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WVU School of Journalism's mobile app signals change, opportunity for rural area

WVU School of Journalism's mobile app Tucked away in the mountains of West Virginia’s Potomac Highlands, Tucker County may seem an unlikely place for digital, and journalistic, innovation.

Don’t tell that to the students at West Virginia University’s P.I. Reed School of Journalism or the Parsons Advocate, which is the beneficiary of a new mobile application that represents much more than a technological advance or a chance to boost advertising sales.

In piloting the app with the Advocate, a weekly newspaper that serves the area, WVU hopes to create an economic opportunity for an entire community that may also serve as a model to help bolster the flagging newspaper industry.

The new technology comes to the Advocate courtesy of School of Journalism Assistant Professor Dana Coester, who is using a $200,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to lead an experiment in rural mobile media. The Ford grant will enable Coester and the School of Journalism to deploy the mobile app and research its impact on several rural communities throughout West Virginia.

The experiment is an extension of the West Virginia Uncovered multimedia training project. Uncovered, which began in 2008, is designed to help rural newspapers in West Virginia transition to the digital age. The project began with students and faculty training newspaper staff on how to produce multimedia and interactive content for their websites.

Coester’s mobile app project in Tucker County is focused on building mobile community through the use of the app with the goal of showcasing the county’s natural attractions such as Canaan Valley Resort State Park, Blackwater Falls State Park and Dolly Sods Wilderness to boost tourism dollars.

The app enables community members to promote their businesses and the area in general. Coester describes the initiative as a “leapfrog event,” meaning participants have been asked to work with the latest technology without first learning and mastering more basic processes.

“We have businesses who are participating in the app who don’t even have a smart phone,” Coester said, “so they can’t even look at the app and see how it works. But if I waited for all of the technology to be inplace, they would miss an opportunity to enter something early, be players and take advantage of what these tools and resources can do to make their community more competitive.

“They’re doing the hard work to bring mobile resources into their own community rather than have national brands bringing those resources to them.”

Advocate editor Kelly Stadelman said the timing is right for the partnership.

“I think the people of this community are ready for it,” she said. “You walk into the high school and it’s amazing how many kids have smart phones. All the tourists who come here have smart phones. The community has to be ready. If not, technology’s going to pass us by.”

Coester is eager to track the results of the app. She says it can be adopted by other rural communities and, depending on its degree of success, perhaps be used to infuse much-needed capital into newspapers worldwide.

“The big disruption in the journalism industry is the lack of an economic model: how does news get paid for?,” Coester said. “A lot of people are racing to deliver this kind of solution. “We think rural communities have just as much innovation to bring to this challenge as urban centers.”

George Cicci, a master’s candidate in the school’s Integrated Marketing Communications program designed the app as part of his research and graduate work.

“Cicci represents the rare new breed of journalist/programmer who is able to approach the programming challenge with a key perspective that integrates content, audience and user behavior,” Coester said.

As the project moves forward, advertising seniors Ethan Messineo, Jessica Chambers and Alexandra Ziegler will visit Tucker County this spring to work with the businesses and help them develop mobile strategies.

To access the Parsons Advocate mobile app, visit