Project Launch: The Future of Journalism Lab

By Arjun Gupta
July 07, 2016

Last week, the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship (BII+E) proudly participated in an event to unveil the Future of Journalism Lab, a new lab which will incubate alternative business models for media. The Future of Journalism Lab is a collaborative project co-led by Journalists for Human Rights, the BII+E, Ryerson University, and University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa.

At BII+E, part of our approach includes piloting projects in controlled environments to reduce risk and demonstrate feasibility. We are not experts on journalism and certainly not experts on Africa – but we were keen to support this project because it was a natural opportunity to connect some of our existing partners while also supporting entrepreneurs working in the burgeoning field of entrepreneurial journalism.

Context: Media is in crisis. How journalism is financed matters – and the business model is broken.

Worldwide, journalists are suffering from cutbacks and struggling with how to sustain their operations in this new digital age. Facebook, Twitter and Google now make considerable revenue from online advertising by distributing free content through their respective platforms. At the same time, legacy media advertising revenue, whether online or offline, is plummeting. This situation is threatening the quality of journalism.

For example, in Canada alone, ninety journalists at daily newspapers lost their jobs earlier this year due to cutbacks, and Postmedia, the country’s largest newspaper chain, announced a $225 million second quarter loss. The story is no different for broadcasters: 200 jobs lost at Rogers Media, 400 lost at Bell Canada since August 2015, CTV shuttering Canada AM. And this trend has been going on for years. The Canadian Media Guild reported 10,000 jobs were cut from the print and broadcast industries between 2008 and 2013, including 910 jobs lost following the closure of papers by Canada’s largest newspaper chain, Sun Media.

The story is the same across the United States, Europe, Latin America, and Asia.

Opportunity: The Future of Journalism Lab

Ryerson University, and the BII+E in particular, has cultivated a strong relationship with University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg (Nelson Mandela’s alma mater and one of Africa’s top research-intensive institutions). More specifically, Ryerson and the BII+E have worked closely with Wits to help build their new Digital Innovation Zone in Johannesburg, which is similar to Ryerson’s DMZ (formerly known as the Digital Media Zone) in Toronto.

Leveraging its relationship with Wits, the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship connected leading Canadian NGO Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) to the South African university to help bring the Future of Journalism Lab to fruition.

The goal of the Future of Journalism Lab is to engage with and learn from disruptors in the industry who are innovating and funding their businesses in new ways. In so doing, the Lab will incubate alternative business models for media. Housed within the Wits Digital Innovation Zone and complementing its existing offerings, this lab will nurture talented students, mid-career entrepreneurs and journalists who are building startups focused on media and journalism. The success of this teaching laboratory format has been proven through Ryerson’s DMZ in Toronto. Recently ranked by UBI Global as the top university-linked incubator in North America, Ryerson’s DMZ showcases youth entrepreneurs and demonstrates that entrepreneurial education can help both student and mid-career entrepreneurs launch successful businesses.

The Future of Journalism Lab will also engage legacy media partners interested in hiring participants or acquiring the ideas produced by the Lab to help reinvent their distribution models, adapting the “acqui-hire” process used by large tech companies such as Google to a media context.


So why is the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship, a Canadian institute, working on a journalism lab in South Africa?

Supporting a project from “idea stage” to what we call “launch stage” is a critical part of our work.

Although the Institute is not an expert on Africa or journalism, we have extensive knowledge on how industries can innovate in the face of disruption.

On the other hand, JHR is a Canadian NGO of world renown and a well-known disrupter in the journalism field. Founded in 2002, JHR has now trained over 13,000 journalists across the African continent and has operated in over 20 African countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan, reaching an audience of over 50 million people through stories written by JHR-trained journalists.

Given the opportunity to link an organization like JHR with a university like Wits, and then make connections back to Ryerson’s DMZ and School of Journalism, we decided to play a role in helping to stitch all of these organizations together. Going forward, the BII+E will bring expertise on how to support innovators and entrepreneurs, while JHR and the Ryerson and Wits journalism schools bring journalism and education expertise.

The Future of Journalism Lab at Wits’ Digital Innovation Zone will likely lead to new ways of thinking about supporting entrepreneurial journalism, in a host city where there is great opportunity for new ideas to flourish. We anticipate that the exciting things that come out of this lab will both benefit our African partners, and also give us insight on how to innovate in the world of journalism here in Canada.

Read more about this project in our Toronto Star op-ed.

Pictured Above: Rachel Pulfer (Executive Director, Journalists for Human Rights), Barry Dwolatzky (Director, Wits Digital Innovation Zone), Sean Mullin (Executive Director, Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship) and Freddy Matundu (DRCongo Country Director, Journalists for Human Rights), speak at the launch panel for the Future of Journalism Lab on June 29, 2016, at Goodmans LLP in Toronto.

From the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship, this project was led by Arjun Gupta and Philippa Croome, working in partnership with Journalists for Human Rights, the Ryerson School of Journalism, the Wits School of Journalism, and the Wits Digital Innovation Zone.

The author wishes to acknowledge the contributions of Aramide Odutayo and Caitlin Cassie.

For media enquiries, please contact Coralie D’Souza, Director of Communications, Events + Community Relations at the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship.

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