As a reporter at NBC and CNN, Dan Lothian dreamed of covering a presidential election. He was always “worldly in his thinking” and politically-minded — Lothian lived in Puerto Rico as a child before moving to the lower 48. His father was born in Cuba; his mother in Jamaica.
“I wouldn’t say they were politically active,” he said of his parents—Lothian’s father worked for the Jamaican government’s social security department before getting a job in the U.S. with Motorola; his mother was a homemaker who picked up kitchen or factory jobs from time to time— “but there was a lot of discussion of issues and politics in the home and how that played out with personal values.”
Lothian covered the end of the Bush Administration and the majority of the Obama Administration for CNN, and, with the goal of starting his own business, left in 2014 to create Little Park Media.
With his expertise in broadcast journalism and business, Lothian recognized a shift happening in the journalism landscape—today, many young professionals and students have an interest in, and are often required to have, entrepreneurial skills.
“My eyes opened to the fact that there weren’t a lot of programs like that in colleges,” he said. “This is relatively new with the start of some of the digital publications like Politico and Axios. Whether you go work for a startup or a big company like CNN, there’s that entrepreneurial mindset that a lot of people want to have.”
With the encouragement of Professor Dan Kennedy, Lothian’s colleague on the show “Beat the Press,” Lothian envisioned a Media and Entrepreneurship class as a Northeastern University School of Journalism scholar in residence. During his first semester teaching, he’s encouraged students to pursue their journalistic passions, such as monetizing podcasts and making information more accessible to hikers, and has hosted numerous guest speakers, including Jake Shapiro of PRX, Nick Gelso of CLNS Media, Laura Carpenter of Abridge News and Shoba Purushothaman, an entrepreneur who’s bought and sold four companies and is currently establishing a fifth in Berlin.
We caught up with Lothian to learn more about his career and his exciting new media and entrepreneurship class.
How did your interest in political journalism develop?
I started my career in a small market in Chattanooga, TN and covered local government. I was trying to figure out why politicians did what they did, if politicians are “for real.” I’m kind of on both sides of that—some are and some aren’t. (Laughter.)
I wanted to be able to cover a lot of different things. I was an education reporter. I was a business reporter. I was a police reporter when I was in West Palm Beach. I covered a lot of crime as well. Even as I moved up to bigger markets, I was always waiting for that opportunity to jump in and cover a campaign.
I tried to at NBC. They saw me as the “breaking news guy.” I traveled around the world, which was great, but I never got the opportunity to do a campaign full-time. I finally I got the opportunity to move over to CNN, and part of that decision was that I wanted to cover a lot of politics. It was off to the races from there.
Can you tell me about your time with CNN, both domestically and abroad?
When I first got hired running the Boston Bureau at CNN, it was a great opportunity to be on-air covering the news in the Boston area but to also be in management. I always had ambitions of starting my own business. I wanted to get experience in running an office, and handling budgets and personnel.
Then the opportunity to cover the White House came up. I had just made the move from California. My family— my wife and young son— said, “We’re not moving again.” So I turned down the opportunity and continued to cover politics and other breaking news in the New England area.
Sometimes we traveled across the country, but other times I was sent overseas for various assignments. And that wasn’t just at CNN. Prior at NBC, I had been overseas—after 9/11, I went to Egypt and Tel Aviv. I’ve done a lot of extensive travel in Mexico and Canada. Wherever the breaking news was, I was.
Eventually CNN said, “You know, you’ve done a great job covering the campaign. We’d like for you to cover the Obama Administration.” I came in right at the end of the Bush Administration for a few weeks and then covered the entire first term of the Obama Administration and then the first year of his second term.
What compelled you to leave CNN?
I was there for almost 11 years. I was living in Boston, covering the White House—I was commuting between here and D.C. for five years. That just wasn’t sustainable. The idea was to cover the White House for one term and then hopefully get my own show. I had had discussions with the top management at CNN and Turner to get a show and I thought I was making some real headway there, but then there was a shakeup—most of the management structure was dismissed.
And at that time, you ended up being a correspondent for PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly?
When I left, I wanted to form a loose-knit collection of part-time jobs. I thought it would give me more time with the family. I had a young daughter at the time, and I wanted to make sure I was around a lot more. I thought I had a few networks lined up, and then it kind of all fell through. They wanted exclusivity.
I ended up forming my own media company, and one of my first deals was with PBS to do stories around religion. I had been in communication with them years back during my early days at NBC when PBS’s show, Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, had just started. I had a minor in religion and an interest in not only covering religious issues in the country but around the world.
PBS became my first big client for my video company. We would pitch various ideas; at the end, we were doing about eight of these long specials per year, including going to Cuba to cover religion there.
What’s your main goal, today, with Little Park Media?
