It is a beautiful, warm December day in Phoenix, but instead of rushing out into the Arizona sunshine I am holed up with my laptop and a cup of coffee creating a database of black history points of interest tied to geo-location. Although I’m a history buff, the work is somewhat tedious as I research and write, pinpoint latitude and longitude for each entry, find creative commons art, and create a database file and a separate file for the pictures. But the sooner I get the files finished, my developers, a Boulder, Colo., startup, can finish the Layar version of the black history augmented reality app, then move on to the native iPhone version.
In the meantime, I keep checking my inbox to see if a partner on another venture has set up a call with an offshore development company to build yet another mobile app that I had a brainstorm about a couple of weeks ago. I am also testing the interface for the Knight News Challenge-funded SeedSpeak project. Every once in a while my mind wanders to other ventures I want to explore or to a pending deadline for another grant application that could get a second augmented reality project off the ground that I think the news industry would be particularly interested in.
I know for a lot of people at legacy media this is a scary time for the industry, and I don’t pretend to have the answers to all of what ails it. Venerable news companies are shadows of their former selves, and very good journalists are losing their jobs. But what I do know is that this also is a very exciting time for those who are willing to innovate. Sure, it is easier for new graduates, such as those from my New Media Innovation Lab at the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University, to take a chance on new ideas than for veterans with families and mortgages. But that is exactly what those veterans should do whether they are still working the cops beat or just got a year’s severance: help invent the new media. You really have nothing to lose.
People often ask me how I get my ideas, and if I do all the hands-on work myself. I’m not a programmer, but several of my good friends are, so I often bounce ideas off them. Going back to 1995, when I was the metro editor for The Washington Post’s Digital Ink, I would start off conversations with, “What if?” As in, “What if we made the Washington Metro map linkable?” Trust me: thatwas radical back then. Today, I’m still asking those questions, as in: “What if we used the Kinect (gaming technology) to tell news stories?”
In addition to asking those questions, here is my Top 6 List of How I Stay Innovative:
I read about technology as often as I can. As the parent of a small child, I don’t have time to live on Twitter or innovator blogs 24/7, but I try to follow other innovators so I can check out what they are reading. I subscribe to feeds of Mashable, ReadWriteWeb and other tip sheets to keep up with what is new.
I look at what other industries such as music, entertainment, gaming and automotive are doing. If I can speak commands to my car, why can’t I ask a Brian Williams hologram on my laptop for the latest news on the mortgage mess?
I go to a couple of journalism/tech conferences a year and go to the sessions that are outside my immediate comfort zone such as semantic Web or GIS. I always go to the sessions run by deep thinkers such as Mark Thompson or Amy Webb or young people who are experimenting with new technology such as the MIT graduate students who demonstrated their cartography program at the Future of Civic Media conference in June.
I apply for grants and workshops and everything else that will afford me the opportunity to prototype a new idea. All they can do is say no, but sometimes, as was the case in 2010 when I won both a Knight News Challenge and a J-Lab Women Entrepreneurs grant within weeks of each other, the gamble pays off. At the same time, I give back. By speaking to a variety of groups such as municipal organizations, I am forced to think about what newsmakers might want from today’s news providers. I run the annual Newspaper Association of America Foundation News Challenge, where 15 college students have a week to come up with an innovative idea for the newspaper industry. I make sure that every year the challenge has a different twist such as news games or tablet apps.
I surround myself with smart people. As the director of the New Media Innovation Lab, it is my job to have conversations with smart students and professors who are constantly asking questions about the state of our media. I keep up with those students as they move on in their careers; two of my former students, for example, are in Holland helping to invent the next phase of augmented reality, and another is at NPR stretching the boundaries of what Google’s Android technology can do.
Last, I swallow hard and go for it. Jose Zamora of the Knight News Challenge often reminds people that good innovation can be both disruptive as well as incremental. His frequent example is there were suitcases and there were wheels, but the person who came up with putting wheels on suitcases changed the game. Putting wheels on suitcases? I figure that’s not so scary and I can do it. And so can all of you.
Retha Hill is director of the New Media Innovation Lab at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. She is a 2010 Knight News Challenge Winner for the SeedSpeak community empowerment Web and mobile app and a 2010 McCormick Women Entrepreneurs grant winner for the black history augmented reality mobile app. The former vice president for content development at BET.com, Hill was a founding editor of washingtonpost.com and a former Washington Post reporter.
Correction [2/2/2011 6:44 p.m. ET]: The headline of this article was updated to fix a spelling mistake.