Finding treasures off the beaten path

Knight Fellows can pick from a whole range of classes at Stanford. But choosing which ones to attend is an exercise in editing — so much great stuff, but only so much time and space in a weekly schedule.

As I perused the winter quarter lineup, one class caught my eye: “The Future of the Automobile.” It’s offered through Mechanical Engineering at Stanford’s Institute of Design, the “d.school,” as part of a new program called CARS (Center for Automotive Research at Stanford): “Guest speakers from academia and industry present their research results, share their visions, explain challenges, and offer solutions regarding individual transportation.”

Ah, I reasoned, another industry facing reinvention; perhaps there are lessons for journalism. (Besides, no technical background was required, just an interest in cars, which I had acquired through my sons’ various car projects in high school.)

The class quickly became one of my favorites because of the focus on addressing industry challenges with creative solutions. Like the news industry, the automotive industry historically has been extremely slow to change, but faces the need to try new solutions on a much speedier timetable. Carmakers, too, have various customer segments and evolving customer needs. Both industries are desperately trying to find the most appropriate use of emerging technologies, including mobile platforms.

It was a guest lecture on mobile technology in cars that sparked an idea related to my Fellowship project, in which I am exploring ways to repurpose archival newspaper content as a revenue source on mobile platforms. I contacted the lecturer, and we began a discussion on how news organizations might be able to share appropriate content for an automotive mobile platform.

This discussion may cruise along, or it may take a turn and discover a new route. What matters most is taking a chance on something when you have only an inkling of how it might be worthwhile. I’d advise others to think broadly and be open to exploring an unusual topic.

In fact, I found it helpful to simply type a word or phrase into the online course catalog search field and see what popped up. For example, typing “future” or “archive” or something related to my general interests gave me a range of classes to consider from a range of departments. (How else to discover that Stanford has an automotive program?)

Landing in the CARS class has turned into a fun and interesting ride. I’m already looking at car-related courses for next quarter, this time through the Art History Department. You never know!