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ASU professor Retha Hill looks for innovation through students

All it took was reading a magazine article on how the Internet was going to change the path of journalism to ignite professor Retha Hill's passion for innovation in digital journalism.

“To say I love online is an understatement,” Hill said. “I think it’s endlessly fascinating.”

Hill began her career as a reporter in her hometown at the Detroit Free Press. She went on to eventually immersing herself in online media at The Washington Post and later launched the digital platform for Black Entertainment Television. Hill is now leading students at ASU.

Hill is the executive director of the New Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at ASU and joined the faculty in 2007.

Before becoming a professor, Hill was the executive director of special projects for The Washington Post’s website when it launched on the Web.

“In my position there, I was really trying to change the culture of the newspaper to help the paper understand what online was all about,” Hill said.

For Hill, online presents an opportunity for people to connect and interact with content in a way that isn’t available on traditional platforms.

“Online allows for multiple conversations, perspective and interaction,” Hill said.

Hill was a reporter for The Washington Post for eight years prior to focusing on the publication’s website. Before the launch of the web, Hill worked on the paper's digital arm, Digital Ink, which could be accessed on AT&T’s Interchange Online Network, a network where individuals could read information digitally including news articles.

As the metro editor of Digital Ink, Hill challenged herself to bring new content to readers who dialed into the network. One of the projects she worked on was the creation of the first online metro map of the Washington, D.C., metro system.

In 1999, Hill was offered a position as the vice president of content development for BET Interactive, the Black Entertainment Television’s online platform. When she started, she said all she had was an empty office.

“I had nothing ... no contracts, no people, no anything,” Hill said. “I made the contracts. I hired the people and created the website that within the first six months won all kinds of awards.”

Her extensive history working with digital media led her to the Cronkite school.

“Some people think that innovation just happens,” Hill said. “I believe that innovation can be taught and there’s a methodology to it.”

Students in Hill’s lab are working on projects including the development of a transit application for Valley Metro and an augmented reality application that will show what Downtown Phoenix will look like in the future.

On Feb. 19, Hill was recognized with the Louis R. Lautier Award for Career Achievement from Savannah State University in Georgia. During her time at the Southern Regional Press Institute at the university, Hill was able to interact with students and discuss the importance of innovation and entrepreneurship.

“Getting awards is nice, but I think my own reward is influencing those young people to be successful,” Hill said.

Journalism senior Domenico Nicosia is working on developing the transit app. Nicosia said he appreciates the time Hill takes to go above and beyond to push her students.

“The biggest thing about Retha is her drive,” Nicosia said. “Every day she motivates her students in a way that very few instructors can.”

Nicosia said Hill’s history with innovation inspires him to work hard because her level of professionalism pushes him to be the best. Not only that, he said Hill makes a huge effort to always keep the ideas students are developing in mind.

“She seems personally invested into each and every one of our projects,” he said. “She is so supportive you don’t want to let her down.”

Kristin Gilger, associate dean of the Cronkite School, said one of Hill’s most notable strengths is the relationships she builds with students.

“She values students’ opinions and she doesn’t dictate them,” Gilger said. “She tries to figure out what the student needs and formulates around that.”

Gilger said in addition to being a mentor to students she also brings an innovative value to the University.

“Retha is the kind of person that you can call up and say ‘I have this crazy idea’ and she will tell you that you aren’t crazy,” Gilger said.

Hill is looking forward to finding new ways to bring innovation to the media through her students.

“From the Internet perspective, what we are doing with media I would say we are like kindergarteners,” Hill said. “We aren’t babies, we aren’t toddlers, but we haven’t hit our strides in terms of what we can do as far as media.”

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