As I noted in my last post, the first two programmer-journalists (whose journalism education was financed via scholarships from the Knight News Challenge) will be among the students enrolled in a Medill School "innovation project" class.

Between now and when the class starts (Sept. 23), we have to decide what the focus of the project will be. In my experience with previous projects, the key is to come up with an interesting challenge or question for the students to explore.

Right now there are two competing ideas, neither of them yet specific enough to organize the class around:

  • Civic engagement through online conversations
  • Mobile content and services

Here’s a little more detail about the two possibilities.

Civic engagement through online conversations

For more than half a century, newspaper readership has been declining – and so have a variety of other indicators of civic and community engagement, such as participation in PTA’s, membership in bowling leagues and turnout on Election Day. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam documented these changes in American society in an influential article and a best-selling book, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.” The book, published in 2000, popularized the concept of “social capital,” the idea that people’s social relationships produce tangible benefits for their communities. “Bowling Alone” also offered some intriguing insights about the relationship between communities and journalism: the best predictor of community engagement, Putnam said, was newspaper readership.

More recently, Putnam has published even more troubling findings: The more diverse a community is in race and ethnicity, the less trust there is among members of that community and the weaker the bonds are that connect people to one another.

What I’ve been wondering about is whether new technologies can, in any way, help rebuild social capital among people who live in the same community. We know that online communities enable people with common interests to build powerful connections even if they are halfway around the world from one another. I’m intrigued by the possibility that we could apply these online community tools to strengthening local bonds.

It’s also hard to ignore that when conversations about the news occur on the Web, they often turn ugly — or, at best, fail to advance the discussion beyond ranting and raving. Many news organizations have been struggling just to keep their online comments civilized — let alone productive. I have been wondering if there’s a way that journalists can play a role in improving these conversations — for instance, by doing original reporting to corroborate or debunk what people are saying in these online conversations.

Evidence that local media can play a role in fostering community conversation can be found in newspaper history. David Paul Nord’s fascinating book, “Communities of Journalism,” for instance, describes many instances in which newspapers served as community forums, not just as one-way communicators of news and information. He describes the way newspapers enabled Philadelphians to share valuable information during a yellow fever epidemic in 1793. And how Chicago newspapers built a sense of community through letters to the editor.

Online communities have been around for decades, since before the World Wide Web. And anyone who has participated in successful online communities knows that they can build powerful interpersonal connections that transcend members’ gender, racial or ethnic differences. Yet, there are also arguments – for instance, by Cass Sunstein in his book – that online communities can foster isolation and division by enabling people to connect only with those whose characteristics and attitudes are like theirs.

What I might challenge our students to do is come up with ways to improve online conversations about the news — to build social capital and raise the quality of these conversations.

Mobile content and services

The second idea — to challenge the class to develop something interesting for mobile platforms — is even less well-formed than the first. Still, the topic seems hard to ignore given these recent developments:

  • As another student team found earlier this year, all mobile phones are increasingly going to be GPS-enabled.
  • The new iPhone has GPS functionality and also provides a platform to distribute applications
  • The first Android (Google) phones will be on the market before the end of the year, and will also serve as a platform for third-party applications..

The challenge to students might just be to develop an iPhone and/or Android application that somehow helps provide people with information they need about their local communities. Because the class will include two experienced technology developers, I expect the students can make a functional prototype.

What do you think?

Which of these high-level ideas seems most intriguing? Are there specific aspects of either topic that you think are worth exploring? Or is there an even more important topic or question for our students to delve into? Please provide your feedback below.