Hacking At Media's Most Pressing Problems

Journalism students around the nation visit UNC to transform media coverage of government, elections and high school sports.

BY SARAH HEADLEY@sarah_headley6.4.14
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Filed Under: NEWS: Startups

If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say, "Print journalism is dying," I would be a rich woman.

In reality, journalism is just evolving, at least that's what we're learning at UNC's J-School (where I'll be a senior in the Fall). Innovation in distribution of news—social media—is changing everything about the way we do our jobs. And with all that change have come some major money-making problems for traditional media outlets that we journalists are still trying to figure out.

That's why the Journalism School Hackathon was created.

Former WRAL.com general manager John Clark teaches entrepreneurial journalism and runs the Reese News Lab at UNC (ExitEvent recently wrote about the program here). He teamed up with Mark Glaser, executive editor of PBS MediaShift and Idea Lab in San Francisco, to host last weekend's Journalism School Hackathon, a first-of-its-kind event to create “sustainable business models and revenues for news outlets,” according to MediaShift.

Teams came from journalism schools in Ohio, Arizona, New York and beyond to participate. The dynamic duo seems to have started something special —they got a large, and quite enthusiastic, round of applause on the final day of the event Sunday, June 1.

Clark and Glaser's goal was for students to brainstorm innovative ideas that would solve the problems of local media outlets.They're also passionate about teaching journalism students to think as entrepreneurs about their field.

“I have a deep interest in the education part of journalism and how that's changing,” Glaser told me.

The event featured guest speakers who discussed the changing media industry and the opportunities it presented. Then three local media organizations posed challenges for the groups to tackle.

*McClatchy Newspapers: A platform to encourage stronger bonds within the community around high school athletics.

*Raleigh Public Record: A way to make local government planning decisions more transparent.

*WRAL.com: A way to increase public awareness about the outside influences on local elections.

Over two days, nine teams formed to brainstorm solutions. By Sunday, they'd come back together to present their ideas. The room was filled with excitement—you could tell the teams were truly passionate about their ideas.

I felt like I was watching the 90s Nickelodeon show Legends of the Hidden Temple as each team was announced. Nostalgic memories flashed back as teams like the Purple Monkeys and Red Ninjas were introduced for their four minute presentations.

The Red Ninjas, a team of students from Syracuse University, Georgetown University and UNC won the event with VOXity, an app to give community members a voice in city planning projects. It's a map and alert system that allows individuals to sign in with their Facebook accounts and give actual feedback that is sent directly to their town council.

Their idea solved the challenge by the Raleigh Public Record to make local government planning more transparent—the judges thought their idea was the most feasible, viable and desirable. The team hopes to do a nine-month trial with the Town of Chapel Hill and eventually sell their product to cities for $10,000 dollars along with small monthly fees. Samantha Harrington, a member of the team and Reese News Lab fellow, said she's happy and surprised at the outcome, but still unsure of VOXity's next steps.

Honorable mentions were awarded to three teams.

*Advocate is a mobile app that can identify specific political advertisements on-the-go (like Shazaam for music) and provide details like who funded the campaign and the candidate's profile. It also allows users to comment.

*Cash Flow is a platform that allows users to take quizzes on what companies and products they use regularly, in return for an analysis of the companies' political affiliations and campaign contributions. The team hopes Cash Flow will influence buying decisions and provide more transparency around the political process.

*Support Our Sports builds community by hosting fun, interactive challenges for competing high schools. Each week, the schools would have a challenge, like "Post your best school spirit selfie," with a specific hashtag for each school. Each week's winners win a sports feature story for their school. At the end of the year, weekly winners will be tallied, and the school with the most will win $10,000 for their athletics.

Clarke said the event resembled the work environment in the Reese News Lab.

"Our thought was to try to get a group of faculty, students and professionals together to work together in a short event to see what we could do together" he said. "It was a matter of putting a diverse group of people together – doing similar things – to see what could come of it."

Clark and Glaser plan to make the Hackathon an annual event held at different schools around the country. The next will happen in February or March of 2015.

In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled to see what's next for VOXity and how it might impact Chapel Hill and beyond.







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