Fellowships unite journalism, business and engineering to explore the future of mobile news

Posted May 13, 2010

By Gretchen Parker

The job of inventing the future of news and how it is delivered will not fall solely to journalists.

That is the thinking behind a new fellowship program, funded by a grant to USC Annenberg, that brings together students from the Marshall School of Business, the Viterbi School of Engineering and Annenberg. The 12 graduate and undergraduate students – whose specialties include journalism, mechanical engineering, design, entrepreneurship, computer science, business and green technology – convene at USC for a two-week camp starting May 16.

Their mission is to come up with new, workable ideas for mobile news devices. And not in the abstract. Students are partnering with leaders from The Los Angeles Times, Southern California Public Radio/KPCC, Freedom Interactive (which runs the website for the Orange County Register), and Spot.us to come up with ideas they can use.

“They’re playing a consulting role,” to the news organizations, said Journalism Professor Dana Chinn (pictured, above left), who is running the program alongside Tom O’Malia of the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at Marshall. The program will run in conjunction with the Knight Digital Media Center News Entrepreneur Boot Camp.

Students will meet with the news organizations throughout the two weeks.

“They’re really looking forward to grilling the students. They really want the students to push them,” Chinn said. “They’re looking for that fresh eye and things they haven’t thought about before. They want to be challenged on what they’re thinking.”

When it came to focusing the News Entrepreneurship Fellowship program, organizers went straight to the question that is driving the news industry – how to deliver content effectively, Chinn said. At the center of that challenge are mobile devices.

“Everyone inside and outside the news industry is just scrambling to come up with how we really take advantage of how audiences are behaving differently because of all these devices,” she said.

While students aren’t expected to flesh out detailed business plans over the two weeks, organizers hope they will come up with workable ideas, Chinn said.

“These are ideas that will be rooted. There has to be a business model that will work – it has to be well thought out and at the same time fits into a news organization’s overall strategy,” she said.

At the same time, news leaders are just as eager to hear what students decide is unworkable. The ideas they scrap are valuable, Chinn said. “They’re just as interested in those ideas and the time that will save them. They’ve all said they’re not looking for a magic bullet. They’re looking for an exploration and a discussion.”

O’Malia says his advice to the young entrepreneurs will be: “First, let’s go make some mistakes to find out what didn’t work. Then we’ll find out what does work.”

Collaboration among the three schools is vital for educating students in a way that prepares them for future innovation, said Chinn, who would like to see the fellowship program grow into a multidisciplinary course the schools could offer next spring.

“The world out there, especially on the Web and on mobile devices, does not just live on content or business or technology alone. It’s the nexus of all three that really is going to be important for students of all three schools to understand,” she said.

And entrepreneurship is a focus that will drive Annenberg for years to come, said School of Journalism director Geneva Overholser, who facilitated the grant and came up with the idea for the fellowship program.

“What we can do is create in these students a sense of what it is like to be entrepreneurs,” she said. “My overall goal is to make this concept of inter-disciplinary learning a regular part of what we do at Annenberg. We all get off on our little islands and think, ‘I’m a journalist.’ But we need to figure out how to sustain ourselves. That’s not just about journalism – that’s about entrepreneurialism.”

Overholser and Chinn are quick to credit O’Malia with the entrepreneurial vision that continues to inspire collaboration between Marshall and Annenberg.

To O’Malia, the fellowships are a part of an educational model that is crucial for students’ success.

“Parochial land grab is not the best way to operate,” O’Malia said. “We don’t want to have silos and moats around our individual schools. The world needs the skill sets from multiple schools. We need journalism from Annenberg, technology from Viterbi and business from Marshall.

“Let’s keep these schools engaged and create projects that keep the three collaborating. Let’s create opportunities for people to cross barriers and share ideas. That, to me, is filling the moats and letting our students cross into new territories.”

The News Entrepreneur Fellowships begin May 16 and culminate May 27 with presentations to the news organization partners.

About the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies

The Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies is a pioneering program in entrepreneurship education and research. Its faculty – a diverse mix of academics and entrepreneur practitioners – offers undergraduate and graduate programs designed to help students acquire the tools, develop the skills and cultivate the mindset central to organizing, launching, and managing successful new ventures. Since its founding in 1971, the program has consistently ranked among the top programs in the nation and has been ranked #1 by Inc. Magazine, The Princeton Review and Entrepreneur Magazine. BusinessWeek along with U.S. News and World Report labeled the Greif Center as "one of the best entrepreneurship programs" in the country."

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