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During the slow news week of Thanksgiving, two articles about the shortcomings of the National Transportation Safety Board were published on the websites of Fox News and the Capital Gazette of Annapolis, Maryland. On the busiest travel week of the year, their story selections would be unsurprising were it not for their provenance. Both were written over three months earlier by students taking part in News21, an immersive journalism education program.

So what exactly is News21? The program’s full title is “News for the 21st Century: Incubators of New Ideas” and it is part of a three-pronged journalism education initiative of the Carnegie Corporation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The incubators referred to in the name of the program are high tech newsrooms, which for 10 weeks each summer are hosted by some of the journalism schools participating in the project. These temporary bureaus have been working to produce not only original reporting, but also a fundamental shift in the way journalism is taught and practiced.

Those are lofty goals for a summer program, but there’s evidence News21 is making progress toward achieving them. To chart News21’s progress and challenges, I spoke with students who had recently gone through the program as well as administrators both past and present. While the student reporting has been solid and has received distribution in mainstream media outlets, there’s still room for improvement in community involvement, continuity over the years and innovative forms of journalism.

(Disclosure: News21 has been a sponsor of MediaShift in the past.)

The Foundations

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Merrill Brown

First, a bit of history. From 2006 until 2008, News21 had “kind of an ad hoc home” at the University of California-Berkeley, according to News21’s former national director Merrill Brown. He coordinated 44 fellows from UC-Berkeley, Columbia University, Northwestern University, the University of Southern California (USC) and Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. All but Harvard hosted their own incubators. Each summer the schools used their combined journalistic firepower to cover a broad American issue: Liberty vs. security in 2006, religion in the following year, and finally the 2008 elections.

The program gained great exposure in its first year when CNN devoted a full hour of “Anderson Cooper 360” to the reporting by the UC-Berkeley students, who examined the personal lives of U.S. troops on peacekeeping missions around the world. By the second year, it was also producing informative and innovative storytelling tools like this still useful Moral Compass, which allows users to quickly compare the answers that nine different religions have for common questions of morality.

Inevitably, there was overlap between the topic areas chosen by the different incubators. When PBS MediaShift executive editor Mark Glaser reported on News21 in the fall of 2007, many fellows complained to him that their newsrooms featured “more competition than collaboration among the schools involved” for stories and resources.

The Additions

A more wide-angle focus for the project in 2009, Changing America, seems to have reduced intra-school rivalry. Although a new grant from the Carnegie-Knight initiative in 2009 added incubators at Syracuse University, University of North Carolina, University of Maryland, and Arizona State University (ASU) to the mix, the umbrella theme for summer was so broad that it would have been unlikely for the eight bureaus to step on one anothers’ toes. (The universities of Missouri, Nebraska, and Texas at Austin also joined as associate schools like Harvard.)

The renewed grant included funding to hire a three-person administrative team for the program, now based full-time out of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at ASU. During the summer, News21 national director Jody Brannon travels the country to ensure the increasingly decentralized incubators have the digital tools and editorial guidance they need to produce top-notch journalism. In addition to helping alleviate the perceived resource crunch, Brannon helped organize the launch of a second newsroom at ASU in 2010.

This new national incubator is probably the most important addition to News21 since its inception. Having drawn one top student from each of the 12 member schools, it is News21’s most diverse incubator by composition. The focus of the newsroom is also nationwide. Last summer, News21 fellows collaborated with two data specialists from the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) in Washington, D.C., to examine sprawling databases from the National Transportation and Safety Board.

Inside the National Incubator

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Kristin Gilger

When the new incubator opened for business, management of the project was split between two highly experienced editors. Kristin Gilger, an associate dean at ASU’s Cronkite J-school, was essentially the managing editor of the national project and worked closely with the fellows in Tempe.

“I did the first thorough 14th edits — or however many it took — on all the stories,” Gilger said, only partially kidding.

In addition to Gilger, final copy was reviewed by Leonard Downie Jr., a professor at Cronkite and former longtime executive editor at the Washington Post. Downie was also in contact with CPI and the Post, where some of the team’s work would be published.

The Post ran four News21 articles on transportation safety during the last week of September. The newspaper’s website linked to additional reporting from the national incubator on the landing page for the series, Traveling Dangerously in America. In the same week, MSNBC.com ran another four stories on trucking and aviation safety, which Gilger said, “prompted huge conversations online.”

Commenting on the accomplishments of the national incubator, Christopher Callahan, the founding dean of the Cronkite School at ASU, described it as “the formula for success…The work of those 11 students had more distribution than the work of the entire News21 program in its history combined.”

