Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.
In June 2006, I published “On Behalf of Journalism: A Manifesto for Change.” It examined nine propositions likely to have an effect on the future of journalism, and culminated in a number of recommendations. They focused on the role of corporations, the rise of not-for-profit media, the responsibilities of journalists, the role of government and of the public, and what was called (rather lamely, it seems in retrospect) “new forms of media.”
Over the ensuing years, I have reexamined the Manifesto in light of the fast-moving changes in media and — most recently — with an eye toward what it might offer journalism education. (You can read my latest version of by downloading this PDF. The 2008 version is also available here in PDF.)
In pondering this new application for the Manifesto, I am struck by how powerfully two of its themes in particular resound in the world of journalism education. First, as legacy media are hollowed out by the collapse of their economic model, educational institutions are playing a far more powerful role in helping to meet the information needs of the public.
Second, the journalism academy is a key player in the search for new economic models for journalism. A myriad of new economic possibilities has appeared, from micropayments, pay walls and search-related advertising to methods that enable news consumers to opt-in to pay.
A Greater Role for Non-profits
Perhaps the most striking change for journalism schools is the degree to which we have shifted from being learning labs whose actual journalism (if any) was limited in its distribution and impact, to being significant — even major — media players in our communities. This is not to ignore substantial local news outlets such as at the Missouri School of Journalism, which has long operated in Columbia, Mo., on television, radio, newspaper and magazine platforms. Nonetheless, it is clear that in journalism schools across the United States major projects are increasingly making substantial contributions toward filling the holes left by the hollowing out of local “legacy” media.
In their October 19, 2009, report, “The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” Len Downie (former executive editor of the Washington Post) and scholar Michael Schudson cataloged numerous ways in which colleges and universities are contributing to independent local news reporting, from the southern Florida alliance of newspapers using work from Florida International University to Northeastern University students’ investigative reports appearing in the Boston Globe.
Similarly, the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism is a partner, along with the New York Times, in the Bay Citizen, whose content appears in the Bay Area edition of the Times. New York University’s collaboration with the New York Times, The Local – East Village, appears on the newspaper’s website and includes coverage of the university’s immediate neighborhood.
In a speech at our school, USC Annenberg, Schudson said that “more journalism schools are going into the business of actually producing journalism.” Our work mirrors several of the above-mentioned models. Neon Tommy, the voice of Annenberg Digital News, is our own web-based report, including content from classes (on science, for example, or religion) original work from the Neon Tommy staff (revealing swine flu deaths covered up by county officials) and collaborations with KPCC and with the Los Angeles Times in its Homicide Report, which focuses on documenting the lives of murder victims. Other projects have been completed in collaboration the Center for Investigative Reporting and California Watch, and appeared in the Los Angeles Times, KQED and newspapers across California.
Increased Role for Schools
So, a great deal of work is being done by journalism schools in meeting the public’s need for high quality information. But what are the particular contributions of the academy? We are seeking to answer that question, too, at USC Annenberg. For example, a project based in the city of Alhambra seeks to identify how a community incorporating different language groups can come together to solve civic challenges. The Alhambra Source is a community news website that aims to bolster civic engagement in measurable ways. Researchers, led by professor Sandra Ball-Rokeach, worked in Alhambra for two years before building a site tailored to the community’s specific information needs. Among the program’s goals is to build a model for local media outlets in ethnically diverse communities.
“Reproducing some of the journalism of the past is not necessarily a high value activity for J-schools,” said Donica Mensing, associate professor at the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno. “For this work to have value, the standards, organization, editing and networking of new models must be incorporated into the creation and distribution of the journalism. We owe it to students and to the health of the discipline to push for new skills and mindsets for the future, and avoid absorbing all energy into reproducing work we already know how to do.”
Interestingly, this increased role for journalism schools — providing more journalism to a public ever more in need of information in the public interest, while having a greater impact, more notice and more influence — raises its own questions for the university. How do you report “without fear or favor” from within an institution that emphasizes collegiality and must balance such contending interests as protecting student privacy, raising money and burnishing community relations? Independence is one of the central values of ethical reporting. Carving out that independence within the university will not come easily.
