When we put out the call to J-school educators for the first round of experiments to #hackcurriculum for the Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education, we already knew we were hitting a rich vein just waiting to be mined.

We saw the momentum in our Facebook Educators group, where a virtual cohort of nearly 600 digitally hungry and committed academics exchange rapid-fire ideas on favorite tools, curriculum tips, job openings, how-tos and student motivation. We heard it in the halls of our annual conference, where academic attendance is climbing and more and more mentors compete to work with the best and brightest in the Student Newsroom. And we hear it in the frustration of committed, multitasking teachers who are searching for the means to creatively engage their students in the community and work with local media.

The four foundations supporting the Challenge Fund — the Democracy Fund, Ethics & Excellence in Journalism, Knight and McCormick — had long been on the same wavelength. The time was overdue to provide some space and support, up to $1 million worth, for experimentation in the academic and media ecosystem.

The University of Missouri. University photo used here with Creative Commons license.

The University of Missouri. University photo used here with Creative Commons license.

Three months later, our selection committees were looking at 125 applications from schools small and large, from all over the United States, to pick the first round of winners for the two-year fund. Bright shiny things and gee-whiz technology were not the goal. We wanted to see true community engagement and impact, at a level of success that would be replicable in other schools. Will students learn to produce new kinds of news in open collaborative teams? What do they want to find out with their experiment? How will their community and local news outlets benefit?

While we originally planned to award only 10 micro-grants, we upped the number to an even dozen based on the sheer quality of applications. The 12 selected schools, each of which will be getting $35,000 to test their hypotheses, run the gamut in their goals. Just a quick sampling shows experiments using:

  • the community to chart mold in low-income housing’
  • sensors to test water pollution
  • ground-breaking collaboration across HBCUs and media to increase jobs for young journalists of color
  • mobile video to put poverty on the public agenda
  • social media conversations to reinvent public affairs programming

We’re delighted to see and support so many community-centric ideas in so many schools across the land — so many, in fact, we had to also pick 13 honorable mentions. When we open up entries later this year for the next round of funding, we hope those interesting ideas will get richer, and we’ll see them again in renewed form.

The Winners

Arizona State University, “Finding the Middle Ground”: The investigative News21 project will use databases and other engagement tools to test the idea that deep engagement with groups on both sides of a divisive issue — guns — may have an impact on both the final investigation and how the groups react to it. Partner: Public Insight Network.

CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, “Hack the Mold”: CUNY will experiment with both in-person and on-line engagement with tenants when reporting on a low-income community’s experiences with mold in New York City public housing. Partner: The New York Daily News.

Florida International University, “Sea Level Rise: South Florida”: Can data feeds, “crowd hydrology” and student-led journalism — with strong support from public television — increase community engagement about sea level rise in South Florida? Partners: Code for Miami, Hacks/Hackers, WPBT2, South Florida Water Management District.

Georgia Collaborative, “Georgia News Lab”: An ambitious collaborative, including Georgia State University, Morehouse College, Clark Atlanta University, University of Georgia and two major local news outlets, will try to increase newsroom diversity by training digitally savvy investigative reporters. Media partners: Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSBTV.

San Diego State University, “What’s in the Air?”: Journalism and geology students will partner with a nonprofit news organization to experiment with the concept that using electronic sensors to test air quality in San Diego can help the public be more informed about pollution and its impact on the city. Media partner: inewsource.

San Francisco State University: “Newspoints”: Can a mobile- and web-based organizing tool improve reporting and get student journalists into the field sooner? Partners: El Tecolote, Accion Latina, Stamen Design.

Texas State University, “TexasMusicViz”: Can journalism about music break out of routine story forms, uncover unheard voices and untold tales, and be more useful in new forms to the central Texas community? Partners: Texas Music Magazine, KUT Austin, Texas Music Office, Cox Media Group, consultants from NPR and MakerSquare.

University of Illinois, “Intersections”: Will openly mapping a city’s often invisible social media conversations change the nature of journalism in the Champaign-Urbana metropolitan community? Media partner: CU-CitizenAccess.org.

University of Missouri, “The Town Square”: Can television public affairs programming be reinvented by basing it on social media conversations? Partner: KOMU-TV, an NBC affiliate.

University of New Mexico, “New Mexico News Port”: Can a student-powered lab and publishing platform that curates content from a collaborative hub increase news in New Mexico? Partners: Radio station KUNM, television station KNME and The Daily Lobo.

University of Oklahoma, “Talk With Us”: Students will use mobile video and GIS data to experiment with the idea that creating a conversation in Oklahoma City between residents of low-income neighborhoods and area leaders will raise the issue of poverty on the public agenda. Partner: Oklahoma Watch.

University of Wisconsin-Madison, “The Confluence”: A statewide investigative collaborative will use digital tools and community engagement, including volunteer citizen water monitoring, in an effort to increase the impact of journalism on improving water quality and supply issues. Partner: Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Thirteen schools received honorable mention for their projects: American University, Columbia College, DePaul University, El Paso Community College, Emerson College, Howard University, Mercer University, Middle Tennessee State University, University of Kansas, University of Minnesota, USC-Annenberg, Virginia Commonwealth University and West Virginia University.

This guest post is a cross post from ONA’s site journalists.org and the Knight Foundation’s blog.

Jane McDonnell is the executive director of the Online News Association. Prior to joining ONA, she served as Consulting Senior Editor for the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s 2008 State of the News Media Report. In 2006-2007, she oversaw the communications, marketing and digital efforts at the Center for Public Integrity and was part of a CPI team that won online awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, Investigative Reporters and Editors, the National Press Foundation, the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Association of Healthcare Journalists and Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. She started up Public Access Journalism in 2001 to examine social issues in print, broadcast and themed public Web sites featuring webchats, blogs, videos, podcasts and interactive resources.