The Next Silicon Valley: USC’s Annenberg?

By Jon Friedman, MarketWatch

LOS ANGELES (MarketWatch) — Ernest Wilson smiles when he assesses his job as the dean of the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California.

“I admire and envy Nick Lemann,” Wilson said with a smile about his counterpart at the Columbia School of Journalism. “He has a straightforward task and one school — and its ‘journalism.’”

Of course, Columbia has long been widely recognized as the preeminent training ground for journalists in the U.S.

Wilson, for his part, can take pride in knowing he is making progress with his journalism, communications and public relations agenda. He supervises one of the nation’s most complex and ambitious media-education programs.

Annenberg works in conjunction with such USC divisions as business, engineering and public diplomacy. Labeling USC Annenberg’s School for Communication and Journalism as a simply “journalism” school, in the traditional sense, diminishes what Wilson and his colleagues are trying to accomplish.

USC Annenberg’s Ernest Wilson

Wilson believes that journalism plus innovation equals entrepreneurship, and that word sums up what Annenberg is trying hard to preach to its roughly 2,200 students.

U.S. journalism schools have occasionally been accused — and occasionally with some justification — of being factories of irrelevance. They hired professors who rhapsodized about their good old days in journalism, failed to keep up with the ever-changing technology — which is always going to be the driver in the communications industry — and minimally prepared their graduates for the real world.

Wilson is wise to put the accent on entrepreneurship. Considering how many magazines and newspapers have gone belly-up lately, it’s worth the effort to retrain Annenberg students for the 21st century. “We’re not just training our students for jobs that won’t exist in five years,” Wilson said. “We need people who can connect the dots.

“Five years from now, if we do this right,” Wilson said, “we can establish a new set of competencies for the digital age. Our graduates can go to work for Cisco /quotes/comstock/15*!csco/quotes/nls/csco (CSCO 17.03, -0.14, -0.82%) or the government of China or the World Bank or a school in South Central LA. All of them would understand that communications is at the center. The biggest export in the U.S. economy is content.”

Investing in innovation

Wilson, who welcomes participation from the private sector, instituted the Innovator in Residence program at Annenberg’s Innovation Lab, which encourages student collaboration with public and corporate entities. Levi Strauss, IBM /quotes/comstock/13*!ibm/quotes/nls/ibm (IBM 166.21, -0.13, -0.08%)  Verizon /quotes/comstock/13*!vz/quotes/nls/vz (VZ 37.85, -0.02, -0.05%) , Mattel /quotes/comstock/15*!mat/quotes/nls/mat (MAT 26.80, +1.06, +4.12%) , DirecTV /quotes/comstock/15*!dtv/quotes/nls/dtv (DTV 46.89, +0.29, +0.62%)  and Intel /quotes/comstock/15*!intc/quotes/nls/intc (INTC 19.75, +0.17, +0.87%)  are among the corporate sponsors of the Innovation Lab.

One application was to use the raw data about Levi Strauss’s 4 million Facebook friends and advise the company on how it could improve its marketing and social media. Some might fret that the school has too cozy a relationship with its sponsors and corporate America. But Annenberg officials would counter that their methods give students greater access jobs after they graduate.

Apps for picking paint colors

Smartphone apps have hit the home improvement world. WSJ’s Gwendolyn Bounds shows digits a variety of apps that help users pick out paint colors.

At the same time, it’s possible that Wilson wants to use this kind of a platform to gain stature for the school. Historically, USC Angeles has not been mentioned in the same breath as J-school kingpins like Columbia and Northwestern.

Since arriving at Annenberg in 2007, Wilson’s dedication to entrepreneurial training has rubbed off.

“Ernie has been a real wonderful gift to Annenberg, in the sense that he is a great manager,” said Innovation Lab director Jonathan Taplin. “He takes chances and gives you the ability to go and try and make things happen.” Read more about the Innovation Lab.

“Universities are normally very bureaucratic,” Taplin observed. “But he gave me the go-ahead to make the Innovation Lab happen last May and we had it up and running in August. That’s unheard of, in university-time.”

