Earlier this year, the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications launched an initiative to completely examine its newsroom operations and how local news will continue to play a large role in the College’s news curriculum. The following is an edited and excerpted collection from the “Breaking News” and “What is Project Allotrope” posts that explain the process.
When the project that became the Innovation News Center at the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications launched five years ago, the mission was to “converge” the three separate radio and television newsrooms. It was the latest iteration in an 87-year history of immersive, media-based learning opportunities at UF.
And for the last 18 months, we’ve seen great success. Our digital traffic, measured by unique visitors, has increased 400 percent since 2011. We’ve won dozens of awards, both professional and student. We produce nightly half-hour newscasts on our 1 million-watt PBS station, broadcast live news updates on the market-leading NPR affiliate, feed a 24/7 news channel, power sports updates and local coverage on the ESPN affiliate, and provide real-world multi-media reporting opportunities for our students in news, weather and sports. All integral parts of our news curriculum and our public service mission.
Why mess with a good thing?
We need to adapt before the market — and the audience — gets ahead of us.
More Than The Heritage Brands
It is certainly not unique to our organization or market that the heritage brands and platforms are the foremost part of our operations – at least when it comes to revenue.
The numbers do not lie. For a commercial and public media group in a small market like ours, the traditional on-air commercials and underwriting messages, compounded with Corporation for Public Broadcasting grants, state and member support are currently the only sources of revenue we have coming in. From a narrow business case, this should be a no-brainer. Maintain and grow the status quo — invest in the terrestrial first and extract as much value as possible out of those platforms.
Our industries’ hesitation to fully embrace the digital tools and techniques because of lack of training, expertise, time, or perceived business value is an understandable response.
And that’s where our college, and others in higher education, can help. We shouldn’t be preparing our students just for where the industries are now, but where they’ll be in a very short time.
Winter is Coming
The students who are in our classrooms and working in our newsroom today represent the next generation of media consumers — and media leaders.
I am constantly surprised that although many of our students are so determined to enter careers in traditional media, we learn they (let alone their peers) rarely use it as a go-to news source. Earlier this year, the College completed a survey in partnership with Elite Daily of 18- to 24-years-olds’ media habits. It found that 80.2 percent of respondents use some form of digital news as their primary news source. That may include the 21.8 percent using websites of “traditional news media.” But still, they are primarily using that brand’s digital offerings, not the platforms that these students spend so much time and energy chasing opportunities to be on.
They don’t consume the very media created by the industries they are studying so diligently to enter.
According to Pew, the Millennial generation will surpass Boomers as America’s largest population group this year. Compound that with the coming tide of the 61 million-strong post-Millennial generation, media usage patterns will quickly change.
When talking about the future of news, we tend to emphasize print. It’s clear that the glory days are over. The digital disruption has overtaken that industry.
What we don’t always recognize is the coming tide that is about to breach the worlds of broadcast news and entertainment.
Whatever side of the argument you reside on in the cord-cutting debate, the fact is that we can now consume content that used to be only available via broadcast or cable subscription at any time we want. There can be no argument that the effect of the on-demand and OTT (over-the-top) content economy has had on our viewing: a probable end to linear TV.
So what does this coming reality mean for local media organizations and those who are generating news? What does a newscast look like when there is no prime-time lead-in? What does local news look like when format constraints go out the window? Do we really need yet another radio station playing “Blurred Lines” for the millionth time that day?
Those are the questions we are asking.
We’re in the midst of a vision process as we reorient from a primary focus on simply feeding the heritage, terrestrial broadcast properties to becoming a multi-platform, multi-brand news and information organization. This project includes a mobile-first rebuild of our digital publishing platform, an examination of our local news identity, launching new psychographic-oriented brand channels (such as a focus on millennial student health), building on our Spanish-language and sports verticals, and integration of new technologies and platforms (such as Yik Yak) into our daily workflow.
Why Allotrope? An allotrope is a property of some chemical elements to exist in two or more different forms. Just as the base element carbon can form both diamonds and graphite, so too will the operations of our INC go into different content channels targeting different communities.
There is nothing wrong with corporate media deciding to focus on value extraction rather than value creation as business strategy. However, it may not be in our students’ or our society’s benefit in the long run if we focus on that model. Our mission should be exploration and new ideas.
I am not one to call for the burning of traditions and heritage platforms to make room for the new. There is immense monetary and historical value in maintaining what we are doing now. But we must not be afraid of what’s coming next. It’s not a reflection on, or the discounting of, the hard work of those in our organizations and industries who have brought us to this point in history. But we must evaluate our time and energy to make sure that we are pushing forward and recognizing opportunities to build communities and voice on all platforms.
That is what Project Allotrope is designed to do: to evaluate and recommend paths forward that not only benefit our media properties, but also our students and the industries that they will serve and invent. We have the luxury of a longer ROI runway and don’t face all the same pressures that for-profit media organizations do. We have the freedom that others do not.
Throughout we commit to share and expand knowledge. We’ll instill the ethos and mission of our research university headquarters in all we do. We will admit our mistakes and probably make some more. And all this wrapped in an admission we don’t have all the answers.
We’ll continue to chronicle the process of our evolutions in the INC on the Medium publication, Innovation News.
Matt Sheehan is director of the Innovation News Center at the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications. He is on the journalism department faculty and serves as the news director for six terrestrial broadcast stations that serve North Central Florida, including the NPR, PBS and ESPN affiliates, as well as the College’s digital media properties.