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Nov. 30, 2010, 1:30 p.m.

Droid Does Mizzou: Speed-dating style app contest wants to drive journalism experimentation

It may not be possible to force innovation in journalism, but you may be able to guide it, starting with a little speed dating.

Lightning round-style matching is the secret to creating teams that can successfully build apps for news, at least at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri. (For our purposes let’s replace nervous single-ites making awkward small talk with anxious j-students, programmers, and business majors.)

This is the fourth year the Institute has held a competition to encourage journalism students to try their hand at becoming developers. In previous years students have focused on creating applications for the iPhone and Adobe AIR. In this year’s competition students will create apps on the Android platform with help from Google, Adobe, Sprint, and the Hearst Corporation.

“What we try to do is take an emerging piece of technology and challenge our students to come up with a solution for journalism or the advertising that supports it,” Keith Politte, manager of the technology testing center at the Institute, told me.

Over the course of the next few months students will give an initial pitch to judges, followed by months of working on the apps for a final presentation in the spring. Winners will earn a trip to Silicon Valley to present their project to Google. “Android will be fun,” Politte said. “It not only allows us to go to phones, but also some of the new tablets and Google TV.”

In its role Hearst acts as a client and partner, offering specs on what types of apps or content areas it’s interested in, as well as providing project managers to help guide students. The company will also consider student apps for use in its own products. The winning projects from last year’s competition, a recommendation engine and an enhanced photo gallery program, have both been turned into internal projects at Hearst Interactive, Politte told me.

J-schools like Mizzou are taking furtive steps towards blending traditional media education with a sharper focus on teaching technical skills (or perhaps ushering in the rise of the journo-programmer), and the competition at RJI is an example of fostering innovation from journalism students in a less-than-academic (or at least outside-the-classroom) way. And if the last three competitions have been any indicator, it’s a bridge to outsiders (engineers, business students, programmers) who could bring fresh thinking into journalism’s future.

“We bring in different students, introduce them to the concept, and say go,” Politte told me. “After an hour of frenzied experiences you have a team.” Again, speed dating. They bring together undergrads from the School of Journalism with computer science majors, engineering students, and business majors. Absent the young developer toiling away in a dorm, it’s likely most people don’t have experience building web applications or may not have convenient connections to computer science geeks or budding journalists. As a practical necessity teams need members from the J-school and an “other,” meaning students from other schools, Politte said.

One benefit is that journalism students are exposed to thinking like (and communicating with) a programmer, a skill that likely will be handy once they leave college. But Politte said the opposite is true as well, as programmers, engineers, and business students gain an insight into journalism. “The world doesn’t live in silos,” Politte said. “We need to be able to cross disciplines — and our students, when they graduate, if they’re working as a journalist, will interface with IT folks.”

Of course there’s also the reality that working as a journalists going forward doesn’t necessarily mean working in a newsroom or at a newspaper. Politte thinks that future is more than apparent to students, which is why more are interested in broadening their skills outside of media.

“They see the legacy business model being fractured and are wanting to be more entrepreneurial and solve problems in a journalism context,” he said.

What may give students a greater incentive this year is the fact that they’ll own what they create outright. Politte said in previous competitions that there was uncertainty whether the university retained the license to products created by students. Now participants will have the intellectual property rights to what they develop. “The old way is the university owns everything and is motivated by capturing anything created and being able to monetize it,” Politte said. “It’s good in theory, but the university doesn’t have enough individuals to help commercialize and accelerate the licenses we have.”

Practical, tangible experience is now the mindset for many journalism schools, as we’ve seen with Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, the University of North Carolina’s Reese Felts Digital News Project, and the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Innovation Lab.

Journalism schools find themselves launching students into an industry in flux and trying to adapt to ideas and technology that may not be fully formed yet. What the student competition suggests is that creating non-academic frameworks for students to innovate (and potentially find solutions to the industry’s problems of today) may be just as important as any curriculum or classroom experience.

Politte sums it up best: “We wanted to step out of our students’ way and let them be successful.”

POSTED     Nov. 30, 2010, 1:30 p.m.
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