Among seemingly endless reports, studies and speculations that have almost unanimously heralded the death of the newspaper, the Columbia Journalism Review’s recent study stands out as both incisive and constructive for its detailed summation of the conditions that have caused our current media “crisis,” and also for its outlining of possible solutions.
In the report, aptly titled “The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” Leonard Downie, Jr. and Michael Schudson, endorse a claim that we have made in previous blogs, that while some of the implications for the future of American journalism in the current financial and technological storm are downright scary, emerging energies and fresh ideas about news and news practice offer significant hope. As Downie and Schudson find,
Reporting is becoming more participatory and collaborative. The ranks of news gatherers now include not only newsroom staffers, but freelancers, university faculty members, students, and citizens. Financial support for reporting now comes not only from advertisers and subscribers, but also from foundations, individual philanthropists, academic and government budgets, special interests, and voluntary contributions from readers and viewers. There is increased competition among the different kinds of news gatherers, but there also is more cooperation, a willingness to share resources and reporting with former competitors. That increases the value and impact of the news they produce, and creates new identities for reporting while keeping old, familiar ones alive.
Around the same time that we began contributing to this blog, we were beginning a project here at Youngstown State centered on a collaborative news gathering model, a news service that partnered a public “working-class” university and its journalism students with a commercial newspaper and a public radio station.
Our goals for the project are ambitious:
* To provide students guided practical experience with reporting and producing news stories
* To provide students who might not be able to afford non-paid internships a chance to earn internship-level experience
* To help media organizations acquire content that they would not ordinarily be compelled to obtain and to act as an intermediary resource for collaboration amongst competing media
* To produce research to study media collaboration and content decisions.
We started with the idea that journalism students need both theory and guided practice. Unlike traditional internships where students often leave their communities, our students gain hands-on experience in the local area. Because they becme immersed in the urban community that surrounds the university—a relationship that is rarely cultivated by our largely suburban commuter student population—student reporters learned that the plight of the city so often reviled by suburbanites and slighted by the profit-driven media is an inextricable part of the region they call home.
Media professionals from our two partner organizations, The Vindicator and WYSU-FM, joined us in the classrooms frequently during the semester and worked one-on-one with students. In class sessions in The Vindicator newsroom, news service students presented their work, talking with us and newspaper editors about possible story directions and generally immersing themselves in the newsroom and city culture. A WYSU-FM manager spent several hours each week working with students in the radio production lab, helping them to produce their stories and gain a deeper understanding of what makes good public radio. With one semester completed, it is still too soon to judge the overall success of the endeavor, but based on what we’ve seen so far, we think the news service model has merit.
Most of the stories that our students are reporting deal with issues of importance to those who live in or precariously close to urban poverty — the scarcity of fresh, healthy food in most neighborhood stores, or the challenges of public transportation in a city where many of the most basic goods and services have migrated beyond the walkable core neighborhoods into the sprawling suburbs.
Many of these issues have been slighted by the local mainstream media as they increasingly cater content toward their suburban clientele, and we believe that this news project, while small in scope, may yield results that will be of interest to media managers who make content decisions. Our operating premise is that traditional media may actually benefit by running such stories, which may attract new readers, and that with collaboration comes a unique opportunity to inform, enlighten, and ultimately encourage social responsibility.
In addition, our students are learning how to draw upon one another’s strengths. For example, by working with a grandmother with deep roots in the city community, a young male student who commutes from the suburbs gained access to people and resources that might otherwise have remained untapped and under-represented; two other students got clearer perspectives on the complexities of school funding and performance by visiting and comparing a drastically under-achieving city school with a high performing suburban one located only a few miles away, while still another pair of students chronicled a neighborhood’s efforts to reverse the crime and economic despair that has been plaguing it for decades. These stories address important issues and trends in the community that entrenched local media, suffering from the same economic challenges plaguing all traditional media, might not have covered.
Even when the story “hook” is not specifically about a problem or an issue, we are encouraging students to be curious about and attuned to the lives and stories of the members of our predominantly working-class community. For example, a recent radio report builds on our earlier Worker Portraits project with a profile of a man who has spent most of his working life as a gravedigger.
We are excited about the long-range possibilities of the news service, because it strengthens our students’ reporting abilities, helps bolster local media, and most of all, gives all of us a chance to experiment with media collaboration and different types of content. These values are essential to the mission of a strong university journalism program, and they encourage the local media be more responsive to the information needs of those who are not well-served by traditional media, including the working class.
Tim Francisco and Alyssa Lenhoff