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The News21 initiative had grand designs to provide fellowships to 44 bright journalism and political science graduate students, and have them create innovative, cutting edge — and sellable — work. In the first year, the Northwestern University fellows broke ground with a Flash-based story on Digital Data Trails and the UC Berkeley fellows had their work featured on a full hour of CNN. But in my exhaustive MediaShift report last year, I found that digital innovation was inconsistent and audience involvement was limited at all participating schools.

Now after its second year, the question was whether News21 had made progress in addressing those concerns. Right away, it’s easy to see that the site’s design and interactivity is much improved, with more interactive maps, information grids and tons of video on the overarching theme of religion. In many cases, the traditional objective journalism structure is replaced with a more personal tone and narrative, as with Deena Guzder’s eye-opening search for her Zoroastrian heritage in Iran.

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And interactive presentations often trumped text-based reports, as was the case with two popular projects, UC Berkeley’s Moral Compass, which shows what official religions think about sexual topics, and Medill’s One Vote Under God”:http://newsinitiative.org/story/2007/08/31/one_vote_under_god, a fantastic grid that shows the presidential candidates’ views on various religious topics.

News21 is part of the larger Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education, funded by the Carnegie Corporation and Knight Foundation to help revitalize journalism schools and the news business. Participating graduate schools include those at Northwestern University, University of California at Berkeley, University of Southern California, Columbia University, and Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

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Karla Bruning

Many News21 program fellows — and administrators — say they learned more about new media and interactivity during the program than they had in the rest of their journalism education and careers. Karla Bruning, a fellow at Columbia University, told me she was a “print dinosaur” with experience at Newsweek in reporting and some photography. “With News21, I learned to shoot video, edit in Avid and FinalCut Pro, learned how a broadcast piece can translate to the web, designed and built a Flash site, put together audio slide-shows — all the things I never did as a print writer,” she said via email.

Leonard Witt, communication chair at Kennesaw State University who blogs at PJNet, was critical of the News21 efforts last year, but was impressed with changes in the program this year. He especially liked the Faith Videos, a combination of student-shot and user-generated videos where people explain what role faith plays in their life.

“Everywhere I clicked the [‘Faith Videos’] linked me directly to yet another everyday person speaking,” Witt told me via email. “The elite voices were in short supply, and were not missed. Guzder’s search for her Zoroastrian roots in Iran was more blog than journalistic in nature. It was first person and conversational…If we could only hear these voices more often, and have constant cross-cultural communication, maybe we would have less war mongering and more peacemaking. Maybe, with deliberation and tough debate, we would discover our differences and similarities.”

But despite those improvements, there’s still the nagging problem of fellows trying to engage online communities in a subject — and then abandoning the project as they leave the program each fall. News21 national director Merrill Brown told me he brought in citizen journalism expert Dan Gillmor to teach students to develop story ideas with public input from the beginning, and that half the students started blogs for their projects.

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Merrill Brown

“[Audience involvement] is a hard concept but it’s an important concept,” Brown said. “How do you find people to engage with off a cold start? Maybe next year, we can find an existing community on that topic that the fellows can engage with. This year we might have picked in January five sites that have interesting communities around faith, and got involved with them then to use their platform to generate ideas.”

Innovation vs. MSM Placement

One constant refrain I heard from News21 administrators was that it was difficult trying to be innovative with journalism projects, and then also having to place that work to mainstream news organizations that expect a certain traditional news package.

“The more you concentrate on building something innovative, the harder it is to distribute it on mainstream media,” said Bob Calo, the News21 coordinator at UC Berkeley. “Last year, CNN broadcast a whole hour, but this year, it’s hard to place the data road trip video, these little vignettes. We have some interest from Newsweek.com and ABC has a webcast that’s interested. Innovation and big market distribution don’t come together easily. All this community and audience stuff takes work, takes time.”

Still, the projects have had distribution in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, CBC, KCET public TV in Los Angeles, plus an alliance with the religion hub BeliefNet is in the works, according to Merrill Brown. One Medill fellow, Matthew Streib, said he learned a lot from News21 but was upset at the lack of involvement by Medill’s administration and the lack of mainstream media placement for their stories.

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Matthew Streib

“The Medill administration was barely involved with News21, and we had no one actively shopping our stories, except for some PR firm in NYC we never heard from,” Streib said via email. “Meetings for shopping stories were held behind closed doors, almost as News21 was over, when it was way too late. I think our school’s work was just as good as the other schools’, but ours was the only one with nothing picked up.”

Merrill Brown said that News21 was in conversations with four national news organizations about Medill stories, and that their work was completed later than the other schools because of their quarter system. Streib’s disappointment is also indicative of an old-media mindset even by college students, who still want a major media byline over a popular blog or online story.

“There’s been this strange thing going on with journalism students which I find rather ironic,” said Judy Muller, News21 coordinator at USC. “They go to journalism schools because they want jobs, and the jobs they want are at the big newspapers, the network news, NPR. ‘Online, sure that’s fine but who’s going to see it?’ But now they’re beginning to get it, [and learn] that this is a better distribution model in the end. But seeing their name in the L.A. Times is a very heady thing for them. So they’re in transition too.”

