Mobile News Incubator Answers the Call

Students from Marshall, Annenberg and Viterbi Help Local Nonprofits

July 25, 2012

By Hunter Whitaker-Morrow

Los Angeles County, a creative capital, features one of the most diverse and forward-thinking populations in the country. Naturally, there is an incredible array of organizations with missions to address issues and challenges facing communities throughout the L.A. area.

Many nonprofit organizations focus so strongly on their goals to serve their communities that they find themselves without the time or resources to analyze, evaluate and improve their communication strategies.

Enter the USC Mobile News Incubator Fellowship Program, a unique six-week initiative funded by the Knight Foundation. Students from USC’s Marshall School of Business, Annenberg School of Communication, and Viterbi School of Engineering were brought together to develop mobile-focused communications strategies to aid local nonprofits in reaching and engaging significantly larger audiences. Fourteen students were divided into three teams working with one of two local nonprofits: T.R.U.S.T. South L.A., an organization striving to promote awareness of the area and attract residents and visitors to community events; and the Asian Pacific American Legal Centers (APALC), a group providing services and advocacy in support of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and currently interested in fostering more cohesive communities.

Each team had at least one student from each participating USC school. The diversity of backgrounds and perspectives allowed the fellows to leverage each other’s personal strengths. "It’s that kind of cross-pollination that made me want to work in the program," said Jeffrey Tamaru ’13, a program fellow majoring in business administration. "Everyone crossed boundaries and there was not very much stratification."

In exploring the potential for mobile technology to reach a new and larger audience, the fellows designed tools tailored for the two organizations. Richelle Gribble ’13, a fine arts major, social entrepreneurship minor and incubator team leader, saw parallels between the Mobile News Incubator Program and her artistic endeavors. "Working with mobile technology is so creative. It’s dynamic and innovative," she said. While the final products produced by the groups differed, each strategy was designed to help the nonprofits bolster communities in Los Angeles. One group working with APALC focused on leadership development among students in an Alhambra high school. Noting the abundance of small, family-owned restaurants in the area, the group developed a mobile interface for teens in the community to share their favorite dishes and that meal’s connection to their cultural life.

The incubator program sought to capitalize on the major shift toward the use of mobile phones, especially smartphones. Nearly everyone has a phone capable of sending or receiving SMS messages, accessing the Internet or running applications. There is, however, a great deal of difficulty in knowing what type of platform will work best, particularly for nonprofit organizations with diverse constituencies. "Nonprofits are driven by so many pressures that it would be impossible for them to take time to analyze the ways in which outreach via mobile devices might benefit them," said Lucy Lee, director of the Center for Management Communication, professor of clinical management communication at Marshall, and a participating faculty member in the summer incubator program.

The evolution of mobile technology is a topic receiving a great deal of attention at Marshall. “We’re very committed to being as far ahead of the curve as we can be. Looking at the latest innovations in media and technology and seeing how they can be used in today’s global business environment is a huge part of the curriculum at Marshall,” said Lee. One class in particular, BUCO 458 Managing Communication and New Media, examines the use of new communication technologies and social media platforms in organizations.

Even though the summer incubator program is over, implementation and monitoring of the student-created projects will be taken over by a subsequent group of fellows this coming academic year. This fall, the fellows will help TRUST South LA and APALC implement the mobile initiatives and develop case studies and a guidebook that other nonprofit community groups can use.