Ohio Journalist

The Road to Innovation

By Chris Longo | Photo by Megan Westervelt

(December 1, 2015) — Andy Alexander has come a long way to teach ethics to the next generation of media professionals – a lengthy and at times wearisome journey from Washington, D.C., to Athens, Ohio, every other week for the duration of a semester. He will be the first to tell you that he is not a professor but a visiting professional. Although the travel can take its toll, the former ombudsman of The Washington Post is happy to do it.

“I wanted to be deeply involved in the future of journalism,” Alexander said. “It’s an exciting time to be in media.”

Former dean of the Scripps College of Communication Greg Shepherd asked Alexander to oversee the creation of a media challenge using funds endowed by the Scripps Howard Foundation in 2007.

“[Greg] came to me and said I have to do something about this [and] would you help me out,” Alexander said. “He said to me, ‘Why don’t you figure it out.’”

Alexander, who graduated from OU in 1972, spent his first six months back at OU conducting focus groups with students and industry leaders to determine the best way to not only engage students but also invite innovation beyond the borders of campus. In 2012, Alexander answered with the Scripps Innovation Challenge.

“We came up with the idea that we would have a competition that would be unique. Rather than simply asking students to come up with innovative ideas, we would ask them to solve actual innovation problems that were submitted to us,” Alexander said.

After 20 challenges were chosen from a wide range of media companies including print, television and radio outlets, students from any major on campus were encouraged to enter their proposals, either individually or as a part a group. Proposals would be judged by a panel of media industry professionals.The ten groups of finalists were announced at the annual Scripps College Communication Week. They then had the opportunity to fine-tune their proposals before another round of voting decided who would take home portions of the $20,000 allotted prizes.

Born out of the trying times facing the industry, the Scripps Innovation Challenge has the potential to change the game for all parties involved. Inspiring innovation among the different areas of study at the university has the potential to do as little as connect students who might not normally cross paths, or as much as foster an environment that enables the next big idea to come out of the rolling hills of Athens County.

“We definitely want to be seen as a school and as a college that nurtures [innovation],” said Robert Stewart, director of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. “Are we going to see the next Facebook come out of here? I don’t know, but we are going to see a whole generation of young people thinking about solving big problems instead of just doing the same thing over and over again.”

In the short term, the Scripps Innovation Challenge could help the industry solve pressing problems by enlisting the help of an age group they struggle to connect to – millennials. Media companies that answered the call submitted a diverse array of challenges, some as simple as wanting a social media campaign for a large newspaper. Others were broader, such as designing a multi-platform plan to engage younger readers. The multifaceted challenge allowed students to help media companies engage audiences, mostly through the Internet. According to a Pew Research Center report, more than 90 percent of newspapers’ tweets are links to stories. It can leave some feeling less like journalists and more like “linkalists,” and news organizations wonder how they can connect.

“The people who have been in the industry for a long time try to keep up,” said Jack McElroy, editor-in-chief of the Knoxville News Sentinel. “But for young people who are native to the computer culture and went to school and were trained in that, their exposure, understanding and techniques are much fresher.”

McElroy proposed one of the more detailed challenges, asking students to find a way to convert text stories into an audio feed for a downloadable podcast. The use of cell phones to listen to online-only radio, specifically in cars, increased by more than 4 percent from 2010 to 2011 and will only continue to grow with popular apps like Pandora and Spotify changing how people listen to radio. As the music industry settles into the age of the iPhone, McElroy has been enamored by an audio news field he considers untapped. Implementing his specific plan has eluded him, however, as producing a daily paper leaves little time for innovation.

“I’m not going to get it on the priority list for our own digital developers here anytime soon because it’s very nichey and they are trying to solve some broader problems, such as putting up a digital subscription model for us,” he said. “I thought maybe some students would like to do this, and if they did, then maybe we can work with them and make it happen.”

For students, the financial benefits – a $10,000 first prize – and the opportunity to connect with media industry leaders willing to listen, or even implement their ideas, is as exciting as it is refreshing. While the immediate rewards of winning the challenge keep students hungry to create the winning proposal, they are also seeing eye to eye with Alexander’s vision of a more connected university.

Rose Troyer, a sophomore studying journalism, is part of a group that submitted a proposal for a mobile app that organizes posters and invitations for events. Her group had been working on the app before the competition was announced, and they decided to submit a proposal because they said it fit well with one of the challenges. Of the six students in the group, only two are enrolled within the Scripps College of Communication.

“Having people from different parts of campus has really helped to broaden our work and gives us more perspectives on our project,” Troyer said. If a company was willing to take a shot at the group’s app, Troyer would consider it a major win for the university. Alexander said he will be happy if the competition produces a group of worthy finalists, even if something big doesn’t come out of this first year of the competition – such as a media company investing in a submission. “Even a modest form of innovation has a cost attached to it,” Alexander said.

Alexander said there are options to expand the reach of the challenge. The solution could be further developing the challenge beyond the borders of campus by collaborating with a venture capital firm – something Alexander said is only theoretical at the moment but a distinct possibility in the future. For now, the focus is on building a challenge that gives students the innovative drive to carry with them after they leave the university. Creating a lasting mark on not only the Scripps College of Communication, but also Ohio University as a whole, will come in time.

“I think one goal would be if seven or eight years from now we change the focus of the Scripps College to one where people come to it because it is not only great for journalism or visual communication, but also because it has an innovative, entrepreneurial spirit about it,” Alexander said.

As Stewart sees it, the Scripps Innovation Challenge is merely the next phase of Andy Alexander’s already impressive legacy. When looking back on the inception of the challenge, Stewart noted that there was no better person to bring Ohio University closer to the forefront of media innovation.

“It is definitely the frosting on an otherwise really impressive cake,” Stewart said. “What [Andy] is going to be known for now is innovation.”

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