It’s grown beyond that now—we do everything from producing TV commercials to podcasts for folks. We do a lot of corporate videos; that’s the bread and butter. If somebody wants instructional videos for their website, whether to use internally or for sales, we produce it. We also deal with nonprofits who are interested in spreading their mission. We produce videos for them and also build their websites and do their messaging branding. I always say we do “all things media,” but we focus primarily on content for businesses.
And now you have this class at Northeastern—what’s your philosophy surrounding media entrepreneurship?
It used to be that when you graduated from college, you wanted to work for a network or a big affiliate. Or, if you were into print, you wanted to work for a strong local paper, and maybe someday, The New York Times or Washington Post. Or a radio station.
More and more, I was hearing from a lot of young people who were graduating, “I want to see if I can do something with my blog that I started in college. Can I monetize that? But I’m a journalist. I don’t know anything about business.”
This is an opportunity not to delve deeply into MBA stuff, but to at least give students an understanding of, “Here’s how you get into that mindset and how you come up with ideas. Here’s how you put together your elevator pitch. Here’s how you do your overall business plan.” Each student has to come up with a concept— essentially start a company— and come up with the process and then make a presentation of their company at the end of the semester.
What is are some of the main things that students are doing, or pursuing, in your media entrepreneurship class?
Every class we always start off with something in the news. We have a discussion around some startup or some dilemma— some challenge— a media program is facing. And then there’s an interesting textbook online by journalists who are doing, or have done, some of the things I’ve done. It’s an early process; they write this online textbook and anyone can go in there and use it for free and add to it.
Cool; like a Wikipedia textbook! And what are some of your class projects?
For one of the first projects, I hand out paper clips, sticky notes, rubber bands—all kinds of things you’d find around an office. I divide people into groups and give them a half hour to come up with something. It’s amazing, the things people come up with, with these little items. Then there’s a “walkabout” opportunity, where students have to walk around campus and look at something that isn’t working in the media space and how they can make it better.
When you’re starting a business, you have to think about where you want to end up. So we do this activity called “the marshmallow challenge.” Students have to take these strands of dried spaghetti, tape and string— everybody has the same amount of everything— to try to build the tallest tower. At the end of building this tower, once the time runs out at exactly 18 minutes, the marshmallow must be placed at the very top. If you don’t think about the weight of the marshmallow from the very beginning, your tower will collapse.
There’s a paper for every assignment. And then they have to do a video of their elevator pitches that says, “This is who I am. This is what I bring to the table. This is my idea. This is how I think it’ll work. This is how I’ll pay for it. This is why you should invest in it, or buy it.”
At the end of the semester, which is coming up, everyone is going to do a presentation. It can be PowerPoint, or they can actually build out a model. It’s going to be our mini “Shark Tank.” The other students will be able to rate the performance and, at the end, decide which concept is the one that should be invested in.
And what kind of students have you noticed are attracted to taking your class? Do they have blogs they’re interested in monetizing, or some other motivations?
Some I think are dabbling around the edges. They might think, “This is interesting. This is something I might be interested in doing. I don’t think I’m all there yet, but I want to get the experience in case I decide to go there.”
There are a couple who want to do something with their project and ideas, and are treating them very seriously. There’s one who has a podcast and wants to find ways to promote that podcast and certainly monetize it.
Are there any class projects—or projects by your students that have taken place outside of class— that you’re particularly fond of?
There’s one student who’s interested in doing something to provide information to get people outdoors. He’s big into environmental causes, so he’s come up with this concept to get people more information in the wilderness.
There’s another student who’s into this whole issue of cryptocurrency and blockchain and how that’s going to help media endeavors. What’s fascinating is he wrote a paper that included a reference to a company called Civil. I had just booked a friend of mine, a former colleague at CNN who’s a co-founder at Civil, for a podcast that I do. It was interesting to see my friend show up in a student’s paper!
What’s really important about this class in our current day and age?
There is this notion that you’re a broadcast journalist. You’re a print journalist. You’re TV. You’re radio. I think in a few years we won’t be talking like that. I think everyone is a multimedia journalist and everyone has to think like an entrepreneur, whether you’re going to start your business or not.
Companies now don’t necessarily want to hire someone who is going to do things the way they’ve always been done. They want people to come in with ideas– especially newspaper industries, which have been hard-hit. You see them try all kinds of things. One of the discussions we had was around this small newspaper in California using augmented reality to try to draw in new customers. They’ve found there are younger people, who would never pick up an old-school newspaper, are picking up the paper and finding it quite interesting.
This is my first time teaching the program here. I’m looking forward to continuing to grow it because I think it’s going to be useful. A student came to me and said she was interviewing for a job. One of the first questions they asked her was about being an “Intrapreneur”—how she’d go about that. She said before this class, she wouldn’t know what the answer was. She regurgitated some of the things she had heard in the class and ended up getting the job. I’m not saying that’s the only reason why, she’s highly qualified, but she came back and told me she was happy she had an answer to that question. I’m sure that helped.