“Ensure that journalism has a long and bright future.” That the mission of the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri (whose journalism school is long recognized as one of the nation’s best), according to its executive director, Randy Picht. As the field of journalism and the media evolve, being open-minded and eclectic in pursuing the institute’s goals is key, says Picht. This November, News & Tech had the chance to check in with Picht about the thinking and the projects powering the institute.
News & Tech: Your website states: The Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute engages media professionals, scholars and other citizens in programs aimed at strengthening journalism in the service of democracy. RJI generates and tests new techniques and new thinking that promise to improve journalism. What can you tell us about new techniques and thinking that are emerging from the institute today, in these tough times for many media operations?
Randy Picht: When we think about strengthening journalism we generally are thinking about helping local journalism, so that’s usually the first question we ask when thinking about launching a new project or collaborating on one. A project is much more interesting to us if its goal is to create new opportunities for a local newsroom, save an editor or producer time or help overcome a nagging problem. Some
• Don’t be afraid of push alerts
We had two fellowships on this subject. One with the founder of hyperlocal news site in Princeton, New Jersey, who was having a great success with news alerts for her readers. Krystal Knapp, of PlanetPrinceton.com, said it was so easy to set up and to maintain that she wanted every hyperlocal site to offer them. The other push-alert fellowship was with The Associated Press, which is doing research on the best practices regarding various variables for push alerts such as timing, wording and topics.
• New revenue possibilities
RJI is working on a project with the Missouri Press Association, the state government reporting project at the Missouri School of Journalism and Distributed Media Lab (DML), a startup that RJI is supporting, to create a new revenue stream for local newsrooms across the state. DML has created an easy way to add a collection of news to a website including ads. It’s a win-win-win deal. The reader gets news from other news sources without leaving his or her home site. The hosting site gets to display high-quality news from elsewhere and gets some revenue. The newsrooms in the collection get wider distribution and some revenue. And, in this specific case, the Missouri Press Association gets to provide additional benefits to its members and gets some revenue too.
• New engagement ideas
Another institute attribute is its proximity to the smart students and professors at the journalism school. RJI regularly sponsors projects and works with classes of senior students who are ready to put what they’ve learned into practice. A recent example is a strategic communications (that’s the academic and industry term for combining advertising and public relations) class that worked with the Southeast Missourian in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, to look for ways to increase print and digital subscriptions. The newspaper sponsored a separately branded music festival each summer and the students suggested that the separate branding wasn’t ideal and encouraged looking for ways to combine resources. Their idea was to provide the sponsors of the music festival, like the local bank, hospital or supermarket, free one-year digital subscriptions to semissourian.com for all of their employees. The newspaper has agreed to try out the idea.
• Keeping up with social media and explaining what we do
Social media has been a major factor in quickly disrupting the practice of journalism. From “News Feeds” in Facebook that don’t contain much news to instant tweets about news events that don’t contain much journalism, the value of journalism has never been more important and never been less understood. RJI helped launch an initiative, called Trusting News, that is giving newsrooms the guidance and resources to better explain why they do what they do and why it matters. The American Press Institute has also joined the effort to support the ongoing work of former Missouri professor Joy Mayer and former TV journalist Lynn Walsh at trustingnews.org.
• Learning from the next generation of readers
One way to get a sense of the future is to take a look at what the young folks are doing right now with their phones, their social media accounts and their interests. Being on the campus of the University of Missouri gives RJI a terrific launchpad for numerous efforts. Some of these include the Walt Potter Digital Ambassadors, where RJI sends a student to a weekly newspaper for a week to help that newsroom learn a new digital skill like create a Twitter account or make short news videos; the RJI student innovation fellowships, where students spend a summer working on an innovative project, not getting people coffee, with a news partner; and a two-year collaboration with Instagram to send students to newsrooms to help them come up with superior Instagram strategies.
News & Tech: The Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute is now accepting 2021–22 RJI Fellowship applications from individuals or organizations with an innovative journalism project idea that could also benefit the industry.
Applications are due December 18, 2020. What trends are you seeing in your fellowships and how do they reflect or shape the direction of journalism?
Randy Picht: Our fellows are generally an eclectic bunch from year to year and we like it that way. We want to cast a wide net and use the program as a way for RJI to explore as many new ideas as possible. This year we have fellows working on the emerging issue of unpublishing (requests to remove news items from your site), diversity in who gets quoted and interviewed by reporters in your newsroom, re-envisioning obituaries for the digital age, and addressing discrimination against Latino journalists.
Our fellows can produce specific resources to help guide the industry — for example, last year we had a fellow who was working on ideas to help newsrooms do a better job of covering gun violence in their communities which is still in progress — and/or they can raise awareness of a topic to get others involved, which is something our current fellow Sara Quinn is doing about the importance of photojournalism right now in today’s topsyturvy world.
