How-To: A Guide to Reese News Lab

At the Reese News Lab, we train students to ask lots of questions: Who wants this media product? What value is it providing to customers? How might it make money?

But lately, we’ve started to get a lot of questions ourselves. Visitors, drawn to our door in Carroll Hall by the sounds of loud exclamations and laughter, wonder who the heck we are. Students want to know what we do and why they should get involved. And educators are curious about how we teach students to think entrepreneurially about the media industry.

Everyone has questions because we’re working on the problem that everyone in our industry is worried about: how to help people get accurate information about their communities and hold leaders accountable in a time when the traditional revenue model for the media is broken.

To answer questions about the Lab, we’ve prepared a how-to guide. The guide answers questions about how we get students thinking like start-up founders, considering what their customers want, and generating revenue in new ways. It’s told in the voices of the people who have gone through our process — the students — with additional thoughts from Reese News Lab Executive Director John Clark.

In a nutshell, what is the Reese News Lab and what do you do? 

Great question. Here’s our “About” page.

How do students get involved in the Reese News Lab? 

Two ways: as interns or as students in a class. UNC-Chapel Hill students can apply to work as paid interns during the fall or spring semesters, and we also offer a full-time paid internship in the summer. The other option is to enroll in the Lab class for credit. Whether students participate in the class for for pay or for credit, the experience is similar.

How do you hire students? 

We cast a wide net in our search for applicants, and then we interview the strongest candidates using behavioral interview techniques. Intern Sarah Whitmore wrote about what it’s like as a student to go through a Reese News lab interview, and Associate Director Sara Peach wrote about what it’s like to sit in the interviewer’s chair.

How do you orient students to the Reese News Lab? How do you get them started? 

We’ve tried it a couple of different ways. In the summer of 2015, we gave students a “sprint” to complete in 48 hours.

We also like to give students outrageous ice-breaker activities, like creating giant airplanes, building marshmallow-and-spaghetti towers and inventing new products from bags of random junk. We’ve also tried the plain old “overwhelm them with information” method.

How do you pick ideas to pursue? Do students come into the Lab with an idea? 

Our students don’t come in with ideas. Instead, we issue challenges.

In the first few days of the semester, we brainstorm ideas related to those challenges and come up with as many ideas as possible.

After several days of brainstorming, individual students pick one or two ideas to research on their own and then pitch back to the whole group in a “pitch party.” After listening to all of the pitches, the whole group votes on a select number of ideas to pursue for the rest of the semester.

How do you form teams? Do the teams have leaders? 

We’ve tried pretty much every variation: assigning students to teams at random, allowing them to self-select, assigning students to teams based on preference, and putting students on teams based on their class schedules (the last one seems to work the best). We’ve also tried teams with and without team captains. Our current preference is to have leaderless groups.

Once students are on teams, what do they do next? 

They have to answer this question: Why hasn’t your idea been done before?

Then they have to start talking to potential customers. The students must figure out what problem their product would solve, and for whom.

When do you start building your products? How many programmers do you have? 

Actually, we tell students not to build their products. And we typically don’t have many programmers on hand. Why? We find that our products turn out better if we prevent students from following their natural instincts to start building right away. Instead, we require them to begin by showing prototypes to potential customers.

How do you build prototypes if you don’t have many programmers? 

We build them out of paper. Or PowerPoint. Or Monopoly money. The way we build prototypes doesn’t matter as much as building them quickly, getting customer feedback, and then rapidly building a new version based on that feedback.

How do you get customer feedback? 

We ask students to draw on their training as journalists to find potential customers (also known as sources) and gather feedback from them (a type of interviewing).

How do you teach students how to calculate revenue and costs for their businesses?  

Students are often afraid of Excel spreadsheets. But they’re not afraid of lemonade stands. So we start simple, walking them through a simple business like an eight-year-old’s lemonade stand, and show them how to calculate revenue and costs on a spreadsheet.

How do students learn to pitch? 

In a word: practice. We ask students to pitch their ideas starting in their first week in the Lab. As they research their ideas, they must regularly pitch what they’ve learned so far. Then, about three or four weeks before Pitch Day, they begin writing and practicing outlines for their final pitches. By the time they stand up before an audience on Pitch Day, they’ve practiced pitching dozens of times.

As students learn to pitch, they quickly learn that we don’t care what they think, or hope or believe. Instead, we care about what they know from their research.

What happens after Pitch Day? 

On Pitch Day, our audiences evaluate the students’ ideas for desirability, feasibility and viability. Based in part on that feedback, in many cases, we decide that an idea is not worth any more time. But sometimes, students decide to pursue the idea — either with or without additional help from the Lab. That means they must begin the challenging new process of building a product, operating it and making sales.