Media Innovation Fellows use data and technology to improve local media

Media Innovation Fellows gather to share their findings.

Over the summer, five recent UNC-Chapel Hill School of Media and Journalism graduates led projects at local media companies in North Carolina to help them embrace new technologies and respond to changing consumer needs. The Reese Innovation Lab, managed by Professors Steven King and Ryan Thornburg, gave the fellows access to data journalism tools and encouraged entrepreneurial thinking. The 2017 Media Innovation Fellows are: Alexis Barnes, Kate Boyd, Lindsay Carbonell, Robert Kinlaw, and Patrick Seelinger.

Partnering with ABC 11 in Raleigh, Robert Kinlaw created videos using a unique documentary style focusing on local personalities. He worked on 20 short videos including a profile on a Miss North Carolina Pageant contestant and dancer with an anti-bullying outreach project, a Durham rapper whose song went viral, and a secret fraternity in Chapel Hill. Videos generate more activity for news organizations but they have to figure out how to make the cost of producing the video minimal in relation to revenue generated. Kinlaw expressed what many news organizations are struggling to answer: “How can we take something like this and make sure it’s going to be self-sustaining years from now?”

Kate Boyd and Lindsay Carbonell tested their coding skills in developing a prototype of an Artificial Intelligence journalist using a database of user questions to create a chat-based information service through the Facebook Messenger app. The Wilmington Star News has used a product called “My Reporter” where viewers can submit questions to reporters that may be answered and posted on their website. It has been a time-consuming process for the organization that Boyd and Carbonell looked to streamline using an automated system. Their prototype has limitations due to the format of the existing platform, but it could be scalable so that other newsrooms can use it.

In partnership with The News Reporter in Whiteville, Patrick Seelinger worked on “C-note” which is a cloud-based service for sending push notifications and text messages to local media subscribers. The app is scalable for different sized organizations and was designed to keep costs of operation at a minimum. There is excitement within the Reese Innovation Lab to continue work on C-note even after Seelinger’s fellowship concludes.

Alexis Barnes spent the last year learning how to use Virtual Reality technology as news reporting in the Reese Innovation Lab and helped on all the Media Innovation Fellows projects internally.

Dean Susan King enjoys the Media Innovation Fellows presentation along with Louise Spieler, associate dean, and Professor Steven King.


The fellows were given 12 weeks to work on their projects, which is enough time to pinpoint a problem and test possible solutions. Professor Thornburg explained the timeline functions so that students can test ideas for a local organization so that the organization does not have to use valuable resources, such as time and money, during the prototype stage. Thornburg added “Twelve weeks gets you to answer: ‘is this a question that is worth pursuing?’ It doesn’t get you a beta product.” Professor King also mentored the fellows and said he learns along with them. “We are two to three years away from AI being used by local newsrooms. We are just not there yet.”

Susan King, dean of the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, summarized the benefits of the program for students and local media partners: “People really want to know how you all think. We at universities have the luxury of being able to try something and if it fails – no problem! Because that’s what people do at universities. It’s really important that we share what you do because nobody can do this kind of thing when their job is to make money.”

The Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media provides full support for the fellows made possible by a grant from the Knight Foundation.

Kate Boyd and Lindsay Carbonell share a laugh during their presentation as Media Innovation Fellows.