I always look forward to the many great ideas that come in each year and, even though we can’t do all of them, really appreciate the number of folks who raise their hand and want to try to make journalism as strong as it can be. I think with this coming class we will cross the threshold of 100 fellows since the institute opened its doors and that’s a terrific milestone and a lot of great work.
News & Tech: Where does the institute get the bulk of its funding?
Randy Picht: In 2012, RJI was fortunate to receive a $30 million endowment from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation that provides funding in perpetuity for the institute. The annual income from the endowment is also, as part of the terms of the endowment, matched with university funds. We also occasionally pursue grant funding when working on specific projects. For example, RJI is currently completing work on a $250,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to study best practices and guidance for the future around the archiving of born-digital content.
News & Tech: At your Journalism Futures Lab and Technology Testing Center, professionals, students and researchers experiment with new technologies and their potential for improving the gathering, content, design and delivery of news, information and advertising. Give us an update on what's happening there.
Randy Picht: The hallmark of the Futures Lab is our video series called Innovation in Focus, which tackles new opportunities in the digital realm for the industry. Each month the series looks at an idea in three parts: (1) RJI tries out the technology or idea, (2) provides tips and lessons learned for other newsrooms who may be interested in trying it themselves and (3) talks with a journalist in the field who has also been using the new technology or idea to get their advice for newsrooms.
Some of the recent featured ideas include Kapwing Studio, a free online editing studio to make videos and GIFs; interactive videos that give users the ability to choose the parts of a story they are most interested in; how to create an AMP story; and using Instagram’s new Reels function for news.
We also can use the Futures Lab structure to launch projects with partners. For example, we recently teamed up with the university school of engineering to great a mobile app called JSafe that gives journalists a place to report online harassment and will be an easy way to collect the threats and abuse that come into social media accounts and inboxes of journalist, especially female journalists. The Coalition for Women in Journalism has agreed to maintain the app, which was officially launched in October.
Also, on our whiteboard, is another collaboration with the school of engineering to create an augmented reality application that can be used by local newsrooms to give their readers a better sense of items or places that are being discussed in their communities. For example, in Columbia, Missouri, residents have been concerned about whether roll carts for garbage collection are a good idea. With this application, news outlets could give viewers the opportunity to use their mobile phones to see what a roll cart would look like in their garages.
News & Tech: You also have an aerial journalism program. What's that about?
Randy Picht: Right now, it’s mainly about experimenting with drones. In addition to working with students who want to get licensed to fly drones for work in TV and newspaper newsrooms, our director of aerial journalism writes about important issues that are coming up for this emerging newsroom capability.
Some recent headlines from him: “RJI drone journalism director proposes ID rule alternative to the FAA” and “7 hard-to-get drone visuals you can get during the COVID19 pandemic.”
News & Tech: Anything else you want to tell us about?
Randy Picht: The two things that the folks around the institute get tired of hearing me say are: “Our mission is easy to remember — ensure that journalism has a long and bright future” and “We have the most flexible fellowship program in the country.” At the heart of both soundbites is a strategy of using a strong foundation of being open-minded and eclectic in pursuing our goals. I think that foundation has helped the institute launch and participate in a wide range of helpful projects and initiatives.
When I first started as executive director at RJI in 2012, I talked with Dean Dean Mills, who founded the institute and retired after 26 years at the Missouri School of Journalism in 2015, about the idea of focusing the institute on one particular aspect or challenge that would be shaping the future. He said that would be a good idea and as soon as I could find someone who could guarantee what the future will bring, then I should feel free to focus on that particular aspect or challenge. I’m still looking.
RJI’s cornerstone fellowship program is a good example. The program was launched as a traditional residential program which resulted in fewer applications and an academic tilt to the ideas. In 2012, we introduced the nonresidential option and then the next year an institutional option, where companies could apply and designate a fellow, and applications went from 50ish to more than 300. Last year, we received more than 500.
Another example is the annual RJI student competition, which was focused on new technology, such as the Apple watch or dealing with deepfakes, and limited to Mizzou students. Predictably, our finalists for a dozen years were highly technical projects with a limited on-ramp to the industry. They were terrific to hear about but the impact to help the industry was very small. So, we’re taking steps to be more open-minded. Last year, we opened the competition to any college student in the country. This year, in addition, we made two important changes: the challenge involves a non-technical challenge — innovative ways for a newsroom to engage with an audience — and requires finalists to try out their idea in real-time with a newsroom partner. We have 10 finalists from journalism schools across the country and some very interesting ideas. We’re looking forward to the all-virtual judging in the spring