Schurz's Innovative Take on Innovation

Group gives old college try in search for next big thing in digital

While some local broadcast executives look at teens and wonder how the heck they will make content relevant to them, Schurz Communications’ brain trust is asking some of the nation’s best and brightest young people to point them to where mobile content is heading. After a successful rookie partnership with Notre Dame University, which saw Schurz fund cash prizes for students who created the best digital media solutions, Schurz is expanding the program to several other prestigious Midwestern universities.

Between those “innovation prizes” and an internal incubator known as Venture Fund, the company is positioning itself for the future. “These kids think differently,” said Kerry Oslund, Schurz VP of digital. “They’re unbridled. They’re thinking big. That’s really interesting to us.”

‘Venture’ Capital

Privately owned Schurz, based near South Bend, Ind. (home of Notre Dame), owns TV and radio stations, newspapers and cable systems. Venture Fund sets aside between $500,000- $900,000 yearly for staffers to come up with digital media solutions. The concept is to encourage innovation that does not drag down the individual station or newspaper’s bottom line. “We used to ask people to come up with good ideas, then we would come to town and ask why the station wasn’t more profitable,” said Marci Burdick, senior VP at Schurz. Since these initiatives typically show losses at first, Burdick explains, taking the financial hit out of the equation sparks creativity.

Venture Fund has hatched hits and misses. A South Bend lifestyle and entertainment site did not work. Niche sites CatchitKansas.com and FetchToto.com, out of KWCH Wichita (see “Market Eye,”), and KYTV Springfield’s OzarksSportsZone.com, have met or exceeded revenue and traffic forecasts. A mobile app, Huddle Up Notre Dame, sells for $3.99 in the iTunes store.

“We set aside money for projects that, without Venture Fund, would not be done because there’s too much risk,” said Oslund.

Pluck of the Irish

Late last year, Notre Dame students in a mobile computing class received cash prizes totaling $1,000 to $3,500 for their digital applications, ranging from a location-based photo-sharing app to another designed to pair readers with news stories that are of particular interest to them. (The students retain the intellectual property rights to their creations.) “You have taken problems that we think about all the time and really seen them in new ways,” Todd Schurz, president and CEO, told the students.

Schurz is expanding the Innovation Prizes—which come from a gift the company makes to the universities—to Indiana University, Purdue and Ball State. The aim is to overlay Schurz’s reach in dozens of markets with a killer digital app.

“We get exposure to new ideas in the very, very early stages,” said Oslund. “We’re introduced to the best and brightest faculty and students.”

Some of those kids may even end up working for Schurz. “At least they know what Schurz is before they go to the left or right coast,” said Oslund. “One person can add tens of millions of dollars in value to a company over the course of their career.”

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