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How Newsy outsmarts the media market
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Newsy anchor Charlotte Bellis, a journalism student from New Zealand, explains Newsy's vision. A transcript is available.
Jim Spencer knows a thing or two about entrepreneurship.
As a graduate student forging his own way in media management at MU’s School of Journalism in the early 1990s, Spencer launched a successful T-shirt business that helped pay his tuition. Then he hightailed it to the San Francisco Bay Area and embarked on a series of new-media startup stints — AOL, MSNBC, Ask Jeeves — always one step ahead of Silicon Valley’s dot-com boom and subsequent bust.
Now he’s back in Columbia, as president of the video news company Newsy, and he’s brought his trendsetting vision — and three California Web-veteran colleagues — with him. Since last fall, from chicly utilitarian quarters above downtown Columbia’s Upper Crust eatery on Elm Street, the Newsy team of Spencer, MU graduate George Schellenger, Alexandra Wharton and Max Carratura has been running a multi-perspective, multimedia news business that doubles as a learning lab for forward-thinking J-School students.
As Newsy’s first academic year comes to a close, its Web-wise alumni are garnering internships and jobs, and the business is still afloat, buoyed by investors, advertising and content licensing.
“We are defying gravity,” Spencer says. “Things are moving very much in our direction.”
How do they pull it off?
A perfect storm
Newsy vice presidents George Schellenger, Max Carratura and Alexandra Wharton left their California dot-com careers to found Newsy with Jim Spencer in Columbia. Both Spencer and Schellenger are MU School of Journalism alumni.
Timing is everything. In the current economic climate, startup businesses struggle to attract capital and pay employees. Traditional media outlets clamor to stay on top of ever-evolving methods of news distribution and consumption. And higher-education institutions face sometimes-constricting budget cuts.
Newsy simultaneously takes on all of those challenges, largely through use of a barter system.
In its win-win-win business model, Newsy gets a staff of sharp, well-trained journalism students (and four downtown parking passes — nothing to sneeze at) for free. The university gets Newsy company stock, a learning lab, two courses and two professors (Wharton and Schellenger), also for free. Students get technical skills, news sense and valuable lessons in living on the cutting edge — a rare low-risk/high-reward chance to help steer a startup into unchartered waters.
The setup is unusual, if not entirely unprecedented (University of Texas departments have created partnerships with Austin businesses). For the most part, Newsy pioneers let intuition and experience guide them, sometimes making it up as they go along.
“We just keep innovating every day,” Spencer says. “A lot of what we’re trying to do here is come up with new models and new products for the future of journalism.”
If Newsy had a crystal ball with which to foretell journalism’s future, it probably would look more like a flat screen. Or multiple flat screens. On office TVs, the partners and student staff view international news all day as it’s recorded by 12 DVRs. On Macs, using Final Cut Pro, they cull the best clips and supplement them with print and blog reports, bookended by Newsy anchor footage. They package it all into digestible segments, each offering two to three minutes of information from four to five global sources, for news junkies to view on laptops and mobile devices — more screens.
Spencer says online video is where revenue-generating media is heading; digital video ads are among very few forms of advertising expected to grow this year – by 45 percent.
Outside the classroom
At Newsy, evolution also entails expanding beyond traditional classroom/textbook learning models. Fast. Schellenger and Wharton teach MU courses in global journalism and audience development, respectively, prepping students for modern applied learning on the fly.
This is where the profs’ decade-plus of pro experience and industry connections come in handy.
“There’s no textbook for online marketing,” says Wharton, who stays up with the emerging field through trade news, colleagues and frequent conference-going. “It’s always changing.”
Wharton’s tuned-in take on the state of media has attracted fellow journalism faculty, who sometimes sit in on her packed classes to get the latest on reaching consumers through social networking, video sharing, online community messaging, search marketing, blogger relationships and other means yet to be conceived.
Schellenger, an Emmy-winning television producer and seasoned online-content manager, grasps the value of both the creative learning process and young people’s input.
“The experience at Newsy is different; that's because students bring story perspectives as well,” Schellenger says. “This rich mix brings our audience something completely new.”
Digital natives, students contribute to Newsy’s design and marketing as well as its content, each putting in two four-hour shifts in the newsroom every week.
“They bring a lot of enthusiasm and energy and brilliant ideas to the table,” Spencer says. “They are helping sculpt and form a product. They are helping give it a voice. It’s awesome.”
While mostly shiny and new, in some regards Newsy is fundamentally old-school. In its educational approach, Newsy follows the “Missouri Method” (learning by doing) and emphasizes the J-School’s key skills: writing, critical analysis and technical production.
Complementing the school’s other, locally focused learning labs — KBIA, KOMU, the Missourian, VOX — Newsy is decidedly global. Use of international sources — CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera, France 24 — gives viewers their pick of perspectives and shakes up the notion that news outlets are biased and increasingly polarized. At Newsy – which recently adopted the slogan “the news with more views” — consumers can get multiple angles, as well as links to sources, from which to draw their own conclusions.
As Spencer puts it, the product helps “make people smarter faster,” equipping the public for success in an increasingly global economic, social and political environment.
“I went to the Journalism School based on the concept that information is power,” Spencer says. “I still believe that. I believe a more informed public will make better decisions.”