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October 25 2010

14:00

Building a university sandbox for news orgs: UNC’s new digital newsroom nearing Nov. 1 launch

A journalism school launching an outward-facing online news outlet is nothing new these days, as more schools are creating in-house laboratories for students to learn online skills. Next Monday, though, there will be a new and interesting entrant to the field: The University of North Carolina’s Reese Felts Digital News Project is launching a news site Nov. 1 that will cover the campus and region with a 21-student staff. What makes the project different is its secondary purpose: It wants to be an R&D lab for the news industry, using its students as testing grounds for new ideas while sharing the results with the rest of us. Essentially, the students are taking requests.

Monty Cook, the project’s executive producer who had been senior vice president and editor of The Baltimore Sun and baltimoresun.com, describes a dual imperative to both give students needed skills while pushing the industry forward. The editorial focus will be on long-form journalism, particularly investigative journalism in many formats, including documentary videos and data visualization. To create and present that content, the students will be cooperating with outside companies that need a sandbox. There’s space set aside so that a browser plug-in, news application, or emerging social media platform could test a product on the site for 30 to 60 days, using the staff in a trial run.

“We’re not here to make anyone money,” Cook said. “But if we can help provide greater understanding not only for ourselves and our students but for the companies that are working hard to make the transition, then we should do that.”

That industry-aiding focus means openness. Cook said they will open-source the WordPress theme they built for the site’s back end, and iPhone and Android apps will also be available. And unlike news organizations that play stingy with their internal metrics, Cook said they will be willing to share the site’s Omniture numbers. That could come in handy as the students experiment with alternate forms of storytelling or reporting, as those lessons would be shared through a research component of the site. Cook said students will be reflecting on their successes and failures, while other UNC faculty members will contribute their thoughts and research. Some news organizations have already asked if Reese Felts students could eventually train their journalists.

As with any startup, the initial version will lack many of the features Cook visualizes down the road. The staff — 19 undergraduates and two graduate students, all paid a stipend, plus freelancers and volunteers — still needs to learn some of the skills they’ll need to produce ambitious content, Cook said. And as of now, don’t expect any revolutionary business ideas. The site will not have advertising, and is paid for by a major gift from late UNC alumnus Reese Felts.

The largest news organizations can afford their own R&D efforts and can try fresh ideas on their own. But a radio station without the resources to build a mobile app could watch as the students fine-tune theirs, or a mid-sized newspaper can observe what Cook says are exciting ideas on how to moderate discussions. The key, Cook said, is that the program is considered an audience research lab first, news organization second. And, incidentally, the students will get to learn some new skills, too. “We’re looking to do experimental digital news, and that means getting them to think differently about their approach to both newsgathering and news dissemination,” Cook said.

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