Front Office Taps Students for New Ideas

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

Hillary Rhodes admits to a wee bit of panic when she and her classmates from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism walked into the roomful of Lee Enterprise executives to convince them to start a Web and tabloid product for teenagers.

“We were working on no sleep at all, and then we had practiced and practiced our presentation, and I thought, we’re just kids, really, and we’re standing in front of all these middle-aged guys in business suits and we’re telling them what they should do,” Rhodes recalls of that moment back in June.

She needn’t have worried: As things turned out, the suits loved it.

“They gave a presentation as good as any I’ve ever seen by a marketing or advertising firm,” says Michael Phelps, publisher of Lee’s Quad-City Times in Davenport, Iowa. Phelps greenlighted the project on the spot. And the j-school kids were barely across the river on the way back to their Evanston, Ill., campus when their cell phones started ringing. The suits wanted to start working on the tab, called “Your Mom,” on Monday.

Within a few weeks, Rhodes, 24, was working for the Times, running “Your Mom” from an office she’s converted into a hangout for local teens.

Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has just launched a Web site and weekly tab following input from Medill students.

These initiatives are just the latest real-world newspaper products to come out of the Medill Media Management Project Class in Northwestern’s graduate journalism program. Every year for the better part of two decades, some 15 to 20 students spend the spring quarter essentially acting as a newspaper industry consultant firm.

For many years, the students worked exclusively with The Times in Munster, Ind., then owned by Howard Publications. Among other projects, the class developed a pre-Web online service and revamped the Saturday paper. Nowadays, program leaders Rich Gordon, chairman of the Newspapers & New Media program, and part-time faculty member Cynthia Linton go looking for a client newspaper ? or, just as often, the papers come looking for them.

Martin Kaiser, senior vice president and editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, attended the students’ presentation in 2002 ? and hired the class the next year to figure out how to attract younger readers. “I was really impressed by them,” he says. “I thought, boy, getting some smart young people up here and having them in the newsroom and the company would be very good for us. For a long time, I guess they were frustrated because we did nothing [with their ideas].”

The students suggested a Web site, a standalone tab and a weekly section inside the Journal Sentinel for adults aged 25 to 34. After sitting on the plan for a while, the paper on Oct. 28 launched a Web site and tab called MKE, named after Milwaukee’s airport code.

“The Medill program definitely influenced what we did,” MKE project head Diane Bacha says. “The most important thing [the class] did was make us take notice about how much potential there was for this kind of product. We were given a fresh set of reasons to do it.” And like Lee, the Journal Sentinel hired one of the students, Beth Lawton, to work on the final project.

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