In today’s media environment, when jobs are scarce, more journalists have to strike out on their own, but lack business skills to create their own digital news enterprises.
Without those skills, even the best-intentioned reporters and storytellers will likely fail to build sustainable enterprises from which to share their work.
Mijal Iastrebner, co-Founder and Director of SembraMedia, experienced this knowledge gap first-hand. For three years, while still in university, she ran a popular magazine in Buenos Aires called Cultra, but struggled to develop a revenue model when newsprint shortages decimated the business and online was the only recourse.
“We couldn’t print anymore. We did have a digital platform, but we didn’t know how to build a business from it,” she said.
Her university couldn’t provide much help. “They were teaching the core skills but nothing around the business models,” she said. “I thought, we should know these things when we graduate. I should have the skills, and the universities should keep us updated.”
The magazine ultimately closed, but Iastrebner continued her search for innovative online revenue strategies. In 2012, as she gathered promising cases, she began teaching workshops about what she had learned. And she began meeting like-minded people, including her future business partner, Janine Warner, who was teaching entrepreneurial journalism at the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas.
The pair began mapping online revenue strategies and innovative approaches, created a network of journalism entrepreneurs and professors interested in the subject, and founded SembraMedia. They developed an Online Directory that mapped the independent digital native media, including information about their teams, their innovations and their business models. The directory today maps more than 800 journalistic organisations.
SembraMedia continued to share best practices, digital resources and funding opportunities for media entrepreneurs. In 2017, the organisation published “Inflection Point,” a study of Latin American digital news enterprises, which examined their challenges and opportunities and the diverse business models that are keeping those media afloat.
“Inflection Point”, published with support from the Omidyar Network, was the first comprehensive study of digital media entrepreneurs in Latin America, the risks they face, and whether a viable business model for independent, quality journalism has emerged in the region. One hundred digital media from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico were studied, 25 from each country.
“Inflection Point” and its case studies provided the foundation to develop a new entrepreneurial journalism curriculum. “We had a lot of theories about startups, but we hadn’t had a chance to prove they worked in this ecosystem. Now there is proof of concept. We published “Inflection Point“ in 2017, and that informs every training we do.”
“We always suspected that diversifying revenue was key – like instantly – but when we wrote “Inflection Point,” we proved that the media that were successful had multiple revenue sources. More than 66 percent of the media we interviewed had three or more active revenue sources.”
SembraMedia also did a deep dive into how business and entrepreneurship were being taught in Latin American journalism schools, publishing the results in “Starting Point,” which profiled entrepreneurial journalism professors, examined the content of programmes and their impact, and made recommendations for expansion and improvements.
“We didn’t only map the universities that teach it, but we also measured the results they had, the three percent of the universities that actually teach entrepreneurial journalism,” Iastrebner said. “We found out there is really a high number of new media created from these universities, and we thought, we have to build the network and create and provide materials for them to start teaching more easily.”
The Network of Professors of Entrepreneurial Journalism, which includes educators from nearly 20 countries, proved to be key. “We found that universities are not super easy about adding new things to their curricula, or changing their curricula,” she said. “The ones that are updating themselves constantly are the professors. So we really confirmed the idea that the professors will make the change.”
The network also serves as the testing and training platform for a new approach to entrepreneurship for journalism students. “We ended up developing curricula that nobody had,” Iastrebner said. “For those who wanted to include it in their programme, it was already developed and had our support and credibility. We work with the network to test the curricula, before it was launched in 2019.”
The curriculum has also been strengthened by SembraMedia’s continuing work with hundreds of digital native media entrepreneurs in Latin America and the connections it provides between journalists and other social entrepreneurs. Its regional network represents more than 800 digital publications, sharing best practices and innovative ideas.
The curriculum, developed with aid from the Google News Initiative, defines the concept of journalistic entrepreneurship, with examples and case studies, introduces different funding sources, and provides a step-by-step plan for building a concept, developing viable products and implementing a business plan. It provides needed business expertise to journalists who very often enter the profession for idealistic reasons, focused more on their mission than on making money.
In addition to making the curriculum available to professors, SembraMedia offers courses directly to journalists themselves, through the SembraMedia Virtual School, a platform of educational resources on the tools and strategies needed to venture into entrepreneurial journalism.
The school offers more than 30 courses, each about an hour-long, on a wide variety of entrepreneurial journalism topics. These include: how to develop business models; how to pitch your project to fundraisers; how to create and manage teams; communications; and creating a personal brand.
The platform is also a resource for professors using the journalism curriculum; instead of assigning a chapter of a book for homework, they can ask students to review and complete the activities in one of the school’s classes. Getting the curriculum into wider use is the next challenge. In 2020, Sem- braMedia began two regional programmes, one for students and one for professors.
Among the participants were more than 100 professors who had never taught entrepreneurial journalism but wanted to include it in their courses. In 2021, SembraMedia began a series of national programmes for professors and students, beginning with 30 professors in Argentina, to be followed by similar initiatives elsewhere in South America.
“We now have a more diversified cohort of professors, from different provinces in Argentina. We wanted to go outside the big cities,” said Iastrebner. “We provide not only training and networking, we also provide monthly newsletters to keep them updated,” Iastrebner said.
“It’s not only talking and training on how to use the curricula, it’s also to keep them updated and keep them linked to the network, so they can keep teaching autonomously and in consultation with their peers.”
Participation is through an open call for invitations, and the demand outweighs the openings. But those who are not enrolled in the official training programme remain in the network and can subscribe to the newsletters and other materials. “We keep them in the loop because they might just be entering the subject, or they are just starting to teach journalism, or there are a lot of them that have participated in other programmes,” she said.
The ultimate goal is a significant increase in the training and teaching of entrepreneurial journalism in universities, Iastrebner said.
“We already see how much the universities are opening their journalistic programmes, with conversations with entrepreneurs or with us,” she said. “We see there is a lot of change in the thinking there, not only in the curricula, also in the experience the student has in their training process.
“We would love to have a majority of universities teaching this, not a minority, and when that happens – we know it’s not going to happen overnight – that will really be structural change in the ecosystem. That is the key.”
There is a personal mission as well. In their media careers, both founders of SembraMedia struggled with the transformation of digital media businesses. “We both want to have people avoid that struggle, to have people avoid that lack of information to commit all those errors we committed as young entrepreneurs,” Iastrebner said.
“I had a 20 people team. There were a lot of people depending on me. So all my errors, and my lack of information, really had consequences. I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen to me again, or happened to anyone else. The only way is to have information out there. Obviously the reports are a big deal, but the formal training, the mindset, that’s everything.
“Lots of journalists don’t really talk about money, and many of them are exploited. Because there is always someone who will do your work for less money, and there is not a lot of opportunity in the traditional ecosystem. You need more leaders in the industry… Because of the way the industry is, not everyone gets to have a second opportunity to study the business.”
According to SembraMedia, in 2020 the initiative provided consulting to 22 independent media projects, resulting in 33 changes to business models and 86 new revenue sources.
This article is republished from the UNESCO publication After the pandemic, building back a stronger media: inspiring initiatives in ensuring media viability, written by Larry Kilman. Access it here.