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Sept. 30, 2014, 12:58 p.m.
Business Models

Why The Daily Pennsylvanian is spending $100,000 over the next two years to foster innovation

The University of Pennsylvania student newspaper is looking for innovative students on its staff — and from outside the paper.

With staffs full of technology savvy millennials and comparatively few overhead costs, you might think that college newspapers would be among the most digitally innovative news organizations. But with transient staffs where the most experienced editors and reporters graduate every year — and a culture whose allegiance to tradition outstrips many professional dailies’ — many papers remain hidebound to how things have always been done.

While some college papers have indeed managed to alter their publishing strategy or try new business models, The Daily Pennsylvanian, the student newspaper at the University of Pennsylvania, is looking beyond its leadership to try and facilitate innovation.

This fall, the paper’s launched the Daily Pennsylvanian Innovation Lab, a commitment to spend $100,000 over the next two years to fund innovative projects of all stripes from students on the paper’s staff and from the university as a whole.

“We’re hoping a lot of the Penn community will latch onto and will say that, if I want to do something that will benefit the Penn community, then the DP is the place to go because they have the seed funding, they have the resources, and they have the broad reach on campus that will make this successful,” Daily Pennsylvanian executive editor Taylor Culliver told me during an interview in the paper’s newsroom, which is nicknamed the Pink Palace due to its pink trim.

Applicants who are accepted to the Innovation Lab will get funding and institutional support from the Daily Pennsylvanian to develop and execute their project. The paper began publicizing the program at the onset of the new school year; by late September, it had received eight submissions, including two from students outside the paper.

“We’re at a place where we recognize that not all of our solutions need to come from the four or five people who are at the top of the organization,” said Gianni Mascioli, the Daily Pennsylvanian’s business manager.

The Daily Pennsylvanian is looking for submissions that fit with its mission and can have a broad impact on the Penn campus, but it is setting very few guidelines for what it will accept in order to encourage more submissions, Culliver said. There’s no deadline for applications, and the Daily Pennsylvanian will consider projects on a rolling basis.

There’s a catch: Any project that receives funding from the paper will become the property of The Daily Pennsylvanian. The paper spent a considerable amount of time debating that provision, but ultimately thought that it wouldn’t deter many potential applicants because startup funding at Penn is quite competitive and the resources the paper has to offer would be attractive to potential grant recipients.

“We don’t want to steal your idea or take your idea — we want to help you bring your idea to fruition, and it gets very competitive in the larger Penn landscape to actually obtain funding for things,” Culliver said. “So basically what we want to be is that other resort or that other option for people who really just want to do something cool, who [aren’t] really in it long term for financial gain.”

And the paper is looking at it as a potential revenue generating opportunity, though Culliver said non-revenue generating ideas will get equal consideration.

The Daily Pennsylvanian is an independent nonprofit organization, and it doesn’t receive funding from the university. Though the paper isn’t immune from the financial challenges facing all news organizations, it felt comfortable enough with the size of its investments and savings to create the Innovation Lab program.

“We as an organization spent a lot of time in the ’90s and early 2000s, when college media was doing very well, pocketing away all of our resources in case we needed them, and I think we’ve realized that we can [now enable] people to do some really interesting things,” said Mascioli.

Though the paper is run editorially by students, its finances are overseen by a board of directors that’s composed of both students and alumni. One of the alumni members, Michael Silver, a former executive director of the Knight News Innovation Lab and a former Tribune executive, initially proposed the idea. Because editors have short, one-year terms at the paper, it’s easy for new projects to die out, but with the Innovation Lab, the paper’s board wanted to make sure “that the ideas continue and that we continue to strive to do something different, to be better,” Culliver said.

Mascioli will lead a team of five or so Daily Pennsylvanian staffers that will oversee the Innovation Lab. Still, they don’t expect a huge number of pitches at once. The paper hopes that it will be able to fund a few smaller projects this year and build up to larger submissions, Culliver said.

“It’s kind of a building process, and once you can show that hey, here are some cool ideas that have come out of this, then more people, especially next semester, will want to latch on and will want to make their ideas a part of this,” Culliver said. “So it’ll be interesting to see the growth.”

Photo of the Penn campus by Alex Pang used under a Creative Commons License.

POSTED     Sept. 30, 2014, 12:58 p.m.
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