Publishers add more online education programs following interest spurred by the pandemic


The pandemic led to a surge of interest in online education programs, like Masterclass and Coursera. Now publishers, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Penske Media’s Rolling Stone and WWD, are adding more programs to their digital education portfolios.

The New York Times has been in the digital education business for decades. Launched in 1998, the newspaper publisher’s Learning Network provides roughly 1,000 new resources, including curriculum materials, activities, lesson plans and writing prompts, for free (in part thanks to a partnership with Verizon) each year to middle and high school students and teachers. But in recent years, it has bolstered those offerings by debuting a swath of new programs after expanding the size of its team.

In 2012, the Times had two employees working on the Learning Network, and by September 2019 had four. But its team has more than doubled in the past two years, with nine full-time employees now, according to Michael Gonchar, editor of the Learning Network.

During the pandemic, the Learning Network added around 20 webinars on topics like writing, math and social studies, two live events where students could ask Times journalists questions and a one-year professional development program for teachers. Now the team is working on a full-year curriculum focused on journalism and news literacy for students that will likely be available within the next year, following the success of a previous curriculum the team produced on writing lessons two years ago, Gonchar said.

“The Times sees us as part of its corporate responsibility to give back to the education world. To get kids engaged with the news, and help teachers bring the world into their classrooms… and maybe one day, they’ll choose to subscribe,” said Gonchar.

The Wall Street Journal has seen that online education programs can help to spur more active direct relationships with audiences. In August 2020, the publisher launched its first free, course-style newsletter — the Six-Week Money Challenge — to help people with their finances, followed by a six-week Fitness Challenge last winter with exercises one could do from home.

The Fitness Challenge had “one of the highest open and click-through rates we’ve seen for a WSJ newsletter,” driving readers to the Journal’s website, said Ebony Reed, The Wall Street Journal’s new audiences chief, in an emailed statement. The Journal declined to share those rates. Whatever the figures, they sufficed to lead the publisher to launch another newsletter-based education program. On June 3, the Journal announced a five-part course on stock investing written by WSJ Heard on the Street columnists, called the Investing Challenge. 

Informative as publications can be, education is not necessarily their area of expertise. That’s why Penske Media outlets like WWD and Rolling Stone have turned to online education platform Yellowbrick, which currently has over a dozen programs, working with media companies like Complex and Condé Nast and schools like Fashion Institute of Technology and New York University.

Publishers work with Yellowbrick by contributing to the content and promotion of the program to their audience. Yellowbrick offers the production, development, technology, marketing and acquisition of paying customers for the programs, according to Rob Kingyens, CEO and co-founder of Yellowbrick. Publishers get paid through a revenue share agreement. All of the people Digiday spoke to for this story declined to provide details on the agreements. The WWD and Rolling Stone courses cost $999, each offering five units.

“I don’t know if we could have built this ourselves,” said Amanda Smith, president of Fairchild Media, which owns brands like WWD and is part of Penske Media. Yellowbrick has “a real understanding of what schools need and want from programs like this. We know the fashion business really well,” she said.

WWD created a program in February with Yellowbrick called Fashion Business Essentials, collaborating with The School of Fashion at The New School’s Parsons School of Design. It has over 15 hours of instruction that can be completed at one’s own pace.

Programs like these are a “great way to show our expertise, knowledge and our contacts,” Smith said. Rolling Stone’s program, for example, has big-name contributors from the film industry like Judd Apatow and Ang Lee. Providing education courses helps “bring more, new voices into the fashion business community” and “develop and seek out talent,” Smith added.

Fairchild Media will launch another course with Yellowbrick, under its Beauty Inc. brand, likely this fall. The company will also do another one under its Footwear News brand after that.

Last fall, Rolling Stone worked with Yellowbrick, IndieWire and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts to launch a course around film and TV. Rolling Stone is now working with Yellowbrick on another course focused on writing. Before working together, Rolling Stone was “figuring out” how to engage with students who wanted to learn about the film and TV industry, hosting them at their offices and having Rolling Stone editors and journalists speak at colleges, said Gus Wenner, president and COO of Rolling Stone.

“The more a business like ours can offer compelling ways to engage online with our content and our brands — we are always looking to pursue that,” Wenner said.

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