Feasibility, desirability and viability were the key components considered by students of the UNC-Chapel Hill Reese News Lab as they developed new media products over the course of the fall semester. Ranging from an educational tool for classrooms to a niche journalistic publication, the students pitched their ideas to a room including media professionals, faculty and students at the Pitch Day event on Dec. 3, 2013.

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The students developed their respective products all semester, and Pitch Day was the culmination of that work.

“We talk about in a journalism school that we are storytellers,” said John Clark, executive director of the Reese News Lab. “That’s all a pitch is. In essence, we’re telling a story — it may not be a narrative, but it is telling a story about what we are, who we are and what are we doing.”

Barry Leffler, CEO and managing partner of 97.9 FM WCHL attended the event and said, “All the presentations really reinforce the innovation and entrepreneurial spirit that’s happening here.”

Each of the products detailed have a prototype that can be explored further online.

Greetings From: Bringing global awareness to U.S. classrooms

Students found that while teachers tend to prize global awareness in their classrooms, few felt that children were accomplishing the level of understanding the teachers wished to achieve.

Greetings From aims to fill this need by providing a digital postcard service for use as a classroom tool. Culturally relevant content is written by children all around the world and delivered to subscribing teachers in U.S. classrooms. The product complies with the Common Core State Standards and would provide supplemental information to stimulate discussions in the classroom.

“Ultimately we think it’s important for everyone, especially students, to be globally aware,” said L.A. Blake, a member of the Greetings From team. “Through Greetings From, subscribers will learn about the world through the eyes of tomorrow’s leaders.”

The content will be gathered in partnership with non-profit organizations located in countries around the world. The Greetings From team reached out to organizations that already work with children.

Each non-profit organization would assist children in writing and gathering the content, then send it to the Greetings From team for packaging into the digital, interactive format that would be sent to subscribers. In return for their participation, a percentage of the Greetings From profits would be donated back to those non-profit organizations each year. A different non-profit would be featured on the Greetings From website each month, gaining free publicity for its work.

The team recently gained IRB approval to do research with children and further refine the product and plans to pursue this into the spring semester.

EmployEd: Connecting employers to multimedia talent

As more organizations and small businesses look to increase their exposure through marketing and an online presence, EmployEd offers a simple way for organizations to connect with university students offering multimedia talents.

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“Students at top universities have comparable skills to professional freelancers and are willing to work at a discounted price,” said Anna Starnes, a member of the EmployEd team. “Students get the professional experience they need, and organizations get quality work at a price they can afford.”

The Web interface allows employers to do customized searches and filter students by skill set, see portfolio pieces, and read reviews about past projects. The employer can then contact the student or multiple students about the work they need and negotiate a relationship from there.

“As a local media person, I can definitely see a need for that” service, Leffler said.

After the presentation, Leffler inquired about the need for quick turnaround in the media business. Casey Miller, another member of the EmployEd team, said student availability would be a key component of the student’s online profile.

A premium version of EmployEd would recommend matches for the employer, rather than have the business navigate the site themselves. Sample contracts and other resources would be available for students or employers who are unfamiliar with the dynamics of a freelance relationship.

Newsperks: Incentivizing news for users, advertisers

The Newsperks team suggests an alternative business model for advertisers and subscribers to online news sites. The core component: gift cards changing hands.

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Users would subscribe to the online news site for a cost of $25 per month. The subscription gives you access to the content, but also guarantees you a $35 gift card to a local business. Users would first rank their preferences for the gift cards available, and then the more they interact with the news by commenting or sharing, the more likely they would be to receive their first choice gift card.

Advertisers, in turn, pay for ad space online with gift cards rather than cash. These gift cards are the same ones turned around and given to consumers.

“Newsperks offers advertisers a new way to pay for ad space and users a new reason to subscribe,” said Jessica Porter, a member of the Newsperks team.

Advantages are seen on several ends. Users get a return on their investment and credit for reading the news, advertisers see users directed specifically back to their businesses through the gift cards, and the news site sees increased traffic and bolstered readership, while benefiting from the subscription fees.

Lincoln Pennington, another Newsperks team member, said he thinks this model could help news outlets fund more long-form, investigative pieces of journalism.

“In theory, the model relies less on stories that generate high click rates and focuses more on consumers engaging with the news and sharing what interests them,” Pennington said. “It seems like a model that could work for local news outlets especially. Without more data, though, it would be hard to speculate beyond that.”

The Forum: Bridging communication between inmates and their families

Few news services are targeted to prisoners, and Reese News Lab students recognized a need in this population often left without a voice. Incarcerated individuals have trouble communicating with their loved ones outside of prison and in staying informed of current events. The Forum is a publication that would help meet that need.

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The subscription-based publication would be paid for by families of inmates and distributed to those in North Carolina prison facilities. The Forum would start in North Carolina prisons for now, but the team would like the model to expand nationally.

The content would address current events and provide supplementary questions to encourage discussion among the prisoners and with their families. It would also offer an avenue for inmate-generated content, allowing submissions for certain sections of the paper.

“We’re talking about a very niche publication and quality and targeted media products,” said Samantha Harrington, part of the Forum team. “They’re not one-sided; it asks people questions; it asks people to respond in whatever way that they can — the idea of it being interactive and it being for a special population that is often pretty unrepresented … Those are the themes I’d like people to take away from it.”

While the Forum team has spoken with prisoners’ families to gauge interest in a product like this, the team only recently received IRB approval to begin talking with prisoners as well. The team plans to continue researching and refining the potential publication to serve the needs of both the inmates and their families while respecting the policies of the prison facilities.

Synapse: Filling a need for in-depth reporting

Synapse magazine is a student-run publication that provides investigative stories to the UNC community and beyond. As the mass media continues to move toward the 24-hour news cycle and a faster-paced newsroom in the digital age, the Synapse team saw a lack of more in-depth content that takes time to report and package.

“We saw an opportunity to fill a void by removing ourselves from the daily news cycle and focusing exclusively on in-depth thoughtful journalism,” said Claire McNeill, managing editor of Synapse.

The digital magazine is tablet-exclusive, available on the iPad and Kindle Fire. The first issue was launched in mid-November, with a second issue planned for January 14 and the second Tuesday of every month following.

Synapse Magazine from Chessa DeCain on Vimeo.

Looking ahead

While some of the current products will continue to move forward and be further developed, their future relies on the drive of the students and the interest of outside parties. Harrington is confident in the innovative work that continues to develop at the Reese News Lab.

“We do show that there’s overlap between business and journalism, and we can make it work, and the future is bright,” Harrington said.

The spring 2014 semester will see brainstorming and development of new projects, another pitch day event, and the integration of a few new students to the lab.

“We make a joke that we don’t hire skills, we hire minds,” Clark said. “I’m not necessarily hiring a computer programmer, I’m hiring someone who’s got the thought process for that very logical, step-by-step computer science mentality, or a graphic designer with the creativity, or a journalist who’s just going to be an interrogator. We try to … get as diverse a group as possible.”

Courtni Kopietz is a graduate student at UNC where she is studying medical and science journalism. Her interests include promoting health news, reporting on scientific advancements and informing the public via the mass media.

This post originally appeared on Reese News Lab.

reese2Reese News Lab is an experimental news and research project based at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The lab was established in 2010 with a gift from the estate of journalism school alum Reese Felts. We develop and test new ideas for the media industry. Undergraduate and graduate students learn about the state of the news industry, pitch product ideas, conduct user testing and develop prototypes. The staff of undergraduate and graduate students are required to document their work throughout their projects, compiling their research, results and recommendations on the viability of their product ideas.