August 5 Workshop: What Professors Need to Know About the Business of Local News in the Digital Age

How do you prepare future journalists and advertising executives for leadership roles in local news organizations when the business model has been turned upside down? How can you incorporate basic business concepts into a range of introductory and advanced courses taught at journalism and communication schools?

My colleague at the University of North Carolina -- JoAnn Sciarrino, a former BBDO executive and Knight Chair in Digital Advertising -- and I teach courses that meld extensive in-field study and research with classroom instruction so that our students have the opportunity to work side-by-side with publishers and editors of community newspapers, as well as start-up digital sites. Students conduct market research, create new strategies and then assist in implementing them.

On August 5, at an AEJMC pre-conference workshop, “Saving Community Journalism: What Professors Need to Know About the Business of Local News in the Digital Age,” we will share what we have learned about how to incorporate business learning into our undergraduate and graduate curriculum. The workshop, co-sponsored by the Knight Foundation and AEJMC’s Community Journalism Interest Group, is primarily aimed at educators teaching journalism, advertising and marketing.   Leaders of digital nonprofit news organizations in the San Francisco area may also find it valuable.

We’ll address these four issues:

  • How is the news business different from a decade ago and what is the key to creating a sustainable business model?   I’ll present the findings of my book, Saving Community Journalism: The Path to Profitability, which was the result of five years of research, involving more than 200 students and more than a dozen community news organizations from across the country. We’ll also discuss tips for teaching students how to understand financial statements.
  • What are some simple tools that will help news organizations get reliable real-time information so they can make better decisions? Professor Sciarrino will explain how you can use a variety of research methods to ascertain broad trends, as well as provide insight into changing customer attitudes, motivations and behaviors. Students can utilize these tools whether working with local news organizations or establishing their own entrepreneurial enterprises.
  • How can case studies be used to help solve business problems? Case studies engage students by allowing them to vicariously step into the role of editor or publisher.  We’ll discuss tips for using cases and computer simulations, including a multimedia case that I created to accompany my book, “Chasing the Community Newspaper Rainbow,” available for free through Columbia University. The session will include recommendations on other cases that specifically focus on local news concerns.
  • Is the idea for a new product feasible? Most of our students are naturally creative and have no trouble coming up with ideas for new apps or digital content. But not all ideas make business sense. Professor Sciarrino will walk through a feasibility screening process that you can use to help determine the desirability and potential profitability of a new idea.

Without profitable business models for legacy newspapers as well as digital start-ups, large swaths of the country could become “news deserts,” bereft of the sort of local journalism that has nurtured our democracy for two centuries. Saving community journalism requires innovation in the industry and the academy, as well as a partnership between the two.

We hope you’ll join us at the workshop. To learn more, you can visit the “Just for Educators” section of my website by clicking here. You can register for the workshop by clicking here.  For a schedule of the workshop, click here.


Penny Muse Abernathy, UNC Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics, is a former media executive at the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and author of Saving Community Journalism: The Path to Profitability (UNC Press, 2014).

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