Dan Pacheco and Chris O’Brien wrote recently for IdeaLab about ways newspapers (or other media) can innovate successfully.

One approach that wasn’t mentioned (yet): partner with a university.

Academic institutions are full of smart faculty members, including experts on innovation, technology, audience behavior, journalism and the business of media. Even more important, they are full of young people who are "wired" for the contemporary media world and can do amazing things if given an interesting challenge and the right amount (not too much, not too little) of coaching and direction.

At the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, where I teach, we have several classes in our master’s program that challenge students to innovate to solve real-world media problems. We’ve been doing things like this for decades, as noted by this recent Miami Herald article that mentions Medill students’ role in helping invent the original "Neighbors" print sections. Collectively, we now call these classes "innovation projects," and they are getting greater emphasis in our curriculum as we seek to prepare young journalists for the realities of the 21st century.

Here are some examples of innovation projects that have had real impact:

  • raising-teens1.gifTwice a year for more than 25 years, our magazine publishing majors have created a magazine concept from scratch or taken on an assignment to revamp an existing magazine. Four of these concepts, including "Raising Teens" in 1997 (right), were ultimately purchased by real companies and launched.
  • Our Media Management Project class has helped newspapers improve their print and online products for more than a decade. In 2003, for instance, the class worked with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to understand the needs of young adults in its market. Their work ultimately led to the launch of MKE, a Web site and weekly print entertainment publication.
  • In 2004, a small team of new media students developed one of the earliest "hyperlocal citizen media" sites, which they called GoSkokie. The site was designated a "notable entry" in the Knight-Batten Awards for Innovation in Journalism, and inspired the Skokie Public Library to launch its own version, SkokieNet.
  • Another class in 2004 developed the concept for YourMom, an online social network and print publication for teenagers in the Quad-Cities area of Iowa and Illinois. The site won recognition from the Newspaper Association (one of the nation’s best young reader initiatives) and Editor & Publisher ("10 That Do It Right").
  • Last year’s Media Management Project class developed the concept for a new hyperlocal site in Zeeland, Michigan, for the Holland Sentinel newspaper.

In addition to these projects that led directly to new product launches, we’ve had other classes that were more experimental. In 2001, for instance, classes sponsored by Thomson Multimedia developed prototypes for "digital tablets" (the ancestors of today’s Kindle e-book reader). Here’s a link to a Flash demo of a portable device for the kitchen. (One of the students’ clever ideas was that the device could serve as a refrigerator-mounted photo frame when not in use — to see the kitchen functionality, click on the family photo.)

interactiveTVprototype.jpg

Another Thomson-sponsored project in 2001 developed ideas for a newscast on interactive television (screen capture at right).

Our new media project earlier this year, which Leslie Rule wrote about for the IdeaLab blog, focused on "locative journalism." The students used technology from Hewlett-Packard to experiment with GPS-triggered storytelling. Just last week, this project, like GoSkokie four years earlier, was designated a "notable entry" in the Knight-Batten Awards.

I have to acknowledge that not all of the products launched as a result of our students’ work ultimately survived. For instance, the Milwaukee paper has shuttered MKE, and Your Mom is no longer with us. (The shutdown of Your Mom did, however, lead to one of my all-time favorite headlines: "Oh My God! They Killed ‘Your Mom.’" It’s hard to tell whether their demise is due to flaws in the concept or in the execution. But the fact remains that these classes turned out innovative new media products that otherwise might never have been launched at all.

And Medill is not the only university developing innovative ideas for new media products. There are now media innovation initiatives at the City University of New York and the University of Florida, as well as programs funded by the Knight News Challenge involving Arizona State and a multischool "digital incubator" consortium.

As opportunities for new product development have increasingly moved to digital platforms, one of our challenges has been how to address the technological complexities underlying most digital products. Journalism students can design print prototypes with skills they learn in our program, but building a functional Web site or mobile application requires high-level technology skills unusual among journalism students. That reality was one of the motivations behind our winning Knight News Challenge grant application that is bringing experienced computer programmers into our master’s program.

Starting in just a few weeks, our first two programmer-journalists will be among the students enrolled in the New Media Publishing Project class. My next post will address some of the ideas we’re thinking about for that class.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear about other projects in which universities — especially, but not limited to, journalism schools — are helping jumpstart media innovation. Chime in below in the comments section.