News Innovation an Essential Skill for New Journalists

April 15, 2014

EJ Academy


SEJ member Julie Halpert (left), instructor at University of Michigan, listens as students (l. to r.) Emily Jaffe, Casey Wasko and Lauren Dudley pitch an innovation idea entitled Healthy Circle to the panel of judges last December.
                                                                   Photo by Emilia Askari

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I have never won the Knight News Challenge, but I felt like I snagged the teaching equivalent of a million-dollar prize in late 2012 when Knight Challenge Director John Bracken flew in to hear my journalism students pitch their news innovation ideas.

We lured the man with the $150-million grant program to the University of Michigan campus with enticing student posts on our course blog I told Bracken that if he came to hear my students talk about their ideas – a Kleenex-box news delivery system, an app for tracking disease outbreaks in dorms, an app for sharing info about school cafeteria food – why, they’d be so happy they would dance!

Indeed, there was some excited hopping around on the morning of our end-of-term News Innovation Pitchfest. One of my students, a member of an a capella choir, even prepared a song and slide show highlighting the big Bracken moment.

The giddy morning concluded with Bracken and two other judges choosing a winning pitch team, whose members took home candy and some extra credit. In addition, Bracken encouraged the students who dreamed up the winning idea, called Health Radar, to apply to the Knight Challenge.

Their application didn’t make it out of the first Knight Challenge round, but it was still an incredible experience for those students and the entire class.

This successful teaching moment came many years after I first began assigning news innovation exercises in the environmental and public health journalism class that I co-teach with Julie Halpert, another long-time SEJ member. In fact, it was SEJ’s founding president, Jim Detjen, who inspired me to teach news innovation. He asked me to visit his class at Michigan State University one day while his students were discussing ideas for the Knight Challenge.

Making innovation assignments work in the classroom

Over time, it became obvious that the ability to think creatively about gathering and sharing news was an essential skill for new journalists, and my news innovation assignments became more elaborate and more successful.

Here is how the process works:

Organizing Teams and Creating Plans: I like to set up the teams myself, using a background information form that students fill out on the first day of class. I try to make the teams diverse, considering factors such as gender, international experience, journalism experience, science background, visual skills and business experience.

The first thing I ask each team to do is come up with a written agreement about how members will divide the work for this assignment and how they will resolve conflicts. I tell them that complaining to Julie and me isn’t a good plan. I also tell students that each of them will turn in a team evaluation at the end of the term. Students have to distribute 10 points among the three team members based on the amount of work that each one does. I think this also helps head off complaints about people not doing their fair share.

Teams work on their ideas from about the third week of the term until the end. We find that forming teams before the third week is a mess because there’s too much fluctuation in enrollment early in the term. Around the middle of the term, we have each team post their ideas on our class website for feedback. Journalists who like to scoop the competition often resist the idea of sharing their business ideas so publicly. I tell them that entrepreneurs take the opposite approach. They need to talk to as many people as possible before anyone will give them development money.

We also require each student to comment on the blog about another team’s idea. These comments have to include a suggestion for improvement. We share the blog link widely and encourage anyone who’s interested to offer feedback. Your comments would be much appreciated! We keep the amount of writing that students do about their news innovation ideas relatively short. Instead, we encourage students to revise their ideas based on feedback they receive on the blog, in preparation for our final pitchfest.

The Pitchfest: A week before the pitchfest, we require each team to record a three-minute pitch video and post that to YouTube. This assignment has a rubric that forces students to polish their pitches before they stand before the judges. Modeled after the SEJconference pitch slams, our News Innovation Pitchfest is a public, festive occasion held in a special gathering space that’s got lots of screens and comfy chairs. We invite everyone at the university to watch students pitch for a panel of judges that includes local editors, entrepreneurs and sometimes business professors.

Members of each team have three minutes to pitch and are allowed just one slide visualizing their idea. We ask the team to designate one lead pitcher. The other two team members stand up beside the pitcher and help field questions from the judges.

We allow about 10 minutes for discussion with the judges. This is the most important part of the pitch experience. To keep students engaged even when their team isn’t pitching, I set up a google spreadsheet and require all students to give each team feedback on their pitch.

When the last pitch has been made, we send the judges to a quiet spot where they can deliberate in confidence before returning to unveil their choice and explain how they arrived at it. This discussion usually takes at least 10 minutes. While the judges are deliberating, we have some low-key discussion about how students’ opinions about news and themselves as journalists have changed over the three-month term of our course.

At the end, we announce two Knight Challenge winners – a Judge’s Choice pick and a People’s Choice winner, chosen by anyone in the audience using, an online polling site.

Lessons Learned: So, that’s how we teach news innovation and end our University of Michigan course on a high note. We feel that this experience has value to students on multiple levels. They learn to work in teams, to be creative in a different way, to problem-solve, to think entrepreneurially, to give and receive public feedback, to practice iterative design, to record and post a professional-ish YouTube video, to think on their feet and field questions. I love this process, because it engages students in a positive, empowering way with the opportunities created by revolutionary change in the ways we define news.

I have even tried a similar approach to teaching news innovation with 8th grade Arab American journalists at a public school in Dearborn, MI.

In May, I’m heading to China as part of a delegation of doctoral students from Michigan State University to talk with Chinese educators about teaching news innovation. If you have suggestions about how to approach this subject with the Chinese, and if you know of people in China I should meet, I am eager to hear from you.

Emilia Askari is a former SEJ president who has taught environmental and public health journalism as an adjunct at the University of Michigan for almost two decades. She is now a doctoral student studying educational technology and game design at Michigan State University.

Tips for Teaching News Innovation

  • Don’t be afraid to connect your classroom to the real experienceof writing a proposal for an actual grant competition. We ask students to follow a slightly modified version of the Knight News Challenge rules. Because our course is focused on environmental and public health journalism, we also ask our students to make sure that their innovation ideas include information related to those two topics.
  • Make sure that students think very openly about what is news. Push them to consider types of information that aren’t now collected by traditional news organizations.
  • We do not require any prototyping that would require programming or other technical skills – just a well-reasoned description of how the idea would work.
  • Before your students jump into sketching out a cool app or other innovation, ask them to find a news-related problem that needs to be solved. The next step is for the students to interview a range of people about that problem. Students should not focus too much on their solution at first. First, students need to explore multiple perspectives, so they don’t design a solution that’s too customized to their own tastes.
  • Encourage students to think about how their ideas can be financially sustainable. They need to think about the size of the potential market and figure out how to create their product so it will survive beyond grant funding.
  • News innovation should be a team assignment, because it helps to discuss things in a group. Most work outside of school is not done in isolation anyway. In fact, I encourage students to brainstorm about this assignment with everyone they know.


* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Spring 2014. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.

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