Whether or not the Annenberg Innovation Lab becomes a breeding ground for another Silicon Valley any time soon, I noticed one bit of progress. Annenberg students sport a can-do spirit that’s sorely missing in media nowadays.

I observed a distinct lack of jaded people at the first annual Annenberg Innovation Lab Conference two weeks ago on the USC campus. USC students participated in the Lab’s Crunch Design Challenge. The winning projects — each of which was awarded $3,000 — were declared in four categories: the Future of eBooks, Transmedia Storytelling, Community Platforms and Tools & Applications.

It was reassuring to see enthusiastic students not talking about the end of the media — which is often the case with members of the journalism establishment. At Annenberg, they see a future in the media biz.

But Wilson doesn’t expect any bouquets. “A leader’s job is to inspire people. My colleagues stand up every morning and say, ‘Innovate or die.’ But no one has the right answer by himself. If someone says that, I’d run screaming from the room.”

The same can be said for journalism programs: innovate or die. With the proliferation of blogs today, young journalists can gain experience and a following without paying high tuitions of such schools as USC.

Wilson recognizes, “what we’re trying to do [at Annenberg] is not unique. We’re all trying to figure out this crazy thing,” he said of the digital revolution in American life.

“Back there,” he said of the New York-Washington journalism establishment, “people are always sounding the death knell of democracy and values. But my kids are inventing the future and we’re helping them. They’re excited. For them this is the best of times — and how cool is that?”

MEDIA WEB QUESTION OF THE DAY: Where do you think the next Silicon Valley-style innovation will come from?

Jon Friedman is a senior columnist for MarketWatch in New York.


We WON! We Won the Annenberg Innovation Lab Crunch Design Challenge!

UPDATE: WE WON!! We took first place in Transmedia Story Telling and our project will be featured at TEDxUSC! Click around links below for more info! Like this one:


I am happy to say I joined up with a GREAT team to work on the CRUNCH! Interactive Design Challenge at the Annenberg Innovation Lab. My  team consists of Project Lead extraordinaire Lauren Fenton, Programmer cover boy Shreyas Heranjal, myself — Desdemona Bandini as Project Manager, and the amazing Annenberg and SCA Faculty Advisor Anne Balsamo.

Our team’s project is called “The Interactive GeoSurface Map.”  It uses an interactive device created by Onomy Labs called a “Tilty Table.” The table functions as an interactive interface to create an experience of playful navigation through Microsoft’s Bing Map database of high-resolution satellite images . By tilting and twisting the Tilty Table, the user can zoom in and pan over details of the landscape. By dwelling on hotspots they can access multimedia metadata on important landmarks.

As an interface meant for public spaces and public use in museums, galleries, community centers, and municipal buildings, the Tilty Table offers a unique means of apprehending geography, land use and infrastructure not only as a collection of data but as a communal experience of embodied travel through a virtual space. As opposed to interfaces designed for individual experiences only, The Interactive GeoSurface map is about collaborate browsing, allowing viewers to engage with each other over the data.

We are collaborating with an institution called the Center for land Use Interpretation to adapt their exhibit, Urban Crude, about the Oil Fields of the city of Los Angeles, for the Tilty Table. Urban Crude explores the way oil is being drilled in the city, by whom, and what their strategies are to hide this drilling activity from plain view, which includes hiding oil wells behind fake buildings or churches. The exhibit contains images and text as well as geographical data that weaves a narrative around this particular example of land use.

What distinguishes The Interactive GeoSurface Map project from other interfaces for vizualizing geographical data (for example, Google Earth), is that we don’t just present data, we present a narrative about the data. The user can explore a story, rather than just a collection of facts. The story we are presenting is about geography and land use, and how these topics relate to us as urban dwellers and citizens.

As such, it is an ideal tool for any institution that is involved with thinking about geography in a creative and interesting way – our potential audience includes museums, science centers, schools, community centers, and any institution involved in urban planning.

“What distinguishes The Interactive GeoSurface Map project from other interfaces for vizualizing geographical data (for example, Google Earth), is that we don’t just present data, we present a narrative about the data. The user can explore a story, rather than just a collection of facts. The story we are presenting is about geography and land use, and how these topics relate to us as urban dwellers and citizens.”