Can these UNC Students Transform the Media Business?

With one launched startup and dozens of students vetting ideas, Reese News Lab is rethinking media

BY LAURA BAVERMAN@laurabaverman4.10.14
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Filed Under: NEWS: Startups

If you've ever wanted to bet on the weather, you just might get a chance.

Tomorrow, a team of four University of North Carolina students will stand before a room of meteorologists and news crews to share their idea for Weather Wager. Best compared to the sports betting site CentSports, says sophomore Matt Plaus, the app lets you bet on the weather for free, but earn money from successful bets over time.

Weather Wager is one of six ideas born out of a trio of semester-long challenges posed by John Clark and his team at the Reese News Lab. Funded with a large donation and tucked in the basement of the journalism school at Carroll Hall, the lab opened three years ago to innovate in media.

But a year ago, Clark, formerly general manager at WRAL.com, repositioned the lab to teach students to think like entrepreneurs. He believes that students can play a role in evolving the quickly changing news business into the future. The lab is open to any student in any college on campus.

His students have already come up with one viable product. Beginning with the North Carolina General Assembly's May legislative session, an audio transcription subscription service called Capitol Hound will be available for $500 to lawyers, lobbyists and journalists who want to listen to and track the discussions on the House and Senate floor. The Lab has applied for a grant from Knight Foundation's Prototype Fund to grow the business beyond North Carolina in coming months.

They'll also partner up with students from across the nation at UNC's first Journalism School Hackathon, sponsored by PBS Mediashift and planned for May 31 and June 1st. (They're looking for local entrepreneur mentors too.)

Eventually, Clark pictures a lab full of startups innovating in media and his students working alongside them to accomplish their goals.

“I'd love to see it move to where we start bridging the gap between students learning this stuff and companies trying to do it,” he says. “I don't think that's far fetched for us.”

For now, Clark is focused on the undergraduate students in each semester's paid fellowship and Reese News Lab class, about two dozen of whom will pitch their business ideas tomorrow. (It will be live streamed here.) Each semester, they have two or three challenges. This spring's involved politics, weather and the environment. (Read about previous projects here.)

Clark emphasizes to the students that their goal is not to launch new businesses, it's to be as creative as possible and to address desirability, feasibility and viability in their projects.

Speakers like David Jones of Bull City Venture Partners, local meteorologists and a vice president of marketing at Lenovo—along with surveys and interviews with potential customers—help them answer the following questions:

Who is the end user? Whose problem is being solved?

Can the project actually be done?

And how is it going to sustain itself?

Capitol Hound only became something bigger because Clark broke his own rule.

“We want students to think big. If you put a constraint around it, the creativity goes down because they keep thinking why something isn't a good idea,” he says. The response to Capitol Hound was so strong after last summer's Pitch Day—attendees asked when they could get subscriptions—that they decided to pursue it. If they could sell 15-20 subscriptions in a pilot launch, they might prove it can work. A week into sales, three subscriptions are sold for the May legislative session.

Plaus hopes for a similar phenomena at tomorrow's event. If he can secure $8,000 or $10,000 in funding or a partnership with a weather station, his team can build a prototype of Weather Wager and test out the theory that people will use an app to bet on the forecast.

Plaus has been selected as one of eight students to work at Reese News Lab full-time this summer. Though he'll likely join a new team and take on a new challenge, he hopes to make Weather Wager a reality too.

"Our biggest survey got 37 responses back. That one, we were excited about," he says. "Our biggest feedback was that people wanted to actually bet real money and gain real money back. If someone would approach us after the pitch meeting, we'd love to be able to continue it."

Now that the semester is almost over and the students dreamt as big as he'd hoped, Clark's take is this: “If you want to give it a whirl, I will help you as much as I can.”

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Reese News Lab







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