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This week, three senior staffers from ProPublica will visit the second class of students enrolled in the Studio 20 program at the NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. The reporters and students will begin formally collaborating on a question the non-profit newsroom has puzzled over since its founding in 2008: How can you quickly and clearly summarize the basic facts of the investigations ProPublica specializes in?

The result of their work will be what they call an “explainer.” This open-ended method of quickly imparting the background knowledge necessary to follow a developing story can be an infographic, a video, a Q&A, or any number of other forms.

The goal, as ProPublica senior editor Eric Umansky said, is to “have a kind of framework for thinking about doing those — a toolbox we can dig into. That would be enormously useful for us.”

Projects like this make up the backbone of Studio 20, NYU’s new innovation-centric journalism program. It’s a stark contrast to the curriculum taught in most journalism programs, which focus on arming students with skills and work samples to help them land jobs in broadcast, radio, or print media.

Beyond the potential to create a bylined product that may be published on the ProPublica website, what is the value of this project — and by extension the Studio 20 program, as a whole — to students? It’s an opportunity to get real world experience with major media partners, say students and collaborators. But educators acknowledge that there are still some digital skills the program may be overlooking.

New Model for J-School

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Jay Rosen

NYU professor Jay Rosen, the director of the Studio 20 program, said the shift away from teaching skills and toward teaching innovation is a necessary response to the changing media landscape.

“When you had a stable industry with identifiable slots — like show producer or general assignment reporter or copy editor — that you could train people for, and you had a monopoly industry that earned 20 to 30 percent profits every year, you could see J-school way as a way to essentially offload the training costs of the news industry,” he said. “And employers would get what they wanted. Which was people you could plug into the production routine the next day after they were hired, who wouldn’t libel people or ruin the reputation of the newsroom.”

When Rosen became chair of NYU’s journalism department 1999, he began focusing on the impact of the Internet on the news industry. “It became clear,” Rosen said, that the old journalism school system “was going to crash.”

Studio 20 acknowledges this reality and seeks to find hope and opportunity in a situation that can seem bleak to those considering — or already in the midst of — a career in journalism. Matylda Czarnecka is a MediaShift contributor who worked at the Durango Herald and Bakersfield Californian before becoming the first graduate assistant for Studio 20. She told me that Studio 20 aims to “embrace the changes that are disrupting the media industry — from a positive standpoint.”

With its central focus on innovation and experimentation, Studio 20 is intended to give students not only skills, but also an understanding of their rapidly changing profession.

To achieve this goal, Rosen took cues from another industry that is perpetually in motion: the art world. Indeed, the program’s name refers to the three studio classes around which the three-semester program is organized and the address at which the program is based (20 Cooper Square). Attaching a number to the studio theme was “the lightest branding touch I could think of,” Rosen wrote in an email to me. “The important thing is the program is not named for a media platform (as in broadcast journalism) or a topical branch (as in medical reporting).”

Studio I: History of Innovation

The program’s eponymous studio courses emphasize the importance of collaborative projects, public feedback, and flexibility. In Studio I, students focus on the history and future of innovation and collectively work with one major media partner on an innovative project out of class.

In the program’s first year, The Economist worked with the class to improve the magazine’s social media presence and promotion. The class produced about a hundred recommendations that “were very much along lines of what we were thinking and some were stuff we hadn’t thought of,” said Gideon Lichfield, the magazine’s deputy digital editor. “It was great.”

The Economist has not yet implemented many of the suggestions, but Lichfield said that’s “more a problem on our end.”

This year, the Studio I class project was to study explanatory journalism and interview members of the ProPublica staff to learn about the explainers they will be producing in Studio II. The second studio is both very public and very collaborative.

Studio II: Intensive Collaboration

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Richard Jones

In the first Studio II class, students worked with the New York Times to plan and launch The Local – East Village. What began as a class project has now grown into a blog hosted on NYTimes.com and a hyper-local reporting class taught by editor Richard Jones, a former Times reporter. It is open to all of NYU’s J-school students as an elective and updated by paid student reporters during school breaks.

In the less than five months since The Local – East Village (LEV) launched, it has produced a few notable achievements. First and foremost is the Assignment Desk WordPress plug-in. This open-source feature — made in collaboration with computer science graduate students at NYU — facilitates community involvement in the news production process by allowing community members to submit pitches, vote on existing story ideas, and comment on the works in progress (see an explanatory video below). On Thursday of last week, the LEV invited some 50 community contributors who have made regular use of the Assignment Desk to a thank-you dinner at NYU, according to Jones.

