Students Taught to Think and Execute Like Entrepreneurs to Shape Journalism’s Future

In the wake of the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, citizens flooded the streets in protest in Charlotte, NC. Journalists from every type of media flocked to the scene and provided continuous coverage for the ensuing days. Among them were 14 journalism students from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Media and Journalism (UNC-MJ).

Students have long been sent to cover breaking news events to gain experience. But instead of writing a few stories and taking a few pictures to publish in their school newspaper, these students created an entire website. A team of 30 students and professors designed and created a website, called “State of Charlotte,” and its content in 17 hours. The website featured 360 videos, maps of where protests and events were occurring, photos, and a list of facts as they were currently understood. It automatically updated with the latest tweets and breaking news about the case, and aggregated stories from local news outlets onto the site.

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The project inherently has a short life-cycle. But the skills the students gained and the innovation required to create all the content and website will stick with the students. And in today’s media environment, those are exactly the skillsets news organizations look for new hires. One could see a news organization like the New York Times or Washington Post erecting a similar page on their website to direct readers to during breaking news events like the Scott case.

While unusual, it’s by no accident the site was a brainchild of UNC-MJ students. Nor is it a coincidence that several other innovative projects — like the award-winning media project, Undercurrent — have recently emerged from the school.

Instead, the wave of innovation is the result of a shift in thinking about how their students and future journalists should interact with the changing media industry. The shift? That UNC-MJ graduates shouldn’t just be prepared to participate in the new media industry, but should have the skills required to be the disruptors and innovators shaping the industry’s future.

The shift took life in 2010 when the school utilized a gift from the estate of UNC-MJ alum, Reese Felts to found the Reese News Lab. The lab — now the hub for entrepreneurship and innovation at the school — is an experimental laboratory of sorts where students and faculty collaborate to identify the industry’s challenges and design solutions for them. The school also beefed up innovation curriculum and programming in 2011 through strategic hires Steven King, serial entrepreneur, former editor of innovations, and director of video at the Washington Post, and John Clark, WRAL.com’s former general manager. The pair helped faculty like Ryan Thornburg, an associate professor with expertise in digital media, build the lab.

The changes paid off. Just five years after launching the Reese News Lab, the Knight Foundation awarded the school a $3 million grant to create a new “Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media” to expand their innovation-based curriculum and assist local news organizations through their applied research and expertise.

But can you teach the art of innovation? If so, how? And is this experience actually valuable for journalism students?

King, the interim Executive Director of the Reese News Lab and assistant professor of multimedia and interactive journalism at UNC certainly thinks so. And so do his former students, Camila Godoy and Edgar Walker. I caught up with all three to better understand how King and the lab teach innovation, what impact it has on the students, and how it will shape the media industry.

Throwing Post-It Notes at Walls to See What Sticks

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Origin theories for the saying, “throw it against a wall to see if it sticks,” are murky but one theory is the phrase emerged from the old technique of throwing cooked spaghetti at a wall to test its doneness. If it sticks, it’s thoroughly cooked. If it falls to the ground, more time in the water is needed.

The beginning ideation process for the small army of students participating in the Reese News Lab isn’t much different. The students (either interns or students in the fall Reese News Lab course) begin the semester by throwing solutions for assigned challenges at the lab’s sterile walls. They may not throw actual noodles at the walls, but dried spaghetti noodles are sometimes combined with marshmallows to build prototypes during the practice brainstorming phase where students participate in “outrageous” ice-breaker activities. Once challenges are assigned, thousands of colorful post-it notes end up on the walls and only the ones that prove desirable, feasible, and viable stick.

Unlike the linear seven-step scientific method used in science laboratories, King describes the Reese Lab’s ideation process as “more of a loop than linear process.” Based on a human centered design framework combined with the “lean startup” method, the process requires constant iteration and consumer validation. King says, “in practice this means you have to identify the audience very early, and talk to them throughout the entire process.”

At the beginning of a semester or summer, teams are formed, and the solution generation process begins. Crazy, pie in the sky, blue-sky solutions are encouraged and few — if any — boundaries are placed on the students during this phase says King.

After hundreds of the ideas are generated, faculty shift gears and introduce a dose of reality. The top ideas are put to through a test; surviving three big questions:

  1. Is the idea desirable? Would anyone use the product? would consumers be willing to sacrifice their time and/or money for the product?
  2. Is the idea sustainable and viable? Does a supporting revenue model — other than soliciting advertisements — exist? If not, how would it be funded?
  3. Is the idea feasible? Could a publisher actually execute and integrate the idea into their business?

Ideate, Test, Validate, Iterate, Test, Validate…

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With these criteria in hand and focusing on their end user’s needs, the students begin the process of whittling down their lists. Sometimes different ideas are combined. Most are trashed. King calls this phase the most important because, “if we’re not honest with ourselves about the idea’s viability then we will spend a lot of time on something that will never survive.”

Research, prototyping and building what entrepreneurs call a “minimal viable product” or MVP comes next. Students are encouraged to build as little as possible to test if their idea is viable. Sometimes even a drawing on a sheet of paper will suffice. Students also spend time researching whether a similar product already exists, how to build the product, and talk to experts during this phase.

