Students in Ithaca College’s journalism innovation class study entrepreneurial, grassroots ways of delivering journalism outside of the traditional news formats like print, radio and TV. During the fall semester, students in the class collaborated with an alum working on a startup to report on local stories in Ithaca.
The journalism innovation class is taught by Allison Frisch, assistant professor in the Department of Journalism, who has been running it since 2018. Fall 2021 was the first semester students worked with Jared Wiener ’06 on his app called Forth. Frisch said students in the class could choose to work with the app or create their own journalism startup idea.
Wiener graduated with a double major in politics and journalism. He has worked for ABC for the last 15 years and started working on his app idea in 2017. Wiener said Forth focuses on local news presented in short segments from reporters in an area. Journalists post short parts of stories as they develop and readers can follow journalists or topics in their community.
Wiener said he saw a market in the under–35 age category where individuals were consuming less traditional media sources like newspapers and moving to social media, which hurt local news. According to the Digital News Report by Reuters and the University of Oxford, in Oxford, England, 39% of people over 35 use a news site via an app or browser to get their news in the morning, while 43% of people age 25-24 and 57% of people age 18-24 get their news via social media and messaging apps, not news sites.
“There’s clearly something that’s working [in social media], namely the brevity, the organization, the kind of keeping everything in one place,” Wiener said. “And making a way for local news to move into that world in a format that we feel is really more … than just repurposing articles.”
Junior Jordan Broking is in the innovation class and reported for Forth this semester. She said she liked the real-world experience of working with the startup and enjoyed having the ability to combine text, images and videos in her stories which cannot always be done in traditional print or broadcast news.
“This entire process of helping [Wiener] out, seeing what he wants to do with this startup helps us grow as journalists,” Broking said. “So that’s really the really cool part about this entire process and everything, being part of this startup.”
Frisch said journalism innovation does not always need to have huge investors; instead she said communities need credible information from reporters who are a part of the community to build trust with readers.
“We’ve seen that Facebook has kind of taken that over,” Frisch said. “And there’s a lot of misinformation that comes out when you don’t have community news. Everybody’s kind of on social [media] arguing these national ideological arguments, where in community reporting, at a very basic level, you’re telling the stories of the people who live there, the good news, the challenging news, all of it.”
The students focus on local stories and Broking said reporting locally from a community increases the trust people reading the news have in journalists.
“A corporate market or paper … [is] not going to be as trusted as the community journalist,” Broking said. The major outlet reporter might be seen as someone trying to get clicks or views on his or her own story, when in reality a community journalist is actually … getting to know the people that are in the community.”
Junior Andrés Rendon also reports for Forth about housing policies in Ithaca. He wrote about the impact of a bill, the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, which is in committee in the New York state legislature and could impact how tenant organizations in Ithaca manage properties. He said he thinks the app is innovative and allows journalists more freedom to post information as events unfold.
“The ability to just go on your phone, give a live update, and follow up on that story, I think is very modern,” Rendon said. “We always need journalism and I think with this particular way of providing live updates from local journalists in local communities, I think that very much is needed.”
The app also has a website and has reporters in Ithaca and the Upper East Side of New York City. Wiener said the app is still being tested, but he said he hopes to never stop testing new things to improve the app. He said the students reporting for Forth have helped figure out what doesn’t work with the app.
“From a technical perspective, I have a series of bug reports that [students] have given me just from trying things out and saying ‘Hey, this doesn’t work,’” Wiener said. “It’s also interesting to see what kind of stories they’re choosing to do, and how they’re telling it … all of that is really helpful in figuring out kind of how we move forward.”
Wiener said one of the biggest distinctions between Forth and apps like Twitter is that the public is not allowed to post. Only reporters who have been vetted and abide by an editorial policy, can write stories. The policy says as a reporting partner, reporters must pursue the truth and present information in an unbiased way and lists acts that can lead to suspension or removal like deliberately spreading misinformation or plagiarizing. He said he hopes this will make the app more trustworthy and stop the spread of disinformation. He said this also means that unlike other social media, there is no incentivizing click through or “click bait” — deceptive or misleading, sensationalized text or images to get readers to click links and articles online.
“[Clickbait] is what causes kind of the lowest common denominator coverage because publishers have to really get you to click through in order to ever be able to monetize that visit,” Wiener said. “So what we’re trying to do is align the incentives … so that we all benefit when people are on the app.”
Wiener said in the last month the site had 1,400 users over the course of 3,400 sessions, which means users are returning back to the app. He explained that the name Forth has many meanings and interpretations which is one of the reasons they went with the name. He said Forth can be a play on the term “fourth estate” which Merriam-Webster defines as a term used to describe news media as playing an indirect but critical role in politics by being a watchdog. He also said it can be associated with the word forthcoming and the idea of going forth.
Frisch said the class broadens students’ ideas of what avenues there are in the field of journalism. She said sometimes people only think of big market journalists who are very well known, but she wants students to know good journalism is also being created at a smaller scale which is just as important.
“I think some students would like more options with their journalism degree,” Frisch said. “If we think about the different ways of delivering news, combined with different ways of funding news, then that leaves students with a more expansive idea of what’s possible for them as journalists, and I see that as being really positive.”
Rendon said he enjoyed being a part of a startup this semester and hopes to continue his work with Forth.
“This is something really cool,” Andrés said. “People don’t really get to say that they have the opportunity to work with a startup and be there from day one. … Part of our ideas are being taken into consideration … and I’d definitely love to stick with Forth as much as I can.”