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Beyond the ‘valleys and alleys’ to find media innovation

February 26, 2016 | By Francesco Marconi, Strategy Manager—The Associated Press @fpmarconi
History reminds us that often, some of the most impactful ideas in the media industry were inspired and developed not in valleys or alleys, but in ivory towers.

Samuel Morse with his recorder, photograph taken by Mathew Brady in 1857 cc wikicommons 
Samuel Morse with his recorder, photograph taken by Mathew Brady in 1857 cc wikicommons

Today, most of us view Silicon Valley and Alley as the hubs of disruptive technology and the successful start-ups born and raised there as the leaders in a quickly evolving industry that will continue to revolutionize the world. But history reminds us that often, some of the most impactful ideas — specifically, those in the journalism and media industry — were inspired and developed not in valleys or alleys, but in ivory towers (aka universities).

Many of us may know that Samuel Morse pioneered the commercialization of the telegraph in the U.S., but we may not know the inspiration behind his research: the work of his friend, electromagnetism researcher, Charles Jackson.

William Paley, the broadcasting tycoon responsible for the early success of American media staple Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), injected innovation in his business with the introduction of color television — specifically, the field sequential color system — developed by Peter Carl Goldmark, a scholar at University of Vienna who later led CBS Laboratories.

Jonah Peretti, a father of social content, used his research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in tandem with key learnings from the field of network science developed by his friend, then Professor Duncan Watts, to create BuzzFeed.

Jonah Peretti, Photo Courtesy of The Associated Press
Jonah Peretti, Photo Courtesy of The Associated Press

These real-world examples illustrate that innovation is, in some cases, the application of academic research. Morse, Paley and Peretti tapped into the knowledge hub of academia to disrupt the market, launch new businesses and discover creative solutions to existing challenges. For those of us in today’s media industry, these examples should remind us to not simply look toward Silicon Valley for solving tomorrow’s problems, but rather universities that stay grounded with a longer-term approach.

Two types of Innovation

The futures lab can be seen inside the Reynolds Journalism Institute on the campus of the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri. Photo courtesy of the Reynolds Journalism Institute.
The challenge of industry-academia collaborations stems from the existence of two types of innovation: the innovation of media practitioners and firms, and the innovation of academia — one looks for answers to specific problems, the other aims at the creation of knowledge.

The solution is to develop a third approach — a mutually beneficial approach to research and development wherein incentives and timelines are aligned and projects are those that look at exploring high value concepts and challenges on behalf of a media firm, yet outside of the company’s mainstream activities. This challenge is broad enough to appeal to an academic, but still has the real world impact potential a media practitioner and/or firm is looking for. New fields such as virtual reality, artificial intelligence and automation are some of the prime candidates for this model.

For professors, the goal is to prepare their students to be well-equipped for their post-educational careers.

“More than ever, journalism education needs to focus on experiential, project-based learning.”
—Reynolds Journalism Institute futures lab director Mike McKean.

Collaborative research projects require open lines of communication between universities and media organizations so they can better address the challenges faced by both parties.

“Students will be the industry’s future leaders — and consumers — so it’s essential that as news organizations experiment with new formats and techniques, they’re doing so in a way that’s relevant to new generations.”
—AP interactives editor Nathan Griffiths.

Universities gain an avenue to apply insights learned in the classroom while professionals are exposed to new thinking.

“Journalists can learn from students about younger audiences — how they consume news and the best ways to engage them.”
—Berkeley Lovelace Jr.
, a journalism student who recently worked on project with the Associated Press.

Academic-infused Innovation

Facilitating partnerships do not require significant investments, especially compared to the addition of a new academic department or a new research lab within a company.

One such initiative is an experiment The New York Times run in partnership with NYU and CUNY to study hyper local news. Another is Hearst Corporation’s partnership with students from Parsons New School of Design to develop Glossy.io, a new approach to surfacing archives of digital magazines.

Students at Columbia Journalism School test AP’s latest virtual reality experiment.
Students at Columbia Journalism School test AP’s latest virtual reality experiment.

The Associated Press runs research programs with the Columbia Journalism School and the Missouri School of Journalism to investigate new fields such as virtual reality experiment and automation.

This academic-practitioner partnership approach to research could be a new model for innovation. History and present day initiatives like those above reveal that when academics and practitioners work together to analyze data and apply key findings, impactful insights are formed, innovative strategies are implemented and new businesses are catalyzed.

Indeed, innovating our approach to media innovation — looking beyond valleys and alleys to ivory towers — will be worth our while.

I’m the Strategy Manager for The Associated Press and fellow at Columbia Journalism School. I write about media, storytelling and innovation. Let’s connect. (@fpmarconi)

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