The J-school master’s degree: why I’m getting one

Feb 20 2014

Two years ago, I had an idea for a business. I wanted to change the way intelligent people consumed opinion and analysis. I wanted to separate the signal from the noise while presenting people with multiple opinions on the same issue. I wanted to help people understand what’s important, challenge their preconceived notions about those issues and do it with wit, intelligence and a bit of irreverence. I had tons of features in mind that tech-savvy readers would love. I pitched the specifics of the idea to my friends and family, and everyone agreed they would read such a publication. I started working on a business plan; I pitched it to entrepreneurs I knew; I began crunching numbers.

Then it dawned on me — even if it was a fantastic idea that could make gobs of money, no venture capitalist would give me the funding to launch it. It’s not because I lack vision or persuasiveness, but rather because I lacked the experience to engender trust from a financier. I have a background in media business, not as an editor. I have never worked at a publication of any kind — neither a yearbook nor school paper, much less a professional title.

So where did that leave me? Even if I could sell a prospective investor on the idea, why would they invest in me? Maybe I’d get a finder’s fee for the concept, but they’d want to bring in an expert with editorial experience to run the publication. Once I came to this conclusion, my next move was staring me in the face:

Go back to school. Get a master’s in journalism. Launch your company.

And even if I’m not able to make the company happen, I’ll still be set up for a career closer to my passion than what I was doing previously. It’s a win-win. I’ll work on my company idea while I’m in school, try to line up an investor and take a swing at making it a reality upon graduation.

I applied to and was accepted at Northwestern University, Columbia University, NYU, UNC and UT-Austin. I realize that sounds self-congratulatory, but it’s important to know that UNC was up against some real heavyweights during my selection process. When I visited UNC, I had a meeting with John Clark in the Reese News Lab.

That was the moment I knew UNC was the place for me.

UNC has an entire lab dedicated to startup incubation. Even more than that, though, it’s an incubator lab for journalists — exactly what I needed. This lab could be the path to building a strong enough pitch to get investors’ attention. I could pitch my idea to smart entrepreneurs who were interested in launching the next big media idea themselves. They could help me flesh out all the details and make sure my idea truly is desirable, feasible and viable. We could work on honing the concept and feature list over months to make sure I have the best version of my idea when it was time to go to market. And only UNC could put institutional resources behind me to make this a reality.

The desire to turn my idea into a reality led me to graduate school. The Reese News Lab brought me to UNC.

Since starting in the lab, my teams has helped me refine my elevator pitch from a rambling 10-minute explanation to a crisp and tight 90-second pitch. It’s not in its final form yet, but it is leaps and bounds better than the original. We have put together market testing scripts and electronic surveys. We have identified core and periphery demographics for both audiences and advertisers. We have honed the product description to better reflect our true goals. Everything about the product idea has improved since beginning with the lab.

All of these things would not have happened if I was still working full time. If not for the lab, I would not have the time to do them while in school either. If my business ever becomes a reality, I will have, in large part, the Reese News Lab to thank.

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