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Neon Tommy – Q&A with Founder Marc Cooper

Marc Cooper will be the keynote speaker at the two-day J-Lab seminar “New News Labs: Exploring University News Start-Ups” (#jnewslab), June 1-2 in Washington, D.C.

Cooper is the digital news director at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. He founded Neon Tommy, a student-run news site that provides a hands-on news reporting and writing experience while serving up a range of web-only content.  A staff of 15 student editors creates and curates stories on topics from news to sports to opinion for the site, which attracts 270,000 page views a month.

Neon Tommy is among more than a dozen USC Annenberg learning labs, projects and research centers.

J-Lab: What was the genesis of Neon Tommy?

Marc Cooper: It was born sort of accidentally with little planning. The journalism school had no dedicated outlet. We began with very, very modest expectations and just sort of grew.

What has been the reception to the site by students writing for it? Does it take some hard selling to recruit student reporters, or do they find it a natural fit with their digital-media expectations?

It’s a very easy sell. We have more students than we can handle.  Simply put, we let people concentrate on what they are interested in so it’s very attractive to them. With a wide readership and broad content, it allows students to start building a brand and a following while still in school.

Obstacles to start-up?

Money! Moving into uncharted territory. A desire to depart from the usual models. 

How do you measure Neon Tommy’s success?

We measure it by levels of student involvement and their professional growth; by viewership; by impact in the journalistic community.

Has the site expanded much since launch? If so, in what way?

We have gone from producing 20 pieces of content per week to 30 or more per day. Our average daily page views went from 1,000 a day to 8,000 to 10,000.

If you could change a policy in how university news outlets operate, what would you change?

I would make it mandatory that all content produced in classes be aimed for publication. No busywork. No articles in teachers’ drawers. No dead video on audition reels.

Any advice for other journalism schools or communications departments that want to start their own university-based community newsrooms?

In short, experiment beyond hyperlocal. Understand that the dividing line between original content and curated content is artificial. The standard that should be employed in one of adding value to a story whether or not content is original or curated.


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