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Giving Back

Medill grad turned serial entrepreneur gives back through the Mike and Kass Lazerow Graduate Scholarship

By Kaitlyn Thompson (BSJ11, IMC17)

Michael Lazerow (BSJ96, MSJ96) and his wife Kass recently made the decision to gift a scholarship to support Medill graduate journalism students. Lazerow, a serial entrepreneur, has co-founded several successful media and software companies. The most recent, founded with Kass, sold to Salesforce for $800 million. Kass and Mike are now two of the most prolific technology investors in New York City – a departure from Mike’s time as a Medill student studying political reporting in D.C.

We spoke with Mike about his time at Northwestern, how he went from Medill student and Daily Northwestern writer to entrepreneur, and he and Kass’s decision to create a scholarship to help Medill graduate students.

Thompson: Early in your career, you moved away from traditional journalism and into entrepreneurship. Did you always know that’s what you wanted to do with your career?

Lazerow: If you would have asked me at Northwestern what I would do and what I was interested in, I would have said I would be a political reporter based in D.C. I worked at Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill, and finished my Medill career in the D.C. program with Professor Ellen Shearer. My class had a bunch of people who would later become political journalists. I thought I wanted to do that, and it was the closest thing I had to a dream until the commercial internet came along.

Thompson: So far, you’ve co-funded over 50 different investments and founded several companies in your career. What do you think makes you a particularly good investor?

Lazerow: I started my first company back at Northwestern, and since then, I’ve been through a lot – financings and acquisitions, hirings and firings. I know what it’s like to run out of money. I know what it’s like to bring on a first client and to lose that client. That is what I think is kind of different – I started investing very grassroots, and I don’t consider myself an investor so much as an entrepreneur.

I do everything with my wife, Kass, who I met while attending a wedding soon after my time at Northwestern. We’ve also always been fascinated with “new” and innovation and what’s around the corner. Most of our time is spent with companies that are trying to take very large industries (invest where the money is) and leading some sort of transformation. I’m interested in everything that requires a beginners mind.

Thompson: How have your journalism degrees impacted your investment decisions? Have you used any of the skills you learned at Medill in your current career?

Lazerow: What Medill taught me more than anything is don’t bury the lede, say what you mean and mean what you say, and less is more. I grew up in Medill writing for the newspaper format where I only had a certain number of words – this scarcity of space. Clear writing is an extension of clear thinking. Whether it’s through emails, or blogs, or posts that I’ve written since leaving Medill, I continue to write almost every day.

Thompson: There are many ways to give back. When you decided to give back to Medill, what inspired you to choose to fund a Medill scholarship?  I hear your wife Kass was instrumental in this decision, too.

Lazerow: When my wife Kass and I decided we wanted to do something to pay it forward, we put our investor hats on and wanted to know how we could make the most impact. We got to understand why the need for graduate scholarships specifically was so important. In order to attract a diverse student body, and people from all different walks of life, there has to be financial assistance. Graduate school is expensive and there are limited options for financial aid and grants. Giving to Medill in this way really fit within really all of the giving that we’ve done to date (like Cycle for Survival) – it has significant impact and all of the money given actually goes to fulfill the promise of why it was donated.

Thompson: I want to take a minute to revisit your time attending Northwestern as a student.  What memories stand out most?

Lazerow: One of the thing I loved most about Medill was that I was at Northwestern. I was attending a Big 10 school with arts, sports, Greek life – access to an entire world from this one global university. 75 percent of my classes were outside of Medill, which meant I was forced to go out and take courses in disciplines like economics, philosophy and literature.

At the same time, I happened to be in this world-class journalism program. I wrote for The Daily Northwestern and, while I wrote a bunch of stories, I really dove into my first company, University Wire, which was a news service for college papers, one of the first information services using the internet exclusively with no print version.

Additionally, what I got out of Medill was not just a journalism degree, but long-standing relationships. To this day, I continue to be very close with NU and Medill people. The most important driver of my ability to start that first business while at Northwestern was my adviser, Mary Dedinsky. She was phenomenal and incredibly supportive. She also gave me one of my first Medill F’s that I still have a copy of today.

Thompson: Lastly, what advice do you have for people graduating with a journalism degree today?

 Lazerow: If you’re considering going into journalism, know that prestige and masthead no longer matter. Find where you can do the best work, no matter where it is. I’ve seen a lot of people make mistakes in this industry by focusing on, “I’m a writer for this, I’m a writer for that” instead of breaking out and just doing the most interesting work possible. Think omni-channel from the beginning – you’re a content creator, not just a print journalist or a TV journalist.

And even if you’re a journalist, think like a marketer. The journalists who are thriving are ones that know their reader / viewer / consumer and understand how to reach them and what channels they’re on. The days of writing and creating videos and not understanding your consumer is over.

