply its strategies to media innovation. We soon realized there are significant similarities and differences required of the entrepreneurial mindset as it applies to what we do and how we teach it.

How Does Entrepreneurship Fit Journalism?

In 1996, Bill Gross started The Idealab in Pasadena, Calif., to create companies that challenge the status quo. In his presentation to our group, Gross was asked, “What do startup founders need to succeed?” His answer helped many of us realize the parallels between entrepreneurship were numerous. More importantly, this is the reality most of our students and professional colleagues now face.

As he described the qualities of an entrepreneurial student, it did not take much to see how they match the skills required of today’s journalist. According to Gross, an entrepreneur must:

  • Have analytical skills
  • Know how to work as a team
  • Understand ideas are bigger than a single person
  • Be open minded to suggestions and criticism
  • Be able to listen and learn from partners and customers
  • Know how to communicate effectively
  • And be able to stand and deliver the reasons for why their ideas and products are the best

Gross said, “Founders need to be so passionate about what they are working on they can carry on throughout the hard times.” What better way to help our students appreciate the future and develop the fuel they will need to succeed as professionals?

A Similar Outcome

Mark Briggs, author of Entrepreneurial Journalism: How to Build What’s Next for News, reminded us many of the jobs now available to our graduates didn’t exist 10 years ago and there is a huge market for new ideas that will take advantage of the continued growth of the information space.

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The fail – succeed learning curve.

“We need to make something people want. Something that solves a problem. Something that does a job,” Briggs said. His basic advice is “Ideas are cheap, but execution is everything.” He says this can be as simple as practicing a Build-Measure-Learn strategy. In this circular process, the innovative educator, student or journalist employs the basic process of the successful entrepreneur.

But for too long, our educational and professional practice has been to get (or give) an assignment, do (or grade) the assignment and then move on to the next thing. With the reality of the ever-present deadlines we now face, the outcome entrepreneurs call the Minimum Viable Product, can be easily applied to the first news reports we now post. The Minimum Viable Product is an initial entrepreneurial effort that may be good enough for the moment, but is improved in its next version.

Briggs said the movement from an idea to a Minimum Viable Product has five steps:

  • Research it – Who’s doing it and what and how can you do it better, cheaper or smarter
  • Craft it – Define what it is, who it helps and how it works
  • Prototype it – Use wireframe sketching to show as well as tell how it will work
  • Test it – Build a version that works and let people use it
  • Adapt it – Take what you learn from the first version and pivot!

It is the pivot – the ability to reflect on the success or failure of endeavor and then either proceed, revise or start over –  that is the real key to improved journalism and education. Yet it is this aspect of entrepreneurship that challenges many educational paradigms and requires educators and their students to accept the likelihood of failure as something good.

“The problem of needing a firm footing [tell me the correct answers and how to get an ‘A’] keeps students from embracing the right to fail,” said Dan Gillmor, workshop leader and director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

Dan Gillmor, director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, leads a discussion with fellows at an entrepreneurship workshop in January 2013. AJR/Sean Mussenden.

Dan Gillmor, director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, leads a discussion with fellows at an entrepreneurship workshop in January 2013. AJR/Sean Mussenden.

“We [faculty and students] are all too comfortable with doing things the way we always have. Entrepreneurship is about constantly evaluating who we are and what we do and we must innovate to maintain our relevance.”

One of the workshop participants, Rachele Kanigel, from San Francisco State University, also defined the emotions many of us felt as we each created our own startup idea. In her recent article on MediaShift, Kanigel describes what she calls “the emotional roller coaster of the entrepreneurial process — the dizzying highs of coming up with an idea that just might become the next Twitter or Tumblr and the decimating lows that come when a seemingly brilliant notion crashes into a brick wall of reality.”

Passion, emotion, innovation and the ability to pivot are all important qualities of the entrepreneur we would love to see in future journalists. So how do we bring entrepreneurship into our journalism schools and what are the problems we may face?

Doing the Paradigm Pivot

Derek Neighbors, a Phoenix entrepreneur, poked hard at the traditional attitudes among the educators at the table. “I’ll tell you what’s wrong with entrepreneurial education; it’s not real,” he said. “There is no validation to the learning. It doesn’t include all the disciplines (media, engineering, business), and it happens in a classroom!”

