Innovation at Cronkite News: Long Live the Experiment!

This is the second of three blog posts on innovation by Eric Newton, innovation chief of Cronkite News at Arizona State University.

By experimenting with new approaches at Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, we identify innovations that improve both journalism and education. This is Dean Chris Callahan’s big idea: We hope to create the world’s first fully developed “teaching hospital” of journalism education, an immersive learning experience that develops new approaches while also teaching best practices.

As innovation chief of Cronkite News (the news division of Arizona PBS), my goal is to help the student-produced professional news operation find new ways to become a better source of journalism for the 2 million households it serves, to help journalism students become better prepared for 21st Century careers, and to help the school as a whole to stay on the cutting edge of journalism education while engaging the entire university and community.

An example of experimentation: Last Wednesday, we held our first Innovation Day. At 18 hands-on “innovation stations,” hundreds of students flew indoor drones, tried 360-degree cameras and virtual reality goggles, and played with new camera rigs, new apps, even robots.

Students tweeted their ideas for how the technology could improve journalism. Cronkite News executive editor Kevin Dale handed out prizes to choice suggestions.

Cronkite School faculty and staff came up with most of the ideas for the day. We gave them a flexible format, one that will change as the technology changes.

Other Cronkite experiments:

  • Launching a major crowdfunding campaign to support the Borderlands bureau of Cronkite News as it
    amplifies the voices of people who live on both sides of the border during this election year. (The effort includes bringing on business school students to help analyze the crowdfunding data.)
  • Creating Cronkite News Refresh, a news review with stories chosen based on how well they did the first time around in social media. Early example here.
  • Expanding the reach of Cronkite News and special News21 reports to 33 million homes nationally through Apple News, WatchUp, as well as a rebroadcasting strategy in partnership with KCET/Link.
  • Moving the digital production bureau into a central newsroom location, making it easier for that team to test in a live news environment a dozen new tools in one semester. (One favorite, Bubbli, makes spherical photos.)
  • Creating a new tools class to help students learn how to rapidly find, try, adapt and critique digital tools that
    could improve journalism.
  • Using “virtual presence devices” such as the Beam and Double to bring faraway journalism innovators into our newsrooms and classrooms.

Some of these experiments may seem like one-offs. Some you might not think are as new or big as you would like. That’s not the point. Innovation is not skydiving. You don’t have to get it right on the first try. What we are going for here is not the perfect invention but the willingness to experiment.

Eric Newton is the first innovation chief at Cronkite News at Arizona State University, consultant to Knight Foundation on special projects and endowment grants. Eric Newton joined Knight Foundation in 2001 and served most recently as senior adviser to the president. In the journalism program at Knight, he helped develop more than $300 million in grants. Previously, Newton was founding managing editor of the Newseum, leading the content team at the world’s first museum of news. He started at California newspapers. As city editor, assistant managing editor and managing editor of the Oakland Tribune under Bob and Nancy Maynard, he helped the paper win more than 150 awards, including a Pulitzer Prize. Follow him on Twitter @EricNewton1.

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