A Tale of Two Gentlemen
We are delighted and grateful that The Tow Foundation and the Knight Foundation have teamed up as equal partners in an exciting new venture at the CUNY J-School: the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism. The two have generously granted us a total of $6 million. Combined with money already raised and in-kind contributions of technology, staff, and space from CUNY, the Center will be capitalized at $10 million when it officially starts in January. To state the obvious, we are very excited.
How this transformational gift came about is really the story of two extraordinary men who didn’t even know each other a year ago: Alberto Ibargüen, the CEO of the Knight Foundation, was born in Puerto Rico, trained as a lawyer, and earned his spurs as a newspaper executive. Leonard Tow, the head of The Tow Foundation based in Wilton, Conn., is a Brooklyn-born Ph.D. who was a pioneer in the cable TV business.
I first met Alberto eight or nine years ago, when he was publisher of the Miami Herald, then part of the Knight Ridder newspaper chain, and I was the editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek. Flash forward to 2006: Knight Ridder had been sold to the McClatchy Company, Alberto was president of the Knight Foundation, and I had become the Founding Dean of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
Alberto took an immediate interest in our School – in part because we were starting with a clean slate at a critical time for the profession, in part because we were committed to attracting a diverse group of high-quality students. Soon after the School opened, Knight helped to launch our unique summer internship program, in which we pay a stipend to our students for their work, by sponsoring the program for the first three years.
Meantime, in 2008, CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein called to say he wanted me to meet a man named Leonard Tow. Len was one of those classic rags-to-riches stories so common at CUNY. He had grown up poor in Brooklyn, graduated from Brooklyn College, earned a Ph.D. in economics from Columbia, and made a fortune in the nascent cable television industry. Lately, Chancellor Goldstein explained, Len had grown concerned about the future of journalism and was intrigued by this new J-School at CUNY. So the two of them came down for a tour and a chat. Impressed with what he saw and heard, Len returned (with his daughter Emily Tow Jackson, who runs The Tow Foundation) for several other discussions. They met with Associate Dean Judith Watson, Professor Jeff Jarvis, who heads our interactive program, and Professor Sandeep Junnarkar, who teaches interactive journalism. At their invitation, we submitted a $6-million proposal for a Center for Journalistic Innovation.
A couple of months later, Len and Emily returned for a closed-door session in my office. Here’s the deal, they said: We’ll give you $3 million, but only if you raise the other $3 million. In the philanthropic world it’s called a challenge grant, a way for donors to leverage their largess.
We had met about half of the challenge in grants from other foundations, including the Carnegie Corporation of New York, when a group of us from the School (including Dean Watson and Professor Jarvis) were at the Aspen Institute in August 2009 making a presentation about a Knight-sponsored study on new business models for news. At breakfast with the Knight group, Alberto suddenly asked us a blunt question: What do you want the CUNY J-School to stand for? How are you going to differentiate yourself? In effect, what do you want to be when you grow up?
Though stunned, we were ready. Professor Jarvis had already been teaching a course called Entrepreneurial Journalism, in which students develop new journalistic products and the business models to support them. We spoke about training students in managing new media enterprises, about invigorating traditional companies with entrepreneurial thinking, about undertaking new research projects on business models, and of incubating new products. We told him about the Tow Challenge grant.
I sent a follow-up letter and we talked on the phone, but nothing much happened for six months. In February 2010, all of us were in New York for a journalism conference sponsored by Knight and Carnegie. Len and Alberto, after exchanging phone calls, finally met for two hours, and Alberto and I had dinner, with more detailed discussions. Finally, in June, at Knight’s request, we sent a Letter of Inquiry for a Center For Entrepreneurial Journalism, then submitted a formal proposal for $3 million, meeting the Tow Challenge head on. Alberto said he would recommend the grant to the Knight board.
Only one question remained: What to call the new center? Tow-Knight? Or Knight-Tow? I phoned both men to delicately explore their feelings about whose name should go first. They both behaved like the two gentlemen they are. Len said the only thing that really mattered was the work we did. He was thrilled that his money had leveraged a substantial gift from Knight, the most prestigious foundation in journalism, and he was delighted to partner with them. Alberto was equally gracious. The Tow name should go first, he said, because Leonard Tow had initiated the program with his challenge grant. He said he would call Len, vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, with his suggestion. The two men spoke, and the naming was done.
In September, the Knight board gave its enthusiastic approval to the Tow-Knight Center. Now the work begins.
Stephen B. Shepard
Dean, CUNY Graduate School of Journalism