Workplace Culture

Journalism School Grads Turn to Startup Scene

By Anne Field

Jul. 10, 2012

Elettra Fiumi and Léa Khayata didn’t set out to become digital entrepreneurs.

But a year ago, as the 10-month master’s degree program at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism neared its end, the two classmates asked a professor for advice about their next steps after graduation.

His suggestion: Try forming a startup leveraging their skills in digital journalism, and video production in particular.

It seemed like a good idea to the friends, who had worked on projects together during the school year. “We decided to give ourselves a year to try it out,” Fiumi said.

So, in September, the two formed a Manhattan-based company called Granny Cart Productions, drawing on personal savings and help from their families. Revenues are now “in the five figures,” according to Fiumi. “We made the right move.”

Fiumi and Khayata are among a small but growing number of recent journalism-school graduates who are eschewing conventional career paths and choosing instead to launch their own digital startups in New York.

“The traditional progression of working your way up from a small newspaper to a bigger one isn’t what it once was,” said Rick Edmonds, media business analyst at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.

And technological advances mean the barriers to entering the digital arena can be low: “All we need,” Fiumi noted, “are our laptops, cameras and the skills we learned at school.”

However, startups with content-oriented sites sometimes have a harder time raising money than other Web companies, according to Jeremy Caplan, director of education at the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

“Investors aren’t as interested in content as in companies providing platforms that are more scalable,” Caplan said.

Many such entrepreneurs credit at least some of their success so far to being located in New York, with its thriving digital scene. About a week after attending a recent venture-capital networking event, for example, a connection whom Khayata met there emailed her about a colleague who needed a video to be produced. Since then, she’s done four videos for that client. “I can’t imagine starting this business anywhere else,” she said.

In some cases, J-school grads turned entrepreneurs had startup experience before entering their programs. Take Shane Snow, who graduated from Columbia in 2010 and, later that year, co-founded Contently, a platform that links up vetted journalists with publishers.

To support himself while enrolled as an undergraduate at Brigham Young University-Idaho, Snow started several online businesses, including one designing websites for small business owners and another designing infographics, which he continued running after he graduated in 2007.

“I knew I wanted to build a company,” Snow said. “I just wasn’t sure what it would be.”

His company now has 12 employees and is generating “about six figures a month,” according to Snow. In December, Contently raised $2 million from Lightbank, a Chicago-based venture-capital firm, and a group of angel investors.

After Lance Steagall graduated in 2010 from NYU with a joint M.A. in journalism and Latin American studies, he worked as a freelance videographer and online editor. In his spare time, he and a friend made videos of rock groups they liked in Brooklyn. Those projects eventually caught the eye of creative agencies, and in August the two friends decided to start a company producing videos for corporate clients, as well as designing apps and websites.

Called Collabo!, it’s started to bring in money, pulling in “under $100,000 in revenues,” according to Steagall.

Anne Field writes for Crain’s New York Business, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, email editors@workforce.com.

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