LU journalists compete for big money in innovation competition

A team of Lamar University journalists is one of 10 finalists in the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute’s 2021 Student Innovation Competition. The Cardinal team will compete Feb. 26 for big prize money – $10,000 – by implementing an innovative idea in partnership with a local media outlet. Timothy Cohrs

Each year RJI challenges college journalism majors across the country to imagine and implement innovation in newsrooms. This year, the 14th annual RJI competition challenged students to come up with new ideas to connect with audiences.

“We talked with the editor and publisher of the Port Arthur News and proposed a reader engagement project, and they agreed to partner with us,” said Timothy Cohrs, sophomore journalism major and team leader on the project. “We considered the PA News because it’s a community — like many others — that are in a challenging situation with still being impacted by hurricanes and economic issues.”

Cohrs, along with University Press Editor, Olivia Malick, has several innovative initiatives in the works on campus with members of faculty, staff and students, so they decided to try something different, off campus, in hopes of increasing their chances of winning the competition.

Without giving away too many secrets, Cohrs disclosed that the LU team, which will also include two other members of the UP staff, has created a reader engagement program that can be reproduced and will measure interaction between the Port Arthur community and the Port Arthur News.

“News organizations need to be able to listen to their communities to address issues that are important to them — that’s what engagement really is, listening and responding,” said Cohrs. “Additionally, the community needs to know how news coverage works and the processes of how decisions are made in a given story. This plan, in turn, is going to be shared through the Reynolds Journalism Institute and used as part of engagement strategies for news organizations across the country to improve their local coverage and for communities to have trust in their local news outlets.”

Cohrs and his team believe that an additional result of the increased interaction between the community and local news outlets will be a better understanding of the role of journalists.

“The media has a credibility problem that comes from a lot of different places,” said Cohrs. “One is that people confuse ‘the media’ and news or journalism. Facebook might be a media outlet, but it’s not the news or journalism, although journalists use it. Also, there is bias presented in some news stories by some organizations, not necessarily news organizations. Also, there is bias in how stories are received by audiences. People often determine the accuracy or credibility of a story by whether or not they like a story.”

The Cardinal team will implement the plan, measure the results and create a live presentation of their findings to a national group of media professionals and members of the Reynolds Journalism Institute.

“This is a big deal for us,” said Cohrs. “It’s like the Lamar University football team playing in the championship against Alabama and nine other ranked teams — all at the same time.”

The Cardinals will compete against teams from Kent State University, University of Maryland, Missouri School of Journalism, Syracuse University, University of Southern California, Ohio University, Washington State University and two teams from New York University.

In addition to the prospect of winning $10,000 that would be split among the four team members, Cohrs hopes that winning the competition would also shed light on the importance of local media outlets engaging with their audiences, especially those with of a credibility problem.

“One of the reasons behind a loss of trust is that local news organizations haven’t always worked to build good relationships with their communities — the local paper or TV station shouldn’t be untouchable,” said Cohrs. “They should be a part of the community, too. They have a role as a forum for people to get accurate and credible information so they can make choices on how to react or deal with an issue like road construction or disaster recovery. These are things that affect their day to day lives. The big stories will get covered by the big organizations. It’s the small stories in thousands of communities across the country that really affect people every day.”