Neighbors, who co-founded the collaborative workspace Gangplank, insists an entrepreneurship course must include all of the skills, parts, and people of any startup, and its students must produce a minimum viable product that can be launched.

The knowledge gained from the initial launch provides information that is measured and applied to the next iteration. As is often the case, the failures of the first attempt illuminate the need for a new variation or totally different idea. The ability to pivot toward a variation or even a new idea is as important as the minimum viable product in the overall try-fail-try again enterprise. Our students must not be afraid to fail and learn.

It is time for journalism educators to pivot our thinking about how we conduct our class and assess our students’ learning. Bringing entrepreneurship skills into our curriculum requires a different approach if we want our students to believe failure is an anticipated part of the course.

The learning and assessment process, like entrepreneurship, must not be finite. The last assignment completed is never the final version of a project and the evaluation of the assignment needs to employ some of the strategies of the ‘lean startup’ to make the learning process a continuum.

In his book, “The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses,” author Eric Ries defines the logic of this strategy for success.

In today’s business environment  — including journalism and education — getting product to market must take place with innovation happening continuously. Ries says we must shorten the product development cycle, employ a strategy of iterative product release, function with hypothesis-driven experimentation and use validated learning to improve and change as needed.

Educators and journalists must look to other sectors of the business world for ways to maintain our own minimum viability, the strategies of the lean startup provide ideas we can apply to our pivots in classrooms and newsrooms.

Why Failing is Not Failure

The difference between a failure that earns an “F” and the failure embraced as part of the startup culture is the role of the  failure in the process. For students who have been indoctrinated to see any failure as the end of the road, the recognition of a startup failure being a constructive step in the process can be difficult to embrace.  This is why we must examine better ways to assess our entrepreneurship courses as we bring them to the journalism curriculum.

Just as we now recognize the perils of being first with a story –  of posting or publishing before all the facts are straight – can result in journalistic failure, we still understand the importance of being first. The ability to be comfortable with the story, knowing subsequent versions will be better is not unlike the startup culture that knows the pivot from version 1 to version 2 of a launch will always be better. So expanding our students’ ability to work with iteration rather than finality can carry through many aspects of their media work.

In developing my media innovation course at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas, building pivot time into the schedule and also into the grading scheme was important. I also knew the process of team building, by itself, would create some functional challenges for students who may have had various levels of success in collaborative work. So the structure I use for this class has assessment happening in multiple, but clearly defined ways.

The course has a single assignment with four parts; Prepare, Produce, Pitch, Pivot. Each part has an assessment that includes both objective and subjective measurements as follows:

  1. Prepare: Students are objectively assessed on the inclusion and completeness of required elements of initial project proposals. The proposals are judged subjectively on their potential for meeting expectations defined by the team.
  2. Produce: Objective measurement of technical skills applied to prototype production are paired with quality values established by the team as part of the proposal created in Step 1.
  3. Pitch: In shark tank style, the team pitches their product to an appropriate group of professionals (business owners, investors, media pros, as appropriate). These “judges” use a rubric with specific measurable qualities and room for their subjective ratings.
  4. Pivot: This is the most important application of failure integration. How successfully does the team respond to the previous assessment steps and complete the term by identifying the steps needed to improve the product. This final evaluation step is my total of the objective measurements and the combined subjective total of my appraisal of their efforts and individual team evaluations of their work, the work of the team and the success of the process.

This grading method, like the entrepreneurial endeavor, is an evolutionary process. With each new semester, and each new group of student teams, elements are revised and the system modified. The goal of the course, and of this assessment process, is to challenge the students to understand growth in this field is never finished and the ultimate measure of their success is not the ‘A’ or ‘F’ they receive on each part, but what they do with the knowledge learned along the way.

We must recognize entrepreneurship has a culture of success  that includes a willingness to look at things differently. This can be applied to the classroom by accepting our primary role as educators is to facilitate learning, not just teach. We can do this by letting students define the measure of their own success by establishing a framework based on the short production cycle, collaborative teamwork and idea-to-product flow they will face in the real world.

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