In case you missed this, Arizona State University’s (ASU) Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication recently won a prestigious innovation award from the National Association of Broadcasters Education Foundation (NABEF) for student-designed virtual reality (VR) apps that explore the US-Mexico border. [Ref 1] The Cronkite School’s New Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab is the recipient of NABEF’s Excellence in Innovative Technology Award, which honors students who are driving innovation in the media industry.
NABEF recognized the ASU students for their Cronkite News and Cronkite Border VR apps that utilizes VR and 360-degree video documentary storytelling to give people a sense of life on the border. ASU students will receive the award in November 2016 at the NAB Conference in New York City. Retha Hill is professor of practice and director of the New Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab. She is also the subject of this her-story.
Retha joined the Cronkite School in fall 2007. She is also the owner of Painted Desert Media, LLC, a Phoenix based media consulting company with locations in Washington, DC. Needless to say she keeps a busy and interesting schedule. She did not always live in Phoenix either, so let’s do a roll-back and start at the beginning.
A native of Detroit, Retha became interested in world events as a teen and began writing for her high school and some of the local community newspapers. As she progressed through high school, college and a career in journalism and communication evolved as future pursuits. She selected Wayne State University (WSU) for her undergraduate education primarily because it is nestled in an urban setting.
As fate would have it, the City of Detroit also happened to be the locale that she was most familiar with. Why was the location of her future alma mater important back then? The short answer is because news doesn’t take a break when we do and happens 24/7. The South End newspaper of WSU still has a great reputation and, in many ways, has been the alternative newspaper for the residents of Detroit since the 1960s.
Equipped with her communication degree from WSU, Retha joined the Detroit Free Press as an editorial assistant. She filled in when reporters were out sick or on vacation, however, her primary responsibilities involved writing the feature obituaries – an assignment that allowed her to develop very detailed research skills.
Retha acknowledges that it was her research skills that helped her land the next assignment at the Charlotte Observer. Shortly after joining the political team at the Observer, she uncovered a huge secret by sifting through obits and other information. A week later she got a call from The Washington Post. Rummaging through the lives of deceased persons may not be the most palatable topic to discuss, however, the information that can be retrieved thorough research and data mining can produce some rich rewards. “It was these research skills,” Retha says, “that led to my job at the Washington Post years later.”
Retha became a Metro reporter at The Washington Post in 1987. During her tenure as a reporter with this leading newspaper she was named as a Freedom Forum fellow for 1992-1993. In this role, she created and ran a program to improve high school journalism in the District of Columbia Public School System.
Her next move within the Washington Post organization was to the online division in April 1995 as the Metro Editor. Her duties in this position included supervising all of the local content development and staff. Later, she was promoted to executive producer for special projects at Washingtonpost.com. In this new role she specialized in creating new content products. Previously, she was responsible for long-range planning for the web site’s Arts and Entertainment coverage. She joined the Washington Post web site as content developer for the site’s first local portal. In that capacity she oversaw all local coverage, including:
- the Metro Section
- the Community Pages
- the Federal Community
- CollegePost (a webzine for the area’s college students), and
- Local Arts and Entertainment.
After eight years with the Washington Post, Retha was named chief editorial officer of BET.com and vice president for content development for BET Interactive where she was the executive in charge of content strategy, convergence and integration for the BET Network. During her time with BET.com, Retha was an adjunct professor of journalism in the graduate school of the University of Maryland at College Park from 2002 to 2006.
Her move to ASU in Tempe commenced a new chapter in her professional career. Stated earlier, Hill is the executive director of ASU’s New Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The Lab’s journalism and computer science majors create innovative products, including web applications, social media tools and mobile apps for media clients. On the entrepreneurship side of the Lab, students create their own media companies and products.
She is a 2010 Knight News Challenge winner for creating SeedSpeak, a platform for location-based collaboration, and a 2010 J-Lab Women Entrepreneurs grant winner for a mobile app that uses augmented reality to find black history in cities across the country. Retha is also a 2012 AEJMC/Knight Innovations Award grant winner. I’d be remiss if I did not share that in 2012 she received her MA degree with honors from ASU.
In 2015, Retha won a Knight Prototype Grant to develop the Playable Media Story Engine, which allows journalists to create narrative news games without having to know how to code. She is also a Fellow for the ASU Center for Games and Impact where she is helping to develop news game modules for the news industry.
The above resume is an impressive and dizzying list of accomplishments for a true trailblazer in her field. One thing that is apparent in reading Retha’s resume is that she worked in journalism and communications as these business sectors began transitioning from old to new media.
Question: Can you share with my readers how you successfully made a career shift from old to new media?
Answer: In 1993 I really got interested in the online world. There wasn’t much going on outside of Prodigy (one of the first online subscription services) and a few others. But I knew that the internet would change everything for those of us in media. I got an opportunity to switch from the Washington Post’s newsroom to the new online section, Digital Ink, in April 1995. A few days later, the Oklahoma City bombing took place and online media changed! Digital Ink and other online publications had to learn how to do breaking news, multimedia storytelling and interactivity almost overnight!
As the local editor, my producers and I kept the conversation going about what was happening in the nation’s capital. Over the years, my job changed as I spent less time reporting news and producing and more time managing the creation of multimedia content — such as the first interactive map for the Washington, DC metro system and working with the business side on creating new content that would be different from the Post’s newspaper division. One of the things I discovered is that I loved product development.
At BET, as vice president for content development, I got to use those skills at a whole new level — creating BET.com from scratch. That included hiring the staff, picking out the furniture, writing the first legal contracts and, of course, setting the editorial direction of the site. BET.com won several major awards based on our first few months out of this new gate. We took all sorts of chances to try new things. The risks and rewards at BET came as a result of my time spent at Washingtonpost.com, where the online site was allowed to be more experimental.
My career blossomed in the online community because it was wide open and I loved being able to use both sides of my brain, the creative and the analytical sides. I do that still at Cronkite. My lab students and I created all kinds of new products, but we also think of the entrepreneurial ecosystem. We create student-run startups, many of which have become successful, and new products that we hope will give people information they need in a format that makes sense. I love working with colleagues across the university and collaborating with other pioneers around the world.
Other Honors and Awards: She is active in journalism and media organizations including the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Association of Minority Media Executives. She is a frequent guest speaker at journalism conferences and schools, including: the Nieman Foundation Program at Harvard University, the Online News Association, the Poynter Institute, the American Press Institute, the Freedom Forum and the National Press Club. Media appearances include the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Post, Reuters News Service, Bloomberg News Service, Essence Magazine, Black Enterprise Magazine and CBS Radio.
In addition to the above honors and awards, she is a 1999 McCormick Management Fellow. In 2007, Retha was named New Media Catalyst by the National Association of Minority Media Executives.
- ASU’s Cronkite School wins innovation award for virtual reality apps, August 5, 2016, https://asunow.asu.edu/20160805-asus-cronkite-school-wins-innovation-award-virtual-reality-apps