Michael Lazerow is a serial entrepreneur who has co-founded four successful internet-based media companies. He is best-known as the founder, CEO and chairman of Buddy Media, Inc., a New York City-based company that develops and markets applications on the leading social media networks. It was purchased by Salesforce.com for $800 million in 2012. Currently, Michael is an investor for Lazerow Ventures, a fund for his personal tech investments. These have included Buzzfeed, Domo, Namely, Scopely and about 50 others.

Before Buddy Media, Michael founded GolfServ, the parent company of GOLF.com, which was purchased by Time Warner’s Time Inc. division in January 2006 for $24 million. He led GolfServ from a start-up to a multi-million-dollar profitable golf media company. The company delivers golf content and ecommerce services to millions of golfers through its flagship GOLF.com site.

His byline has appeared in more than a dozen newspapers, including Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill; the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel; the Miami Herald; the Delaware State-News; The Capital Times in Madison, Wis.; and the Montgomery Journal.

Michael was on staff at The Daily Northwestern during his freshman year. While at NU, he created University Wire (U-Wire), a network of college papers that was sold to CBS.

Michael is a member of the Medill Board of Advisers. He often makes time to meet and speak with Medill students in NYC, particularly those in the Media Innovation and Content Strategy specialization.

Bio: Kaitlyn Thompson is a marketing strategist, passionate storyteller, global citizen, green tea connoisseur and chili cook-off champion always asking “why.”

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Donors commit $1.5 million to support journalism students now and in the future

Retired history teachers Linnea Phillip Ghilardi (Weinberg BA66, MA67) and Steve Armstrong developed a deep appreciation for journalism and its role in shaping our understanding of history and current events through their years in the classroom. They also learned how a quality education can affect students.

The couple has made a $1.5 million commitment to Medill. Their commitment includes an outright gift of $100,000, which establishes the Linnea Phillip and Steve Armstrong Journalism Scholarship Fund. The fund will provide financial assistance to undergraduate journalism students beginning in fall 2021. The remainder of their gift will come in the form of a bequest that will enhance the existing fund.

“This tremendous commitment from Linnea and Steve will make a Medill education possible for generations of students, and we are deeply honored that the school will be part of their legacy,” Dean Charles Whitaker (BSJ80, MSJ81) said. “Linnea and Steve’s support will help us prepare future journalists to create an informed citizenry, which is a pillar of our democracy and a service that is more essential than ever in the face of current events.”

“Northwestern played a critical role in my life and continues to do so,” said Ghilardi, who hopes that the couple’s gift will have a transformative effect on scholarship recipients. During her five years at the University, she earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in history, which provided a strong foundation for her critical thinking and communication skills. “I became a better writer and thinker because of Northwestern.”

Ghilardi began teaching several years after graduating from the University. For more than 30 years, she served as a history teacher and administrator at high schools and colleges across Illinois and Montana, including De Lourdes College (Des Plaines, Illinois), Glenbrook North High School (Northbrook, Illinois), and other north suburban Chicago schools, as well as Helena High School (Helena, Montana). She later went on to pursue a doctoral degree in education, which she earned from National Louis University in 1999.

Armstrong’s educational career began in the Okavango Delta of Botswana, where he was stationed as a high school teacher in the Peace Corps. When he returned to his native Montana, he secured a teaching position in history at the school where Ghilardi worked. The two wed in 1981 and spent their married lives in Helena; Bigfork, Montana, where they currently live; and the Chicago area, where they lived and taught for nearly two decades. During their time in Chicago, Armstrong taught at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois.

Armstrong earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Montana and a master’s degree from Ohio University; however, he too had the opportunity to experience Northwestern over the years. He attended several history and global studies workshops at the University and what is now the Northwestern Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs, and also completed a fellowship program at Stanford, where one of Ghilardi’s former professors taught all of his classes. And as a member of the Northshore Concert Band, he performed several times at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall on the Evanston campus.

The couple is further connected to Northwestern through Ghilardi’s family. She is the ninth member of her family to graduate from the University and was a student at the same time as two of her cousins, Phillip Zeman (Kellogg 66) and the late John Phillip (Kellogg 64). Well-known alumna, talk show host and soap opera creator Lee Phillip Bell (Weinberg 50, Grandparent 18), who served as a Northwestern trustee until her death earlier this year, was also a cousin of Ghilardi’s.

Ghilardi and Armstrong made their first gift to Northwestern in 1985 and have continued to support the University over the years. Their commitment to Medill is their first major gift to Northwestern and their first planned gift. They join a dedicated community of donors who are helping to secure Northwestern’s excellence far into the future. These donors are recognized as members of the Henry and Emma Rogers Society. The couple’s commitment will also count toward We Will. The Campaign for Northwestern.

