“So what is it exactly that you do?” That’s a common question that we get asked in the Reese News Lab. But if you talked with each of the people who works here, you’d get a different answer.

That question really came to a head during the week of July 4, when we began going through the IRB process. The questions became: “Are you journalists? Are you researchers? Are you business people?” The answer to those questions was, “To some degree, all of the above, because journalism is becoming a mix of all of these things.”

It’s a gray area. And as an experimental lab, our purpose is to find that gray area and thrive there.

To explain, IRB stands for the Institutional Review Board. All University research projects go through an IRB process to establish that they are not putting their subjects at risk or violating the ethical codes of research. Going through the process taught us what we needed to know about the ethics of our project and forced us to ask hard questions.

We had never had to complete such protocol before as journalists, because journalistic projects do not fall under the realm of IRB. But the Summer Startup project isn’t pure journalism.

It also does not fall into the other categories of IRB.

It can’t be defined as a “professional product,” in IRB language, a product that is being produced for commercial use, or solely as a research project. Despite the teaching element of the Summer Startup, it is not solely an educational experience, because students are paid to work here this summer and are not being taught a traditional sense.

Because the project resides in this gray area, completing the IRB exemption process forced those of us in the lab to answer the question: “How do we define ourselves?”

This was an especially hard question to answer because of the way in which the lab is structured. Under the umbrella of Reese News Lab, there are multiple projects. Our basement office in Carroll Hall houses the Summer Startup team, which is divided into NewsLing and Capitol Hound, as well as the STEMwire team.

All three projects are incredibly different, but at the same time we are all learning from each other. Executive Director John Clark and Senior Producer Sara Peach oversee all of the projects by asking questions that we have not thought of and directing us. But while they are teaching us, they are also learning from us. This happens as they learn from the way that we fulfill the goals that we set for ourselves, thus teaching them how to better teach these skills in the future. We also reflect and explain what we learned in our weekly Lab Reports – such as this one.

Because of the complex flow of learning going on in the newsroom, here is a concept map of how we learn in the Reese News Lab.

Leadership - Reese News Lab

In addition to this map, some of our biggest learning experiences of the summer have been through our guest speakers. Their professions have ranged from venture capitalists and media professionals to the dean of the journalism school and the executive director of entrepreneurship of the Kenan-Flagler business school. However, we do more than listen to these guest speakers. One person from each team has presented our pitch for our product to each guest as well as to tour groups who often wander in. These experiences have provided us with valuable feedback about questions we need to answer and ways that we can improve our presentation.

It is because of this process that it was so hard to define ourselves, especially in the terms of IRB. We are not only doing research on how users use each of our products, but we are also taking notes on how we are collecting this research. At the same time, John and Sara are learning from how they taught us how to do research.

To be clear, when we are talking about doing “research,” this is not to say we are doing research in a traditional sense. We are not moving toward publishing a report in an academic journal. Instead, we are gathering facts and qualitative data that inform the projects that we are working on, as well as how we will work on projects in the future.

While this all sounds confusing, the future of journalism lies in working on all of these levels.

To say it more simply, we are learning by doing.

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