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A group of UNC Chapel Hill students passed up typical summer jobs in recent months to labor in the basement of the UNC's journalism school developing entrepreneurial ideas to improve the North Carolina court system, digitize classroom debates and help Realtors sell more homes. 

They're part of the three-year-old Reese News Lab, a School of Media and Journalism initiative to develop new business models for the modern media world. Only students "who are willing to run through walls, stand up and take another run when they get knocked down" are accepted into the program, says the lab's executive director, John Clark. They are paid a stipend for their work. 

“We look for students all over the university who are passionate about the future of the media industry and want to explore every single avenue possible for how the industry could grow," he says.

Once accepted, they are presented challenges and asked to come up with solutions. From a pool of potential ideas, they team up and decide on one to further develop.

Three teams of 11 students participated in the program this summer. And last week, an audience gathered at Carroll Hall to listen to their pitches.

Digidocket team
Digidocket is one of three ideas pitched at the Reese News Lab summer 2015 demo day.
The first presentation was by the Digidocket team, kicking off by pointing out that North Carolina courts produce 30 million pieces of paper. This venture seeks to “improve transparency in the state’s court system,” by digitizing court files and making them easily searchable by keyword, name and case number. The team predicts that this will make legal research easier and faster, bettering the technological landscape of the judicial system.

Clark sees a particular need in North Carolina, a state far behind in this regard.

“If the state started making files digital, the company would go out of business and the team is 100 percent fine with that because opening up the court system is important,” Clark says.

Blue Wagon team
Blue Wagon is one of three ideas pitched at the Reese News Lab summer 2015 demo day.
The next pitch came from Blue Wagon, which aims to make “communities in motion” by creating informational videos about communities that Realtors can provide to interested home buyers. The team says that 86 percent of homebuyers want to watch videos that show what it might look like to live in a neighborhood. Only 15 percent of real estate agents use any video at all. Realtors pay Blue Wagon to provide a team of videographers who combine maps and footage to create the videos. The students believe that this will make the decision to buy a home simpler and make real estate agents’ jobs easier.

Clark thinks that Blue Wagon’s idea already has a bigger market than the students realize.

“There’s a low barrier of entry with this one,” he says. “A lot of people could step up doing the same thing and there could be a lot of potential competitors if the team doesn’t move fast enough.”

But Clark adds that the idea has merit and could be viable if the team works quickly. 

RUMBLE! team
RUMBLE! is one of three ideas pitched at the Reese News Lab summer 2015 demo day.
RUMBLE! concluded the pitches by introducing a web-based game to help middle school, high school and college educators facilitate engaging classroom discussion. With the game, teachers can initiate a debate by creating topics and then assigning some students as debators to argue a position and others to vote on the quality of the arguments. A dashboard helps monitor the students’ performance. The game costs $1 per student, an amount the students believe school districts can afford. RUMBLE! could help teachers have more productive class discussions and students consider various positions of a particular issue and learn to state constructive and logical arguments. The team’s goal is to improve the quality of public discourse by starting in the classroom.

Clark likes the idea of using the product as a way to engage students with teachers in a productive way, but “the idea has a tricky market and the ball is in the team’s court right now to get the job done and get the product out there,” he says.

Though the internship has ended, the students’ work has just begun. After the pitch event, students will review comments from the audience and decide if they want to transform their ideas into companies. Some do, some don't, Clark says. Others, like the women launching Driven Media this week, do something entrepreneurial down the road after getting the Reese experience.

The entrepreneurial process is messy with extreme highs and lows, Clark says. But Reese News Lab students don’t seem to want to give up.

“In spite of the uncertainty and ambiguity always present, they keep digging around for solutions,” Clark says. “That’s the attitude we can’t get enough of in the media.”