Improv Boosts Innovation at Collab/Space Chicago

    by Julie Keck
    October 1, 2014
    Photo by Julie Keck.
    Click the image for more coverage from ONA14.

    Click the image for more coverage from ONA14.

    One of the first things David Cohn of Circa said during his keynote talk at Collab/Space Chicago last week was “you will feel like a manic-depressive” when launching a startup. The Collab/Space Chicago crowd, which included hopeful startup presenters, journalists, media pros, and J-school elites chuckled, but everyone in the room knew there was some truth to that.

    "I like to be at the table where the decisions are made.” -Doug Mitchell

    Cohn knows a thing or two about the ups and downs of startups. During his talk, which was accompanied by a unicorn-themed slide show, Cohn described launching the first version of Circa in 2012 as “miserable” but also a chance to make something useful. He seemed pretty relaxed despite it also being the launch day for Circa 3.0, but he’s been around the block a few times.

    David Cohn

    David Cohn talks about trolls, unicorns, and the emotional roller coaster of startups.

    At Collab/Space Chicago, which took place at TechNexus in the Civic Opera building in downtown Chicago, attendees represented many respected entities in the media, business and journalism realms, including the Reynolds Journalism Institute, WITNESS, the Knight Foundation, CUNY and more. Most were also in town for ONA14, which started the following day.

    However, the VIPs of Collab/Space Chicago were the presenters for nine ambitious startups who applied and were chosen for the full Collab/Space treatment.


    In the Hot Seat

    After warm welcomes from MediaShift Executive Editor Mark Glaser, Jonathon Baskin of Collab/Space Chicago event host TechNexus, and Robin Evans of event sponsor John S. Knight Stanford Fellowships, each presenter or pair of presenters shared their startup vision, their progress, and their barriers. Immediately following their presentations, Glaser moderated follow-up questions from the attendees, then asked for extra help from his “secret weapon,” media strategist Brian Reich, who shared deep dive questions (“What’s on your I-Will-Not-Do list?) and dropped rap lyrics.

    Madeleine Bair of WITNESS shares her group's feedback for PortaBierta Media.

    Madeleine Bair of WITNESS shares her group’s feedback for PortaBierta Media.

    Here’s a little taste of what happened:

    1. Contextly’s Ryan Singel introduced his company as a solution for companies hoping to build high-value audiences by supplying their readers with insightful recommended content within the same site. Collab/Space attendees asked about whether Contextly would consider having clients cross-recommend each other’s content, taking readers off the primary site; they also asked questions about working with content behind a paywall.
    2. Datavisual was presented by founder Danne Woo, and this data visualization service aims to make interactive data visualizations easier for non-data journalists to create with easy-to-use templates. Woo said that one of the barriers they were encountering was finding that some journalists didn’t know where to start with data. Brian Reich asked: Do all journalists have to be data journalists?
    3. Neal Gardner and Logan Spence from Boston-based Outlet Media confessed that in the weeks leading up to Collab/Space Chicago they had pivoted and changed the focus of their startup to creating a hub for user-generated images. When asked by attendees how they were different from Dataminr or other image solutions currently on the market, Neal and Logan said their product was a human-based solution, rather than a machine-generated aggregator. The human touch is important.
    4. The issue Parse.ly addresses, according to Director of Marketing Clare Ondrey: “Publishers are ignoring their audience.” This product is intended to help publishers create value for audiences by understanding them through data. An attendee from Crain’s Chicago Business said: “This is amazing. We’ve been looking for something like this for a while.”
    5. With PortaBierta Media, Luis Gomez aims to increase financial literacy, business as well as personal, for the Spanish-speaking population in the United States. An attendee pressed Gomez to specify which Spanish-speaking population he was focusing on: At present, he’s hoping to garner all of them. His afternoon breakout group explored solutions focused on Spanish-speaking teen girls.
    6. Kim Garretson presented Realizing Innovation, which sprung out of the Reynolds Journalism Institute and aims to facilitate startup discovery. Brian Reich said they should aim to be a required registry for all startups in the world, collecting data that could be helpful for all. Later in the day, the breakout group for this startup suggested creating a “Startup Cemetery” where stories of failed startups, and the lessons to be learned from them, could be compiled.
    7. Silicon Hills News is positioning itself to be the go-to source for tech news in the Austin-San Antonio area. The site recently ditched a paywall, and the company still produces print magazines, for which founder Laura Lorek said it was easier to sell ads for than the website.
    8. The representative for SociaLife Chicago said that it was her goal was to create a digital destination for aspirational and affluent people between the ages of 23 and 40. Current topics on the site include social events and style, as well as philanthropy. In the small group for this startup, of which I was a part, we discussed identifying different niches for this audience for which original content could be created, as well as making the site a go-to resource for the portion of the target audience looking for mentorship and tips on gaining seats on desired boards.
    9. Within Solar Power Report’s presentation, which occurred right before an already delayed lunch, co-presenters Matthias Krause and Melissa Bosworth caught even the hungriest media pros’ attention with the term “information deficit death spiral.” Their aim: to become an independent publication for homeowners interested in or determined to install solar panels on their homes. Brian Reich’s advice: Don’t be afraid to have a clear bias.