“Medill is among the best journalism schools in the country,” Armstrong said. “Having taught history for over three decades apiece, Linnea and I are well versed on the importance of great journalism to our ever-evolving democracy. Students at Medill fit that calling. We hope that our gift encourages students to pursue journalism careers for decades to come.”

Postscript: Linnea Phillip Ghilardi passed away peacefully with Steve by her side on Aug. 27, 2020. 

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Medill announces John M. Mutz Chair in Local News

A newly endowed chair will study and support innovation in local news at Medill thanks to a gift from Medill alumnus John M. Mutz (BSJ57, MSJ58).

The John M. Mutz Chair in Local News will focus on local news sustainability. It will advance the aims of Medill’s Local News Initiative, an innovative research and development project aimed at providing greater understanding of how digital audiences engage with local news and finding new approaches to bolster local news business models.

“Local news is vital to our democracy and an empowered citizenry,” said Medill Dean Charles Whitaker. “As the media industry has transformed, local news outlets face unprecedented challenges. We are deeply grateful for John’s visionary generosity, which helped Medill launch the Local News Initiative and will now cement our place as a leader in addressing the crisis facing local news.”

Mutz’s $2 million gift to create the local news chair counts toward We Will. The Campaign for Northwestern, raising his total giving to Northwestern to over $2.3 million. The chair was supported in part by alumni Patrick G. ’59, ’09 H and Shirley W. Ryan ’61, ’19 H (’97, ’00 P) through the Ryan Family Chair Challenge, which matches gifts made by other Northwestern supporters to establish new endowed professorships, or chairs, across a wide range of disciplines. In 2017, Mutz’s commitment of $250,000 to the Local News Initiative was instrumental to the program’s launch. He also is a member of the Henry and Emma Rogers Society, which recognizes those who have included Northwestern in their estate plans.

Mutz earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from Medill in 1957 and 1958. He also participated in the Medill Cherubs program for high school journalism students in the summer of 1952. Mutz’s daughter, Diana, is a 1984 graduate of the School of Communication, and his son, Mark, graduated from the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences in 1983. Two of Mutz’s grandchildren are also Northwestern alumni: Fletcher, who graduated from Weinberg College in 2017, and Maria, who graduated with a joint degree from the McCormick School of Engineering and Bienen School of Music in 2020.

Mutz is a business leader and politician who served as lieutenant governor of Indiana, Republican candidate for governor and president of Lilly Endowment Inc., one of the world’s largest private foundations. Mutz also served as president of PSI Energy, Indiana’s largest utility (now Duke Energy).

“My political experience has dramatically shown me how important reliable local news sources are to local governments and economies,” Mutz said. “Without it we may lose our democratic society and that would be a tragedy.”

Medill Senior Associate Dean and Professor Tim Franklin is the inaugural holder of the John M. Mutz Chair. Franklin is the leader of Medill’s Local News Initiative.

Franklin joined Medill’s faculty in 2017 after serving as president of The Poynter Institute, a leading international school for journalists and a media think tank. Before that, he had a distinguished career in journalism serving as top editor of three metropolitan newspapers, The Indianapolis Star, Orlando Sentinel and Baltimore Sun. His newsrooms won numerous national journalism awards, and The Sun was a Pulitzer Prize finalist during his tenure. Before joining Poynter in 2014, Franklin was a managing editor in the Washington bureau of Bloomberg News, helping oversee coverage of the White House, Congress, Supreme Court and many federal agencies. He also had a 17-year-career as a reporter and editor at the Chicago Tribune.

“I’m honored to serve as the inaugural Mutz Chair,” Franklin said. “John knows from first-hand experience during his political and business career about the importance of local news in our democracy. He’s passionate about the need for robust local news in our society, and he’s also passionate about Medill. With John’s generous gift, Medill will continue to be a national leader for years to come in developing partnerships, programs and new tools to help local news organizations and the communities they serve.”

Medill’s Local News Initiative began its work in 2018 in partnership with Medill’s Spiegel Research Center by analyzing 13 terabytes of reader and subscriber data from the Chicago Tribune, Indianapolis Star and San Francisco Chronicle to gain insights into online reader behavior. Medill now has conducted data-mining research in more than 20 local news markets. Next year, the school expects to roll out a new tool, the Medill Subscriber Engagement Index, which was awarded a Google Innovation Challenge grant. These findings, coupled with additional research and product development by Medill’s Knight Lab, are providing actionable guidance to media leaders about news and information consumers will pay for and how to grow reader revenue.

The funds raised through the “We Will” Campaign are helping realize the transformational vision set forth in Northwestern’s strategic plan and solidifying the University’s position among the world’s leading research universities. More information on We Will. The Campaign for Northwestern is available at the We Will website.