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New media director wins entrepreneurship grant

July 06, 2010

Cronkite professor Retha Hill won a McCormick Foundation New Media Women Entrepreneurs grant to create a mobile application that enables users to learn about black history from their smart phones.

Hill’s project was one of four winners selected from 576 entries to receive $12,000 each from J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism. The competition is funded by the McCormick Foundation.

“The ambitious creativity of women media entrepreneurs shines brightly,” wrote Clark Bell, journalism program director for the McCormick Foundation. “The difficult part of this process is selecting four winners among the scores of worthy, viable new business ideas.”

News of the grant award came just two weeks after Hill, who is director of the New Media Innovation Lab at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, won a $90,000 Knight News Challenge grant from the Knight Foundation to develop a separate mobile application.

Under Hill’s leadership in the New Media Innovation Lab, students collaborate as journalists, computer scientists, cartographers, entrepreneurs and designers to create innovative new media products for the news industry.

Hill’s winning entry in the New Media Women Entrepreneurs contest, the Mobile Black History Project, is a free smart-phone application that will use augmented reality to enable users to access information about landmarks in black history from wherever they are.

For instance, a user in Washington could hold up their smart phone near the Lincoln Memorial and look through the camera lens to get information about the August 1963 March on Washington led by Martin Luther King Jr.

They also might learn about other bits of black history that occurred at or near the Lincoln Memorial, such as the 1939 concert on the steps of the memorial by Marian Anderson.

Users will be able to geolocate sites of black history up to 25 miles from their physical location. They also will be able to locate black-owned or -oriented restaurants, clubs, bookstores and other culturally significant places nearby.

“The Black History Mobile App project will help to bring African-American content into the mobile age,” Hill said. “This app will provide a valuable service to local news partners, tourism boards, residents of a particular city, and tourists who want to learn more or promote black historical events and places in those communities.”

Starting with locales in Washington, Hill plans to expand the tool to include sites in Philadelphia and other cities.

Just a few weeks ago, Hill was the co-recipient of a Knight News Challenge grant with Cronkite alumnus Cody Shotwell.

The two will use the funding to develop CitySeed, a mobile application enabling citizens to propose and collaborate on ways to better their communities.

CitySeed was one of 12 winning entries that received a total of $2.74 million in the most recent Knight News Challenge, which funds projects that use digital technologies to pioneer new methods of informing communities.

That project was the third Knight News Challenge grant associated with the Cronkite School.

The first was a $552,000 grant won in 2007 by Dean Christopher Callahan to found the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship.

Following that, two students in the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship won a $95,000 Knight News Challenge grant to launch CityCircles, a venture they developed in the lab. The Web and mobile platform aggregates information and conversations around each stop of the Phoenix light rail.

Before joining the Cronkite School faculty, Hill was vice president for content development for Black Entertainment Television’s Interactive division. Previously, Hill was a founding editor of and prior to that, a Washington Post reporter.

Hill is working on a book of fiction about Harriet Tubman and will blog about the Mobile Black History Project at