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J School Contests Build Products for Future Media Audience

A conversation with Keith Politte and Mike McKean, University of Missouri

The University of Missouri Journalism School, the Reynolds Journalism Institute, and their industry partners including Adobe, Apple, and AT&T are supporting student development work in order to find new ways to reach a changing audience that shuns traditional media. A series of contests will help analyze ideas fostered by the student work and make student products available for real-world applications.

Campus Technology: The Missouri Journalism School and the Reynolds institute are partnering with industry leaders like Adobe, Apple, and AT&T to fund contests that foster student development of new media applications. What's the thinking behind this?

Mike McKean: Reynolds is leveraging new ideas and technologies that come from the target audience journalism is trying to reach--younger people--to reconnect them with traditional media. This is a time when the perception of the media is declining, but when the media have never been more important as we go forward with big changes in government and in the interconnectedness of people around the globe. We need journalists! But not if we can't reconnect them to people who don't trust them anymore or to people who have found new services for news and information. So, we do things like these student contests as a way to pull out some of the best ideas from the exact audience we are trying to reach.

Keith Politte: And as I see it, we are pulling together three things: the journalism industry (including technology), the academy (the university plus research), and citizenry (because of course an informed citizenry is essential for a functioning democracy).

CT: How would you characterize the applications, in general, that students might create in these contests?

McKean: Among the things we see in the competition are applications designed with the 'new user' in mind--not a passive consumer of news and information, but somebody who's constantly sharing information across social networks. [These new users] could be professional journalists, they could be small businesses in your local community, or they could be citizen-journalists who are trying to contribute content as easily as they can and get it into the hands of professional journalists.

CT: How are the contests organized? You have had two so far, is that correct?

Politte: Yes. We've now completed the second iteration of this whole idea of sponsoring student contests. The things the contests have had in common are: They are interdisciplinary, so we are drawing students from multiple programs on campus. And the projects have to be focused on journalism at large, or on advertising. And importantly, the projects are student-driven. Students come up with the ideas, students execute the ideas, and then they must have real products to show at the end of the competition. It isn't just "Come up with a new idea, research it, and talk about it." Rather, it's "Come up with a great idea, research it, develop it, come up with a marketing plan for it, and put it out there for the world to consume."

The first contest we sponsored with Adobe, to time with the release of AIR, so that first competition was to use AIR to create desktop applications that would further the goals we just talked about. The second contest was done with Apple, involving the iPhone and AT&T--a tie-in with the release of the 3G iPhone and the desire by Apple to have as many useful applications as possible in their store for people to put on their phones.

McKean: We tried to incorporate the latest technology, corporate partners who are interested in working with journalism, and different departments on campus that bring different skills to bear to solve problems or come up with new applications. And, of course, some money from the Reynolds Institute to help make these ideas reality.

CT: How did you organize everyone, especially your corporate partners, in the contests?

McKean: [To begin the last contest, for example], we brought all the entities together and said, "Would you like to do a contest surrounding the iPhone?" We put forward a proposal to the campus IT committee to say, "Would you like to get involved in supporting this kind of interdisciplinary work?"--which led to the creation of a $100,000 Interdisciplinary Innovation Fund. To get that commitment of campus money, we had to prove that there were other funding sources, so Apple came to the table and provided resources, AT&T provided money and resources, the Journalism School provided resources--so all that leveraged the campus money to make it possible to expand on the original vision of the first contest that we did with Adobe.

And of course we had student meetings to bring them together with the concept, including "speed dating" sessions so that those who didn't have a team could find people to join with.

CT: Where do the students come from, within the university, and what are some of the activities they are involved in during the contest?

Politte: They're from the University of Missouri, Columbia campus--from journalism, agriculture journalism, computer science and engineering, the business school, and the college of education. The student teams that self-formed present their pitches--what their ideas are, what the market research shows for these apps, how they are going to prototype them, how they're going to build them. It's almost like a venture capitalist pitch--they share what they have in mind and how they are going to get there. Then we choose finalist teams, and those teams meet with the sponsor's (such as Apple or Adobe) engineers and marketing people. So it's a great exercise for the students on a number of levels. They come back to campus and develop their apps--with financial support from us to buy hardware or software, hire out some of the work that they can't do themselves, do focus groups or usability testing... we provide seed money to help them do what they need to do.

Then of course we select the winning team, and we build a symposium around what we've learned.

McKean: And the maybe most important thing, assuming that all the finalist teams have developed workable apps, is that they will have gone through the process of having them vetted and made available for use--for example, the iPhone apps can be uploaded to the Apple apps store, based on the students' plans.

CT: And the presumably the journalism profession benefits, too...

Politte: In the age of participatory media, it's mandatory that we rethink how we gather content, deliver content, and engage people in advertising. It's not a one-way medium anymore--that's what's so exciting, and that's exactly where our students are trailblazers. If we can listen to them and collaborate with them, we are going to be doing well.

Keith Politte is manager of the TechTesting Center at the Reynolds Journalism Institute.

Mike McKean is the director of the Futures Lab at the Reynolds Journalism Institute and a faculty member in journalism convergence at the Missouri Journalism School (University of Missouri).


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