The News21 program’s funders, the Knight Foundation and Carnegie Corporation, also have divergent goals, according to Don Lattin, a former San Francisco Chronicle religion reporter who helped run the News21 program at UC Berkeley. Lattin said that Knight was more interested in journalism innovation, while Carnegie wanted to teach journalists more subjects so they could become experts in more fields. Those two goals can come into conflict on a 10-week fellowship such as News21.

“The Knight people want innovation and the Carnegie folks want a diffusion of knowledge, and that’s a conflict right there,” Lattin told me. “It’s hard to be both innovative and grounded in tradition. It’s all one program. What interests Carnegie about the program is that the students take a class during the spring semester and that was my role [teaching at Berkeley]. Carnegie wants to producer smarter, more informed journalists. It was a challenge to do both.”

One thing that helped with innovation this year was the addition of teacher/advisors Dan Gillmor (citizen media and blogs) and Brian Storm (multimedia production), who went to campuses to help train the fellows and helped with follow-up questions during story production. Not only did the fellows rave about the multimedia and online training they got, but administrators such as Lattin and Muller got new-media religion as well. Lattin said he should have been paying for the program rather than being paid because of all he learned about online journalism. And Muller says she’s now a true believer in the online medium.

“Until I did News21 and was forced to do this, I didn’t get it,” Muller said. “A lot of people still don’t know how it’s going to work. The biggest mistake is thinking that it’s taking old media and putting it on the web. To understand it, we need a lot more instruction both in journalism schools and in newsrooms. As educators we realized we really need to get on top of this stuff…I’m a total convert. I think this will save our business. I would never have said that five years ago, I would have said the Internet is killing our business. [Now] I think it’s going to be fabulous.”

Key Problems to Solve Next Year

News21 is a three-year program, but the participating universities have said they will help fund it in future years, and Brown is fairly confident they’ll get more funding to extend the fellowships beyond next year. So if this year was an improvement over last year, how can News21 do even better with innovation, interactivity and audience involvement?

Many fellows complained to me about uneven technical resources, the restrictive content management system on the main News21 site, and more competition than collaboration among the schools involved. Kara Andrade was a News21 fellow at UC Berkeley and is now a multimedia intern at the San Jose Mercury News. Her project involved setting up a religious panel discussion within Second Life, including spiritual leaders both in-world from Second Life and from the outside world. Andrade had to get outside funding to help her pay rent on an island in Second Life, and told me that different schools had different types of support with their News21 projects.

“It was hard having all the schools so dispersed,” Andrade told me. “Columbia is really strong with Flash because they had the Flash guy out there. And we were strong on the CMS [content management system] because we had the developer here [at Berkeley]. There was an element of competitiveness among the schools because not everyone had the same resources. In an ideal world, everyone would have the same resources, the same Flash developer, etc. But that’s the way people build it at other newsrooms, so maybe it’s the way it should be.”

Another major problem is the temporary nature of each fellowship, and the difficulty in building an online community and then abandoning it. Last year, USC had to drop its citizen journalism site, ImmigrationOutpost.com, and this year, most of the class blogs and site comments will go cold with the fall semester.

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Moral Compass

“Once the Moral Compass was up it really got people interested and commenting,” Lattin said. “But there was no permanent staff to monitor everything and keep the discussion going. You can’t create an active community and then disappear. I don’t know how you get around that with a project like this.”

Right as the program ends in August, many of the stories are being picked up in mainstream media outlets and gaining their biggest audience, but there’s little follow-up or online interaction with that audience. Perhaps News21 can set up partnerships with mainstream news sites at the beginning of the school year and start forums or blogs to start the conversation early and get audience input throughout the program.

Leonard Witt, who was wowed by the change in tone and personal nature of many of this year’s projects, was also hopeful that the program could take the next step with audience involvement next year:

We need to get beyond just amplifying voices as this project did so well. We have to discover ways of getting these everyday people involved in the conversations with the journalists and among themselves. This project gets very close to that goal. It even provided a space for people to upload their own stories…

Last year I said, ‘The last thing that journalism schools need is more of the fortress mentality.’ So this year the students were pushed out of the physical fort and roamed the world in search of stories. Now they have to be pushed out of the mental fortress to find new ways to help us all share our stories, our similarities, our differences just as we would if each of us could walk the streets of Iran, India and the low income neighborhoods across town.

A Sampling of Standout News21 Reports

Columbia:

One in a Million — Hispanic Clergy in the Catholic Church

Interactive Map — Pilgrimage Through Iran

An Ancient Religion Endangered by the Iraq War

UC Berkeley:

Data Road Trip

Moral Compass

For These Muslims, Polygamy Is an Option

USC:

Magical Mystery Tour

Transcendental Meditation in Schools

The Yin and Yang of Positive Thinking

Medill:

One Vote Under God

The Holy Land Experience: Who Shall Inherit the Kingdom?

Obeying Allah Behind Bars

What do you think about News21? What were some of your favorite stories produced by the fellows? If you were involved with the program, what do you think worked and what could be improved? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo of Merrill Brown by JD Lasica.

Full Disclosure: PBS MediaShift has received a grant from the Knight Foundation to upgrade the blog and to launch an unannounced new site on PBS later this month. However, we will continue to report objectively on initiatives of the Knight Foundation — praising what is deserving of praise, and criticizing what deserves criticism.