In the words of former intern and Knight Innovation Fellow Godoy, the next phase, customer validation, is where students, “learn how to talk to people and really discover that people are everything.” Students learn to identify potential consumers and determine their preferences by speaking with them on the street, in focus groups, through surveys, or any way they can find and speak with them.

If possible, they also observe the consumer’s habits because as King says, “a person may tell you they do x, y, and z every day, but they actually only do it sometimes or in in a different order, or not every day.” Observing is particularly important for products or services that require behavior or habit changes from consumers. They return to their consumer base throughout the semester to obtain feedback on their products as it evolves.

With consumer validation data in hand, the students apply lesson’s learned. Some go on to partner with students in the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Kenan Flagler Business School to develop business plans. Others move on to other ideas if their idea folds under the weight of the validation process. The iterative process — building out the prototype, talking to consumers, editing the product — is repeated as many times as necessary.

At the end of the semester, the ideas in their final form are presented to faculty. And from there it’s up to the students what to do with the idea. Most move on. Some — like the Capitol Hound (Campaign Hound’s sister tool) team — turn the idea over to the school to pursue. A small number go on turn their idea into full-fledged startups. King says the school, “loves that and supports that, but (recognizes that) not all teams can do that.”

On average, one idea (five total) has moved forward per year. Four, including Capitol Hound, still exist in various stages of development.

But while the lab has seen some level of success in fostering the creation of innovative projects worthy of pursuit, spinning out startups, platforms, databases, and products is not the schools ultimate goal for the lab. Instead, the goal was to instill a knowledge of and passion for ideation, innovation, and entrepreneurship in the next generation of journalists who in turn will inject those qualities into local, regional and national news organizations.

And that’s exactly what graduates are doing in some of the country’s most prestigious news organizations. Walker says, “as the industry continues to shake up, there’s this urgency for media companies to create new things, rather than double down on old things.”

Reese graduates now “creating new things” as developers, reporters, designers and producers at a wide variety of organizations from traditional news organizations like the Washington Post, CNN and Politico to tech giants like Red Hat and universities like Harvard and UNC-Chapel Hill.

A New Center and Expanded Vision

The Lab’s success led to the creation of the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media. Funded by the newly acquired Knight grant, has center’s mission is to “support the transformation of existing news organizations and emerging community news sites,” through applied research focused on “media sustainability, innovative news, and digital product solutions.” The Center builds upon the Reese News Lab’s work and the school’s two Knight chair’s research and complements it — drawing the process of ideation and innovation taught at the Lab into the Center to distribute to news organizations, all while conducting new practical research to iterate and improve the processes.

The center hosts hands-on workshops teaching the innovation process solidified in the lab for media professionals. They also launched a fellowship program where Reese-trained students are embedded in partner news organizations for a summer to lead the organizations through the same innovation process learned in the lab to address challenges and design new tools. And more research, tools, events and programs are in the pipeline.

Walker and Godoy, both previous interns for Reese News Lab were two of this year’s first cohort of fellows. For Walker, his first experience in the Reese News Lab intern in 2014 “opened his eyes to ways you do media differently.” Taking startup principles and applying them to media products attracted Walker to the fellowship. During his fellowship at the Pilot — Southern Pines, NC’s nearly 100-year-old community newspaper, Walker led the paper’s team through the same ideation process he underwent two years earlier. The end result was a new Skimm-like e-newsletter designed to quickly inform readers on local events and happenings. The Pilot team has already integrated the product into their offerings.

Godoy — also a previous Reese intern — was an “embedded innovator” at ABC 11’s Durham office this summer. Godoy, now a senior at UNC-MJ, led a team of department heads, some with decades of experience in the industry, through Reese-style innovation training to create a new product for viewers. The team’s aha moment came when Godoy encouraged the team to consult with viewers throughout the creative process. They previously hadn’t spoken to their viewers and thus “didn’t know what their viewers wanted,” according to Godoy. The end result is still under development, but viewers should expect to soon find a new resource on events, places to go, things to see, and happenings from ABC specific to their viewing area.

Tomorrow’s Industry Is Shaped by Today’s Students

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Recently, a group of UNC MJ students and their advisors, one of which was King, won the “Excellence and Innovation in Visual Digital Storytelling” award at the prestigious 16th Annual Online Journalism Awards for their visual media project, Undercurrent. The project was shot and developed over the course of a semester to explore the changes the Bocas del Toro region of Panama is undergoing due to climate change. The students were in good company. Media giants like The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and the Huffington Post were among some of the other winners.

Their success, and that of other Reese alums like Godoy and Walker, indicate that King, his colleagues and the UNC-MJ school were right to believe that innovation can be taught if strategic, methods and structures are put in place to foster creative problem solving and design.

Other schools are starting to follow suit, creating their own similar programs. But with faculty like King and Thornburg UNC remains to be a thought leader and pioneer in the space, modeling the future of journalism education.

It’s good news for today’s social-media driven, ever present, frantically evolving media industry that such a thought leader exists. News organizations can rest assured that new hires (from the UNC-MJ school at least) will be ready to embrace the new media industry and help shape its future. And consumers can rest knowing tomorrow’s journalists will continue to deliver the news, just in new ways and tailored to your preferences, tomorrow’s technologies, and media environment.