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 and, out of KWCH
Wichita (see “Market Eye,”), and KYTV Springfield’s, 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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