My Secret for Reese News Lab: Structure Makes Uncertainty OK

    by John Clark
    September 19, 2014
    Lab interns finalize ideas.

    Uncertainty. Some people thrive on it while others others run from it. Our goal in the first two weeks of the Reese News Lab program is to get students to accept it.


    "How do we prepare students to face uncertainty? We start by giving them lots of structure."

    Associate Director Sara Peach and I spend most of our pre-semester planning time setting up the first week to help students face uncertainty. It’s not about risk and it’s not telling students “It’s OK to fail.” (It’s not OK to fail, but that’s a subject for later.) Students in the Lab will only succeed if they learn to solve their own problems. From the beginning, we are clear that we do not have the answers. It’s up to them.


    As documented and explained during orientation, students must be prepared to:

    • Face uncertainty
    • Make quick decisions with limited information
    • Work on competing priorities
    • Receive direct (painful and pleasant) feedback
    • Have all actions and decisions challenged and questioned
    • Find answers to their own questions with the assistance of their leaders

    So how do we prepare students to face uncertainty? We start by giving them lots of structure.

    First days in the Lab

    The first visual representation of uncertainty are bare walls. The Lab is clean, almost sterile, and I don’t like it. But it catches many students by surprise because it’s likely the first time they see the Lab in that state. The bare walls are unexpected and jarring.


    According to the students, the first several days in the Lab are unnerving. Most are uncertain about what to do next or how they will come up with an idea for a media product. Interestingly enough, some describe it as a free-for-all with very little, if any, structure. Veteran students voluntarily explain to others that being here previously doesn’t provide any advantage.

    Uncertainty runs rampant.

    We issue challenges

    We don’t present our preconceived ideas or assumptions, and we don’t allow student to, either. We give students specific problems (we call them challenges) in the form of a simple question. For example, one of our current challenges, “How might we meet the information needs of communities?” is based off the FCC’s 2011 report, “Information Needs of Communities.”

    We conduct structured brainstorm in groups and require students attendance at least two of the four sessions throughout the week. Many students choose to participate in more than two. The group setting with Sara or me leading provides just the right amount of structure to keep things moving.

    Team formation

    We spend the first seven days keeping students engaged until they form teams. That’s the key milestone.

    Uncertainty climbs even as we plaster bare walls with ideas. Forming teams around the best ideas is the trickiest part during the first week. The students know a poorly-matched team will result in a terrible experience for them and a horrible experiment for the lab. Many students shun group work in school because of past experiences.

    The way we create (hopefully) well-functioning teams is that Sara and I assign students to specific groups. Students give us their class schedules, and we put together teams based on their availability, skills and idea preferences.

    In the Lab, our experience has shown that groups are effective ONLY if they physically work with one another.

    With the announcement of teams, uncertainty appears to subside. Teams work out their schedules to be in the lab together (a requirement), and they begin the long process of creating a desirable, feasible and viable media product.

    Having a team rallied around a single idea is their first bit of proof that uncertainty is manageable, and now they control the process.

    John Clark has directed the Reese News Lab since July 2011 and leads courses in entrepreneurship for the School of Journalism and Mass Communication as well as UNC’s minor in entrepreneurship program. Clark has extensive experience as a leader, programmer, research and development manager and startup founder. He is the former general manager of WRAL.com, led the early development of the nation’s first local television news application on mobile phones and co-founded News Over Wireless, now StepLeader Inc. Clark also spearheaded the development of an experimental datacasting service to deliver news and information through digital television subchannels. In 2001, he co-founded appcomm, inc. a local Internet services company. Clark has served on the North Carolina State University Student Media Advisory Board and was an adjunct lecturer of communication at Campbell University for eight years before returning to school for an M.B.A. Follow him at @johnclark.

    This story originally appeared on Reese News Lab.

    reese2Reese News Lab is an experimental news and research project based at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The lab was established in 2010 with a gift from the estate of journalism school alum Reese Felts. The Lab develops and tests new ideas for the media industry in the form of a “pre-startup.” Teams of students research ideas for media products by answering three questions: Can it be done? Does anyone actually need this? Could it sustain itself financially? To answer these questions, students create prototypes, interview and survey potential customers, and develop business strategies for their products. Students document their recommendations on whether they believe a product will work and then present their ideas to the public.

    Tagged: education j-school reese news lab school of journalism unc

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