    Learn more about the startups presented here.

    Uniting for a Common Cause

    Everyone at Collab/Space was focused on the central goal of helping the new startups make gains toward self-sufficiency; however, in doing so, they were helping to advance media and journalism overall. Terms like native advertising, paywalls, data journalism, and monetization came up repeatedly. These aren’t just issues being faced by new companies; stalwarts of the industry are also searching for solutions, and this event allowed media pros to reach across the aisle, so to speak, to share ideas, confess mistakes, and hit upon company-saving solutions, with audience in mind.

    Doug Mitchell, consultant and project manager for NPR, Georgetown instructor and co-founder of NEWU2014The Journalism Diversity Project, shared the latest about NewU, which has thus far seeded 12 minority lead media startups with grants ranging from $3,300 to $20,000, 10 of which are led by women of color. On why he is behind the scenes on his NPR shows rather than in front of the microphone: “I like to be at the table where the decisions are made.” This was definitely a statement that all of the movers and shakers at the event could nod their head at.

    Comic Relief

    Andy Boyle at Collab/Space Chicago

    Andy Boyle of BreakingNews leads morning improv.

    This is not to say that the day was wholly serious. To aid the group in their brainstorming process, MediaShift brought in Andy Boyle, recently of the Chicago Tribune and now of BreakingNews, to facilitate humorous improv exercises first thing in the morning and then again just before the small groups dove deep into key questions for each presented startup.

    One morning exercise that was focused on the importance of listening and eye contact had startup newbies and veteran journalists alike pretending to hand each other the heads of celebrities. Overheard in the buzzing room as many imaginary heads were being passed around: “Thank you for giving me Tom Cruise’s head.” You don’t get that at every media workshop.

    Later in the day, to help get small groups loosened up for the final push, Boyle gave us the assignment of creating the entire skeleton of a startup based on a nonsense word. That’s easy enough for an experience group in attendance, but there was a catch: no saying “no” allowed — we had to agree to the first idea that was spoken aloud and move onto the next question. The result: pretend startups focused on helping daters with no game, not-so-empty nesters, and people who look at their smartphones too much. Actually … some pretty great ideas came out of this. Perhaps we’ll see them in the next round of Collab/Space.

    Work Smart, Play Smart

    After a full day of innovating and brainstorming, attendees headed a few steps south to Rittergut Wine Bar & Social Club for some networking and refreshments. Everyone earned their beverage that day.

    Next Up: #CollabDC

    Collab/Space Chicago, which took place the day before #ONA14 began in the same city, was the fourth such gathering produced by MediaShift. Previous events in Berkley, Atlanta, and New York have received such positive feedback that this is becoming an increasingly frequent event: The next Collab/Space event is planned for November 6 in Washington, D.C., at the Washington Post headquarters, with a focus on data projects and startups. Register here. If you’d like to present your data project or startup, apply here by October 6.

    All photos by Julie Keck.

    Julie Keck is a social media consultant and filmmaker based in Chicago. The bulk of her film work is created for tellofilms.com, a niche video site, for which Julie serves as the Chief Creative Officer. She has spoken about social media engagement, crowdfunding, and film at SXSW, the University of Notre Dame, Columbia College, DePaul, the Chicago Documentary Film Summit, the Chicago International Film Festival, and more. Julie is also the social media and newsletter editor for PBS MediaShift. You can find her on Twitter at @kingisafink.

    Tagged: andy boyle chicago collab/space chicago collaboration data journalism david cohn dough mitchell knight foundation paywalls startups technexus technology

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