5 questions with UNC Reese News Lab Executive Director Ryan Thornburg

On the upcoming Innovation Mission, February 5-7 in Atlanta and Raleigh-Durham, attendees will visit the Reese News Lab at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The Lab focuses on developing and testing new ideas for media using design thinking methodology. We spoke with the Lab’s Executive Director, Ryan Thornburg, about the problems they are focused on solving, and how human-centered design can unlock new opportunities.

Q: What are the biggest ideas that the Reese News Lab is focused on as we head into 2018?

A: Reese News Lab continues its emphasis on teaching students the creative innovation process of media product development and focusing on local journalism with the support of the School’s Center for Innovation & Sustainability in Local Media. Steven King is focusing on far-future emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, augmented reality and virtual reality. I’m focused on finding ways to use data to lower the costs and increase revenues for news operations. I’m also hoping to add audience engagement to our areas of focus in 2018.

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Q: How do you instill design thinking at the core of the ideas that students are testing and the new products they’re prototyping?

A: The folks who teach our class — John Clark, now at NAB; Jeremy Gockel at McClatchy and now Kate Sheppard — focus on giving students creative confidence, which honestly I think most people find terrifying. Students — and people in general — for the most part seem to feel most comfortable and confident when executing a plan that has clear methods and defined success metrics. We want our students to learn that their customers should be their guide, not a professor or a syllabus. We’re asking them to discover interesting “What if” questions rather than finding the right answer by simply solving for X.

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Q: You’ve taken a particular interest in data journalism, across a couple of dimensions. What are the biggest problems and opportunities that you’re investigating in this area?

A: One of the most interesting opportunities and challenges around data journalism I think follows the pattern of one of the biggest overarching challenges with journalism — that the people who develop the product don’t coordinate closely enough with the people who develop the business. There’s a lot of opportunity for newsrooms that can integrate their audience data and analytics with their reporting analytics to get the right information to the right people at the right time.

One of the other challenges I see is that so many media organizations know so much more about a local news operations’ customers. Facebook and Google are years ahead of most journalism companies in collecting data about your audience, and now ISP providers, hardware manufacturers and broadcast television outlets will be getting into the mix.

The challenge for local news organizations is to know their advertising and information customers better than anyone else. And one area where local news operations have an advantage is that local and state public records are incredibly idiosyncratic in their format, which causes them to have limited value when they are aggregated by Zillow or Google. Having reporters that are acquiring, cleaning and analyzing locally grown data can have a real benefit to the sustainability of the company if it’s tied to audience analytics.

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Q: UNC is also home to the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media (CISLM), led by Knight Chairs Penny Abernathy and JoAnn Sciarrino. How do you – and the Lab – collaborate with CISLM to act upon their research?

A: CISLM has helped fund the activities of Reese News Lab and has focused its attention on local journalism. That focus is much more effective with the great research that JoAnn and Penny are putting out. They are both so deeply embedded in the community of local newspaper publishers all around the country that they are always opening doors for new opportunities for us.

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Q: For Innovation Mission attendees, what kind of discussion should they expect and what do you hope to hear from them?

A: I’m looking forward to talking with them about the best product we’ve ever developed in Reese News Lab, and that’s our students. They tell me that the time they spent with John and Jeremy has been transformational, both personally and professionally. I want to think about how we can scale that experience to more students and professionals without losing the richness of a class of 16-20 students a semester. That kind of broad cultural change is really critical to both education and journalism. The more of us who learn to see opportunity in uncertainty, the more time we’ll be able to focus on what we might become and less time about worrying about what we might lose.

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REGISTER HERE FOR THE FEB. 5-7 INNOVATION MISSION