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Dec. 13, 2017

Staff reporter

Sandbox, a skills development space within Ryerson University’s business incubator the Digital Media Zone, will house five digital news startups. (Courtesy Ryerson University)

Five Canadian journalism entrepreneurs will each receive up to $100,000 in seed money for their early-stage startups as a result of a new program designed to encourage journalism innovation.

In addition to the seed money, each of the finalists in the Digital News Innovation Challenge will receive a Facebook marketing budget of $50,000 to promote their company’s innovation on the social platform. The partnership, between the Facebook Journalism Project, the DMZ and the Ryerson School of Journalism, will support digital news ideas and tech companies that drive innovation for journalism and news organizations.

“A lot of the traditional business models of journalism are floundering and are not finding the readers and audiences they want,” said Janice Neil, the chair of the Ryerson School of Journalism. “ This program will let people explore and create other options and give people a place to think of new ideas– new content that will be appealing, new ways of getting information or new ways of gathering information.”

The program, which will run from April through to September 2018, offers the five startups a place at Sandbox, the DMZ’s skills development space offering support to entrepreneurial ideas and early-stage startups. The entrepreneurs will gain access to high-profile senior mentors; workshops designed by digital news experts in Canada; workspace in Ryerson’s DMZ – the leading university-based business incubator in North America; and the opportunity to work with investors, journalists, experts and researchers.

Neil said the initiative is important for the Ryerson School of Journalism because it offers opportunities to explore new ways of producing quality journalism.

“This is an opportunity to put the Ryerson brand on this program but more importantly, to give our faculty and students the chance to engage with people who have ideas or experts (who are a) part of the process by attending workshops and modules,” Neil said.

Asmaa Malik, an assistant professor at the School of Journalism, said the program is an opportunity for students and faculty members to learn more about journalism innovation.

“There will be robust educational components in terms of a conference talking about frontiers in news and what people are doing across the world,” Malik said. “We spend a lot of time learning about traditional journalism in the classroom so I think this program will bring a different approach to journalism in terms of innovation and entrepreneurship.

“There is a lot for students to learn and for us as a journalism school in terms of looking forward and the changes we need to make as a journalism school.”

The adjudicators, who have yet to be announced, will be looking for projects that tackle a compelling problem within the Canadian digital news and journalism landscape. Successful applicants must have a strong business model, a collaborative leadership team and innovative digital news and storytelling ideas that can be turned into sustainable businesses.

“The money is a great incentive,” Malik said. “We don’t have a robust startup culture like the U.S., like Silicon Valley. So I think when it comes to an investment, this is a great investment for a new Canadian startup.

“It will make the challenge quite exciting in terms of who applies and who shows interest. There will be a lot of competition.”

At the end of the program, there will be a demo day where the startups will present their companies and ideas to a panel of judges, mentors and industry leaders.

Malik, who teaches entrepreneurial journalism to undergraduates and graduate students in the School of Journalism, said the purpose of this Canada-wide program is to drive innovation and find the people who care about the future of journalism and the news.

“The goal is to find unexpected approaches to solving some of the big problems in content, distribution, the diversity of perspectives or access to news and information,” Malik said. “This is a great opportunity to see what people across Canada are up to.”

Applications for the Digital News Innovation Challenge will open on Jan. 25, 2018 and will close on March 9, 2018.