Economic Support for Journalism
News corporations have experienced substantial economic shock, with several newspaper companies in bankruptcy, many newspapers having folded, and the remaining ones undergoing round after round of severe cuts. Yet the need for those who provide the news to keep an eye primarily on the public interest has not gone away; rather, it has been distributed. There are now multitudes of news providers. How they do their work, and what principles they hold dear, continues to matter greatly.
This opens two interesting arenas for journalism schools. One is the need for research on new economic models to supplement — some would say replace — the models that have been collapsing as the barrier to publication has fallen and new ways of advertising have arisen. This is a center of significant activity in the journalism academy. The City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism has a New Business Models for News Project under the leadership of Jeff Jarvis that conducts experiments and research about revenue possibilities for news.
Similarly, Arizona State University’s Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship, directed by Dan Gillmor, seeks to teach ASU students entrepreneurial thinking and skills for the new media environment they’ll be entering.
At USC, our research and experimentation has led us in several directions. We joined with the Knight Foundation to bring to Los Angeles the Spot.us model born in the Bay Area, which seeks to test the notion of crowdfunded journalism. Another important part of the equation is foundation support. Annenberg’s Center on Health Reporting is funded entirely by the California HealthCare Foundation. Being part of a foundation-funded start-up provides invaluable experience in the challenges of protecting journalistic independence in this very different funding environment.
Moving from experimentation with new funding models to creating an environment of entrepreneurship for our students, we ran last summer a two-week, fellowship-supported experiment in collaboration with USC’s business and engineering schools, bringing together our own journalism students with students from those two disciplines to develop news applications for mobile phones.
Meanwhile, Annenberg has also launched an Innovation Lab, supported by corporate contributions, enabling the research and development of new ways of providing information and new ways of supporting it.
As this new world of widely varying funding models emerges, new ethical challenges arise. The journalism academy will be essential to solving these effectively. For example: It is widely agreed that a key ethic of the new media environment is transparency. If news consumers can identify the sources of funding, for instance, of a given information outlet, they have an invaluable piece of information in judging its credibility.
Yet J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer said recently that she is finding many foundation funders reluctant to be cited publicly as supporters of these new media outlets. Clearly new media forms require new ethical formulations, and the academy has a role here. The University of Wisconsin-Madison recently sponsored a symposium on ethics that included a look at donors, non-profit journalism and new investigative models. It issued a report on ethics for the new investigative newsroom. (See the PDF link within the preceding URL).
My review draws one clear conclusion: In the old media world, with its top-down monopolistic configuration, the problems were there to be solved by a relatively few people operating in a rigid environment. Most of those challenges are pretty much the same: It’s a constant struggle to keep the public’s information needs at the center of our thinking. It’s unclear how we will pay for high-quality journalism. Those doing journalism (or in any way serving the public’s information needs) must be held accountable.
But if the problems remain identical, they now rest in the hands of multitudes. For good and for ill, the old challenges are newly distributed throughout the population, and the solutions — if and when they come — will come from the many rather than the few. It’s a more unsettling prospect than the familiar world of controlling monopolies and rigidly fixed patterns. It is also, in my view, a more promising one.
Geneva Overholser is a professor and director of the journalism school at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. Previously, she held the Curtis B. Hurley Chair in Public Affairs Reporting for the Missouri School of Journalism, where she was based in the school’s Washington bureau. She was editor of the Des Moines Register from 1988 to 1995, where she led the paper to a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. While at the Register, she also earned recognition as Editor of the Year by the National Press Foundation and was named “The Best in the Business” by American Journalism Review.
She has been a columnist for the Columbia Journalism Review and frequent contributor to Poynter.org. She is co-editor, with Kathleen Hall Jamieson, of the volume “The Press,” part of the Oxford University Press Institutions of American Democracy series.
Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.Related