Winning the ONA Challenge Fund Fosters Innovation in the J-School

Journalism professors Rachel Mourao (left) and Joe Grimm (right)

After a year and a half of experimentation, Journalism professors Rachel Mourao and Joe Grimm found the perfect way to shake up the School of Journalism’s curriculum— with the Online News Association (ONA) Challenge Fund

After viewing the projects of previous winners, Mourao and Grimm applied for the fund, inspired by the initiative’s goal to merge student learning with community engagement. Their project was selected along with the proposals of nine other universities nationwide.

The ONA Challenge Fund provides money for experimental projects that encourage innovative ideas and enhance journalism curriculum. The end goal is to improve the way communities receive information and interact with journalists. 

Next spring, Grimm and Mourao’s vision for ONA’s funding will come to life in their JRN 300 class, an intermediate course that aims to develop students’ reporting skills and cover community news

From the Classroom to the Community 

The inspiration for their project was found in Michigan’s Schools of Choice program. Every year, parents and students across the state have the option to apply to send their children to schools outside the districts they live in. 

“We were wondering about how those decisions were made and what is the effect of these hundreds of kitchen table decisions on the districts and their communities,” said Grimm. “It affects funding, and we wonder if it also affects the makeup of the districts.”

One of Grimm’s JRN 300 sections will focus on the Schools of Choice issue, with student reporters working closely with local families to discuss how these decisions are made. Mourao and Grimm hope that the reporting will provide a representative voice to the communities. 

Through ONA, the pair will partner with the Lansing State Journal and use the funding to purchase new equipment, technology training and class materials. The experimental curriculum will help students blossom into young reporters who are active in their communities— with high-quality, multi-platform portfolio work to show for it.  

“It's great to get an award that will go directly to the students,” Mourao said. “It’s a very holistic award where we do research, we teach our students and we engage with our communities. That’s the core of our mission in the School of Journalism.” 

By Rianna N. Middleton