Assignment Desk overview from Matt Diaz on Vimeo.

Although Jones was unable to disclose any specific site metrics, he said that “everything I’ve heard from [the New York Times] has been positive. We’re certainly at or beyond where they expected us to be at this point.” The LEV team is well on its way to “hitting our marks and doing what we need to do to as far as building audience and building readership,” Jones said.

ProPublica’s Umansky heard similar feedback while conducting due diligence about the program.

“I spoke to editors at the New York Times who had worked with Studio 20 on the previous project and they spoke very highly of it,” he said. “They thought it was useful and a great experience.”

Studio III: Individual Projects

The students I interviewed for this story spoke highly of their third and final studio, which brings together all of the focuses of the Studio 20 program. Students each arrange to collaborate with a media organization on a public project that is of personal interest to them. The first class of Studio 20 undertook a wide variety of initiatives.

Czarnecka, Rosen’s graduate assistant, began working with New York’s local PBS affiliate on developing a television segment about startups in the city. She is now working on her own startup, Love Your Layover, which will produce content specifically targeted at travelers with long layovers.

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Anjali Mullany

Another student, Anjali Mullany, worked with The Local – East Village on creating topic pages for recurring subjects that could serve as, what she called, “public reporters’ notebooks.”

“We thought it would be really useful for both reporters and for the public if we were aggregating everything that we had used in our reporting for a given topic,” Mullany said. “On the web there’s unlimited space, so there’s really no reason the story should ever end.”

She started a page on noise issues in the East Village that aggregated stories tagged “noise,” data collected from regular decibel readings outside bars and other loud spots in the area, noise complaints phoned into the city’s 311 information service, public documents on the matter, and lists of key players in the issue.

“The idea was that this page will be a place where each new generation of hyper-local students can immediately go to get a really good understanding of what’s already been reported and find ideas for stories — either in the data or based on what was unanswered in previous reporting,” Mullany said. “We’ll see what happens with it, but it was pretty cool to work on.”

Mullany is most excited about her new job, which she believes her experience in Studio 20 helped her land. When she visited NYU while deciding on grad school, “they said, this program will help you get a job. That really happened for me,” said Mullany, who was recently hired as the social media manger at the New York Daily News.

Other students in the first class of Studio 20 have had similar experiences. Czarnecka said some were “hired by the companies they were doing work with, or [have] gotten connections out of them that led them to job prospects that were directly related to their Studio III or Studio II project involvement.”

Rosen has the exact job stats on the small first class: “Four of the eight are employed more or less full time. The others are freelancing and looking, applying for jobs,” or like Czarnecka, working on startups. But, he cautions, “they have only been graduates for a month.” (The current class of Studio 20 easily filled the 16 slots NYU has created for the program.)

Room for Improvement

Having only taught the complete program once, Rosen is the first to acknowledge that there is more Studio 20 can do for students.

“There are so many different skills that are valuable in digital journalism,” he said. “We have to figure out a way to enrich the curriculum with even more of them even though they may not be worth an entire course.”

No one is more aware of this need than the students in the program. For example, Rosen decided to teach more data visualization skills in this year’s Studio II as a result of requests he received last year from students.

Mullany initially lamented the lack of programming training, but she then backtracked, saying she valued the flexibility of Studio 20. And flexibility is a must for journalism programs these days.

“Going to journalism school now is like going to law school when your country is in the middle of a coup d’etat,” said Cody Brown, the founder of the NYU Local blog who is now launching a Twitter-based start-up Kommons. Brown was a student in Beat Blogging, a Studio 20 precursor class Rosen taught in 2009 before launching the full program the following year. While he said “academia has not caught up yet” with the digital transformation of the news industry, he sees Studio 20 as an attempt to bridge the knowledge gap.

“That’s definitely what’s exciting about it,” he said. “Studio 20 strikes me as this transition program.”

When Rosen was asked whether there would still be a need for an innovation-centric J-school program like Studio 20 if the tumult in the news industry ends and media companies go back to looking for journalists with specific skills sets, he laughed.

“I’m not too worried about that right now,” Rosen said.

*****

What do you think of the Studio 20 approach to J-school? What projects would you like to see its students tackle? Should its curriculum be reconsidered or more widely adopted? Leave your thoughts in the comments section.

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.