And like all News21 content, the 23 stories produced by the national project are freely available to any interested publication. Speaking with Gilger before the holiday, she was keen to point out that, in addition to it being great investigative reporting, most of the national project’s output was “fairly evergreen.” Her observation is anecdotally supported by the clips from Thanksgiving weekend. Both were drawn from the archives of the “Traveling Dangerously” series.

Innovate or Investigate?

Those two text-heavy stories embody the challenge at the heart of News21: The program seeks the widest possible exposure possible for its students, but it is also focused on fostering innovation. With a deep investigative project like the one undertaken by the national incubator, there was just not much scope for innovative storytelling.

This reliance on text-based reporting is also partly due to the fact that it is much harder to get innovative projects published in national news outlets.

“Breaking a story or breaking new ground on a story is way easier to get attention for than analytical, feature-y work,” said Brown, the program’s founding director. “One of the ambiguities that people involved in the program have [to deal with is] we all know that investigative journalism is hard to do and when you do it well you get attention for it. The stuff that’s deeper, richer, more multimedia is harder to get the larger media to pick up on it, see it for what it is, and distribute it. That’s one of the balancing acts the program has.”

His successor is aware of the challenges this dual focus poses.

“Our mission is to do innovative and investigative journalism. It is difficult for a single project to be both,” said Brannon, the current national director. “Those are both measures of success.”

No Time To Reinvent the Wheel

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Andrew Paley

Groundbreaking investigations or cutting edge innovations would both be better served by more preparation for the intense summer program. Whether, like in the national incubator the work began in the spring, or, as was the case at Medill where student Andrew Paley said they had only a “handful of meetings” before the summer, all the fellows I spoke with felt News21 would work better with more lead time.

The Medill incubator made great strides in soliciting audience feedback — something previous iterations of News21 lacked — but these efforts were hampered by time constraints. Talking about how his team elicited 300-word blog posts from Latino community leaders, Paley said, “that’s one of the things we really hit our stride on six weeks in. It’s probably something we would have explored more,” had they begun engaging with the community sooner.

In place of staging preparatory sessions during the school year, administrators could also save students time for reporting by making the website design process more streamlined. As it stands, some five years’ worth of project websites are currently scattered about the web, loosely connected by various iterations of the News21 host site.

“I’m quite interested in visualization and ways to tell stories that are non-traditional and scalable,” Paley said.

Sustained Focus in the Future?

News21 administrators often steer the program in an entirely different direction each year. Which raises the question: What happens to all the leads and issues that were exposed but left unexplored?

“We hoped at the beginning that there would be a way to institutionalize things far more than we were then,” Brown said. “It would be really good for more and more experimentation to take place in all 12 months so that the coverage doesn’t die with the start of the new school year. These schools could really become mini-ProPublicas, where the faculty and students are engaged in covering a topic quasi-permanently.”

By way of example, Brown suggested Columbia could cover Wall Street while USC could stay on issues related to immigration and borders. The stories they produced could then be available to newspapers and television stations for nationwide syndication. “That was one of the things we dreamed of. And maybe we’ll get to that sooner or later,” he said.

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Christopher Callahan

The program’s administrators are likely considering that among many other possible models for the future of News21 at their next bi-annual meeting. As ASU’s Callahan told me, because the Carnegie-Knight grant only runs through the end of the summer of 2011, it will be “the last year of News21 in its current configuration.” And for the next grant period, “there is literally nothing that’s not on the table.”

“Could I foresee New21 growing over time where you have multiple projects throughout the year?” he asked. Not next year, Callahan said, but “could I see it down the road? Yeah, I could.” Echoing Merrill Brown, Callahan went on to say, “I think the analogy would be more like a ProPublica or Center for Public Integrity: A project-oriented multimedia site.”

News21 has already come a long way since its founding under Brown and it appears to be moving in the right direction with Callahan, Gilger, Brannon and Downie. The new leadership still has a number of issues to address, namely the balance between investigation and innovation, and the continuity of design and focus. But if they do, the quality of reporting from News21 incubators and innovations to journalism they have produced will likely continue to improve.

Corbin Hiar is the DC-based associate editor at MediaShift and climate blogger for UN Dispatch and the Huffington Post. He is a regular contributor to More Intelligent Life, an online arts and culture publication of the Economist Group, and has also written about environmental issues on Economist.com and the website of The New Republic. Before Corbin moved to the Capital to join the Ben Bagdikian Fellowship Program at Mother Jones, he worked a web internship at The Nation in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @CorbinHiar.

Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by the USC Annenberg nine-month M.A. in Specialized Journalism. USC’s highly customized degree programs are tailored to the experienced journalist and gifted amateur. Learn more about how USC Annenberg is immersed in tomorrow.

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