Journalism Student Takes Top Prize in Innovation Competition

12/21/2010 - By: Zanny Marsh

A senior at the Donald W. Reynolds School of Journalism who got her first computer in fourth grade and has been blogging since middle school won the top prize in a competition for innovative ideas in journalism.

The student, Chelsea Otakan of the University of Nevada, Reno, won the Donald W. Reynolds Business Journalism Pitch Competition with a Web service called NewsPlay that would let newspapers integrate aspects of games into their sites. Her idea would reward users who participate--civilly--on news sites.

"Now people get very combative, frustrated or self-righteous" when they comment online about news articles, Otakan, 22, said. Her idea "would foster more of a respect for productive conversations. You don't get as much standing" for less-civil conversations.

"I want to make people feel rewarded for participating in the news," she said.

"Innovation in journalism is exactly what we want to be known for, and Chelsea is the kind of student who can turn innovation into action," said Jerry Ceppos, dean of the Donald W. Reynolds School of Journalism at UNR.

Ceppos said that Otakan had studied with, among other professors, Larry Dailey, UNR's Reynolds chair of media technology. "Larry is one of the country's experts in identifying ways that games can help teach the news, and that's what Chelsea's product would do," Ceppos said.

In fact, Otakan said part of her idea came from "EverQuest," a fantasy computer game in which players from all over the world participate.

"They were having trouble with factions, they were becoming very competitive and negative, so they implemented goals," she explained. "In order to reach a certain goal, everyone on the server had to work together.... They can only achieve if they work together. It's hard for news organizations to implement that sort of strategy without being too controlling of their community. You give people incentives instead of restrictions. It's a more positive way to go about it."

Otakan plans to spend part of the spring semester developing a business plan and then seeking venture capital for NewsPlay.

She was one of 34 students involved in this first competition, which included students from UNR and the University of Missouri. Randy Smith, Donald W. Reynolds Endowed Chair in Business Journalism at the Missouri School of Journalism, conceived of and sponsored the competition.

Judges were John Barron, publisher of the Chicago Sun-Times; Phil Aucutt, managing partner of WR Holdings and president of Junit, LLC; K.V. Rao, founder and chief strategist of Zuora, which has developed new online subscription products; Laura Moran, online producer at The Chicago Tribune, and Mike Jenner, professor and Houston Harte chair at Missouri's journalism school.

After her elementary- and middle-school computer experiences, including blogging "about my boring life in Las Vegas," Otakan became a Web developer at the Sagebrush, the UNR student newspaper. She now helps run Lively Labs, a Reno firm that she started with another student and a UNR graduate.

Looking back, she said, "I was sort of in the early group that grew up on the Web and took my hobby and actually turned that into a career."


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