In an age where traditional journalism is on a perceived decline, John Clark
and his students in Reese News Lab
are using entrepreneurship to transform the media. In a room full of faculty, entrepreneurs and news reporters last Friday, Clark’s students pitched six different startup ideas, a culmination of a semester-long project. For the students, the process was fun and frustrating at times, and anything but ordinary. One thing was abundantly clear the entire semester: Reese is anything but a traditional journalism class.
That’s because Clark’s students are taught to think like entrepreneurs to solve big problems facing today’s media.
Take American Media Corps, a fellowship designed to give recent journalism school graduates experience with community newspapers. The problem it solves is two-sided. Small-town newspapers across the country have shrinking newsroom budgets, making it difficult to provide quality in-depth coverage of local news. Young journalists are having trouble gaining valuable experience due to lack of opportunities. American Media Corps aims to solve these problems by creating a fellowship to connect these newspapers to willing and talented journalists. Think of it as Peace Corps for the local paper.
Another venture that pitched Friday is Teacher Talk, an online platform that facilitates communication about students between teachers year-after-year. The Teacher Talk team sought to address the problem of inadequate student behavioral and needs records. It lets teachers compile information and share it with each other during a child’s academic career. Following the presentation, the students were peppered with questions from the audience and were well prepared to answer. Customer service? Accounted for in the budget. Privacy laws? They believe the product is compliant with federal and state regulations.
This semester’s projects also included:
Kinethics—a compliance training platform designed to give interactive, culturally relevant ethics education to employees who do business internationally.
TourSync—a location-based mobile app that provides exhibit information in museums.
TarNation—an online jobs database that connects current UNC students to alumni.
Stuff Share—An online platform and physical store that lets people share their stuff with each other.
Clark’s teaching philosophy is built upon the three-pillared foundation of desirability, feasibility and viability. In other words, does anyone want your product or service, can you build it, and can you sustain it? The process is meant to transform the way students think to make them problem solvers.
“I’ve had students jokingly tell me that we’ve ruined them because they look at every idea they see or hear through the desirability, feasibility, viability framework,” Clark said.
Each semester, students in the lab, located in the basement of Carroll Hall, literally begin with a blank slate. A brainstorming session ensues and before long a whiteboard is covered in manically drawn scribbles and doodles as ideas begin to flow. These ideas are then put through the filter – desirability, feasibility and viability – and edited until a workable solution is achieved. Ideas that don’t hold up are quickly killed and the reiteration process begins.
The general public only gets to see the final product: well-rehearsed presentations from brilliant young people who have spent months studying a problem and creating a solution. They do not get to see the dirty work the students put in: the brainstorming sessions, talking to potential customers, data collecting, and talking to more customers. The hope is that by the end of this process students will be able to take the skills they’ve developed and apply them to the challenges they see in their careers. The process can be transformative for students.
“Probably the greatest thing I see is their rise in confidence. Their confidence grows in their own skills, their abilities, their teammates abilities, their knowledge and what they’ve done. I also see their ability to question others and the traditional way of thinking about things,” Clark says.
Clark says his most successful students are the ones that are comfortable with uncertainty and willing to question the status quo.
“They must be accepting of the fact that we have significant challenges in our industry and must be willing to consider anything to solve that… we want people who will go through a wall.”
It was clear that all of the Reese News Lab students who pitched on Friday have thought deeply about the problems they were trying to solve and considered all the angles. While the media landscape is constantly changing, Clark hopes that the entrepreneurial thinking his students learned this past semester will help them face these unknown challenges for years to come.
“This is where they will have the biggest impact on our industry… entrepreneurial thinking will change the face of journalism," Clark says. "No one or two single things will dominate—it will be thousands of little things that make the difference in how our industry continues to provide information to people to help them make better, more informed decisions about their lives.”