Why media companies are rushing to partner with universities


Last week I was invited to participate in a couple of events taking place around SXSW to talk about NYC Media Lab. One of the basic questions people put to me is “why do media companies want to partner with universities?” I think there are a few good reasons why now- more than ever- media companies want to form strong relationships with universities. Here are a few.

1. Shared curiosities.

For many years the media industry was in ‘exploit’ mode, building businesses on existing technologies. Think printing presses and broadcast television. That’s all changed, of course, and now media companies are organizing themselves to find emerging technologies- we’re back in ‘experiment’ mode. In many cases, the state of the art in areas crucial to the future of how we produce, consume and distribute content- from machine learning to computer vision to virtual reality- is advanced first in university labs.

We’re back in ‘experiment’ mode.

You can see this trend playing out in the hiring decisions of big media companies, too. It’s been a while since the industry employed a lot of PhDs, but take a look at the people leading data sciences teams at News Corp, Hearst or the New York Times. It’s not uncommon to see executives with ties to the academy, or with significant research achievements before moving to industry.

2. We’re speaking the same language.

When media companies were in “exploit” mode, it made little sense to invest a great deal in technology R&D. The muscles required to experiment atrophied in organizations focused entirely on maximizing returns and avoiding failure. Consequently the language of experiment faded from use.

These days, media companies have learned the tricks of tech firms.
Engineers from News Corp and faculty and students from Columbia and NYU collaborate in an NYC Media Lab working group on data visualization tools for journalists

But that is changing, and fast. These days, media companies have learned the tricks of tech firms. Engineering teams have adopted the agile approach, and strategists can quote Steve Blank by heart. These methodologies sound very familiar to people working on university campuses- and that makes it easier for companies to partner with universities. Test-and-learn, the scientific method, whatever you want to call it- the language of setting up experiments to evaluate hypotheses and test assumptions is the native language of the academy.

3. Our watches are synchronized.

In the movies when a pair of people are forced into an adventure together the first thing they do is synchronize their watches. It used to be that the time frames for interactions between industry and academia were out of whack. At one level, fiscal quarters didn’t jive with semesters; at another, the relentless pursuit of annual results did not jive with the epochal time horizons of universities that seek primarily to advance human knowledge.

Digital technologies have made it possible to do meaningful R&D projects in shorter time frames.

But in may ways digital technologies have made it possible to do meaningful R&D projects in shorter time frames that suit both the interests of faculty and students on the campuses and executives in companies. And perhaps more than before, both sides see the value in starting small: long term commitments to collaborate are only worth considering if you have validated a seed project of shorter duration.

NBCUniversal and NYU Game Center collaborated as part of an NYC Media Lab Seed Project

4. What young people think matters.

One of the things NYC Media Lab member companies recognize is that millennials and the generation that follows them are at the fore of creating and adopting new media and communications tools that are changing their businesses. One way to build products that will succeed with millennials is to build products with millennials. Partnering with universities creates opportunities to work with young people directly, and to bring their media habits, insights and energy into the company.

One way to build products that will succeed with millennials is to build products with millennials.

Many of the projects we have worked on lately have this thread running through them. Three of our most recent design and prototyping projects, for instance, with Hearst Corporation, NBCUniversal and Publicis Groupe, sought specifically to source ideas from millennials. Of course, it goes without saying that the other benefit in working with students is the opportunity to hire them.

5. Media is changing, but universities are changing, too.

Perhaps more than ever before, across this nation universities are interested in encouraging entrepreneurship and participating in the commercialization of new technologies. In New York, for instance, NYU, Columbia, CUNY and other institutions are investing in incubators and startup labs, entrepreneurship curricula for students and faculty, and other initiatives aimed at growing connections with industry. The professional staff to support these initiatives and to build and execute partnerships that companies value are now in place. Add to that a growing desire on campuses to connect students with experiences that lead to employment, and the general atmosphere for partnership has never been more positive.

Faculty and students at Parsons The New School collaborate on an NYC Media Lab seed project with ESPN

In the next few years we’ll see more experiments aimed at connecting universities and companies to pursue collaboration and technology innovation. The general dynamics driving the success of these engagements- including programs like NYC Media Lab- are strong. Shared curiosities, a shared language and sense of time, an enthusiasm for youth and a new posture around entrepreneurship and technology commercialization on campuses, taken together, signal great things on the horizon.

You can see examples of a handful of the projects NYC Media Lab has conducted recently here, including projects ranging from design to engineering. Contact me if you are interested in working with NYC Media Lab.


Justin Hendrix is Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. Reach him at justin [dot] hendrix [at] nycmedialab [dot] org or follow him on Twitter @justinhendrix.