April 1 marked my first month on the job as director of Mercer University’s new Center for Collaborative Journalism. While the center doesn’t open its doors until August, and the bulk of the program starts in late 2013, I already feel the pressure.

The vision established by Mercer, the Knight Foundation, and our media partners, The (Macon) Telegraph and Georgia Public Broadcasting, could hardly be loftier — not only establishing a new model for journalism education but also helping to transform local communities and save democracy itself. But it is the very audacity of that vision that, in two weeks’ time, spun me around from plans to move to New York with my favorite magazine conglomerate to accepting an offer in Macon, Ga. (not long after telling my wife that Atlanta was “just too small” for me).

The ambition of the program is backed by $4.6 million in grants from the Knight Foundation and enabled by a unique collaborative arrangement between a liberal arts program, a public broadcaster and a daily newspaper. The center itself occupies the ground floor of a new development and houses the newsroom of The Telegraph, a McClatchy paper serving the region, and radio and television facilities for GPB. Students will take classes in the midst of a daily newsroom and radio station; some will even live in housing set aside for them above the center.

Students Embedded in Newsrooms

At the heart of the academic program is an adaptation of the medical school model of education. Students will train in a working newsroom, alongside professional journalists, throughout all four years of the program. Class projects will be integrated with the work of our media partners and the center’s own digital news outlet (modeled after the University of North Carolina’s reesenews).

Students will contribute to background research, shadow reporters, file reports, engage the community with social media, and perform most duties expected of a professional journalist. They will leave the program with a full portfolio of professional bylines, radio reports, and multimedia stories. This clinical model and high degree of collaboration offers students a truly unique experience.

Media Partners Working Together

Out of the gate, the community will benefit from the collaboration fostered in the center. GPB is tripling its local reporter presence and launching Macon Public Radio, making Macon the only community in Georgia, outside of Atlanta, to have significant locally focused public-radio programming. The university’s journalism department is doubling its size and bringing in professionals skilled in digital media. And the combined efforts of The Telegraph and GPB allow for improved coverage.

The benefits of having a combined radio/newspaper newsroom were reinforced in a meeting with Dan Grech, news director at WLRN, which has a similar collaboration with The Miami Herald. (I believe we’re the second outlet in the country to pursue this model.) Dan credits that collaboration with transforming WLRN’s news department, allowing them to cover the area much better, with up to a four-fold increase in productivity. With all of the resources brought together by the center, we expect similarly transformational results.

Collaborating with the Citizens of Macon

While the collaboration of media partners and the university will fuel the center, I believe much of its success will depend on extending that collaboration. Students will need to leave the “Mercer bubble” to engage the community in new ways. Fortunately, that process began years ago, when Mercer went from an institution isolated by fences to a partner in the revitalization of, and a force for social justice in, Macon. The College of Liberal Arts implemented an experiential requirement, which often involves community service.

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For our student journalists to provide value and learn the real work of local journalism, they will need to view Macon as more than a stopping point on their way elsewhere. It will need to be their home and its citizens their collaborators in providing information, highlighting issues, and crafting solutions. Part of the center’s grant provides for and requires two major community engagement projects each year — projects where we seek the community’s input on the issues most important to it and then work with our partners to investigate and report on those issues in depth.

The center will utilize tools such as the Public Insight Network, as well as low-tech, high-touch approaches, to engage the community in dialog. Various other community groups — from a local television affiliate to the local arts alliance — have already reached out to work with the center. Additionally, I envision working with local religious and civic organizations to get information to neglected segments of the community and to train their members in digital technology and media consumption.

Macon remains deeply divided along socioeconomic lines, with significant gaps in information dissemination and community attachment. By collaborating with existing organizations, the center has a real opportunity to help bridge the digital divide, close the information gap, and increase attachment.

Interdisciplinary Collaboration

The center is housed in Mercer’s College of Liberal Arts, which offers many key resources for collaboration. When I was an undergrad, several journalists advised my fellow students and me to find specific disciplines to study and use journalism as a way to explore and talk about those subjects. That mindset will undergird our new curriculum, where various tracks will train students to be environmental journalists, business reporters, or critics of the arts.

Proper training goes beyond simple double majors. It requires joint efforts from the faculty to not only train students in the substance of these fields but also in the nuances of conveying specific knowledge to a general public and of staying on top of controversies and advancements in those fields. My vision for this type of integration tracks closely with the yearlong seminars that form the core of Columbia University’s M.A. in Journalism.

Beyond those core curricular structures, I envision particularly close collaboration with schools and departments in areas at the heart of the disruption in, and the way forward for, journalism: computer science and engineering, design, business, and social entrepreneurship (another exciting new program at Mercer). In addition to formal training across these disciplines, faculty and students will work together to constantly experiment with new technology, designs, and business models.

The center aims to put the “lab” in “collaboration.” Imagine a journalism graduate who understands the core terminology of web and mobile technologies, how to experiment with various solutions, and how to evaluate various business models — or a computer science graduate who understands the language and needs of journalism and the core drivers of its economic models. Add to that, exposure to agile methodologies and a continuous deployment environment where experiments are routinely pushed out and evaluated. I can think of nothing more valuable to a graduating student or a potential employer.

Transformation

When I started a month ago, I wondered if our moniker was broad enough (and modern enough) to contain our vision. Perhaps it should focus on “media” or “digital media” and point to innovation as its core. But I’ve come to regard “journalism” as capturing the civic responsibility at the core of our mission and “collaboration” as something much broader than the partnership between the university and our primary media partners.

Collaboration is the modus operandi that will power the transformation we seek.

Much of this vision has yet to be fleshed out in operational detail, and much work remains to actualize it. Success is not guaranteed. We need sharp students, willing partners, and the right structure. It seems we have the first two and are on our way to the last element. Undergirding all of this are remarkable energy and excitement throughout the university, our partners, and the community. It will take decades for our students to filter out into society and impact democracy, but it seems that a small transformation of those directly involved has already begun.

What are some examples of innovation in journalism education or media collaboration that we should examine as we build toward the vision I’ve outlined above?

Above photo by Flickr user Taber Andrew Bain.

Tim Regan-Porter is the inaugural director of the Center for Collaborative Journalism at Mercer University. Previously, he was co-founder and president of Paste Magazine, where he created Obamicon.Me and the Paste mPlayer. Prior to Paste, he spent a decade in web development as solutions architect at IBM’s e-Business national practice and director of development at Enterpulse.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this post mistakenly described April 1 as the author’s first day on the job.

 


 

 

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