It’s been almost a year and a half since a grant from the Knight Foundation allowed the Medill School to offer journalism master’s program scholarships to experienced programmer-developers. Since then, on this Web site, I’ve been documenting the experience of the first two "programmer-journalists."

Now things start to get interesting.

For graduate students majoring in new media, Medill’s one-year academic program ends with one of our "innovation project" classes. These are team-based classes in which the students are challenged to create a new digital or cross-media product. Sometimes these classes seek to apply proven technologies or business models to a problem faced by a real media company; in other cases, we explore emerging technologies to develop new insights for journalists, media companies and journalism education.

Our latest new media innovation project — which includes the first Knight programmer-journalist scholarship winners, Brian Boyer and Ryan Mark — is now off and running. There are six students (in addition to Ryan and Brian: Angela Nitzke, Joshua Pollock, Stuart Tiffen and Kayla Webley.)

I’ve challenged the team to look at improving "conversations around news" — to use digital community-building tools to enhance people’s connections to their local communities and to news and information about those communities. If the class is successful, the students will develop new ideas for building these community connections — and a new Web site or service that brings those ideas to life.

Here are the high-level goals for the class:

  • To understand the ways that journalism has historically helped enable civic engagement and provided a forum for conversations around news.
  • To understand the nature of people’s interactions online and to apply that understanding to local communities and the role of media in a democracy. 
  • To develop recommendations on how to approach news, online conversations and civic engagement. 
  • To develop software prototypes for enhancing online conversations and engagement. 

Our laboratory will be Cedar Rapids, Iowa, home of Gazette Communications (which, among other businesses, owns the city’s daily newspaper and ABC affiliate). The Gazette is sponsoring the class in hopes that our students provide some ideas for doing a better job of connecting with people in and around Cedar Rapids, which suffered devastating damage in June as a result of a record flood.

The students convened for the first time on Tuesday, Sept. 23. Here’s what they’ve done so far:

Gary Kebbel of the Knight Foundation has said that he wants readers of the Idealab blog to be able to follow Knight News Challenge projects as if they were looking over Thomas Edison’s shoulder as he was inventing the lightbulb. I like that analogy, and the class — similarly — will operate a site that will give outsiders a view of what they’re doing. (Input and ideas are, of course, also invited.)

You’ll find the class’s site at Crunchberry Project. Why the name? When we visited Cedar Rapids last week, one of the city’s most notable attributes was this: It smells like breakfast cereal. That’s because Quaker Oats has a large manufacturing plant right on the edge of downtown. We don’t know for sure what products Quaker makes in Cedar Rapids, but the students thought they smelled Crunch Berries, one of Quaker’s cereals.

You’re all invited to join the students on their journey.