Journalism schools can be as competitive as newsrooms: They compete for students, foundation grants, faculty and reputation. But spurred by the Carnegie-Knight initiative on the Future of Journalism, deans and representatives from 17 universities (including me) spent a day at Harvard University discussing what they can collectively do to support public interest reporting.

It was a form of collaboration that I honestly hadn’t thought about, because it’s not the norm. As Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, summed up in his welcome comments, it’s rare to have a group of deans “collaborating for intellectual purposes.” Sharing research, outcomes of roundtable events and recommendations in response to a Federal Communications Commission report, “Information Needs of Communities,” the attendees threw out ideas from a variety of perspectives, from policy to law to pedagogy.

Not just about money

Unlike many doomsday journalism events, where you leave feeling like you haven’t heard anything new, the meeting highlighted different ways of looking at the diminished capacity of local, in-depth news. Several discussions centered on the structural realities of the digital divide: essentially what it means when communities don’t have access to broadband or wireless signals (or nowadays even a landline), and how the power and politics of fiber affect us all.

Susan Crawford, a visiting professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, whose report focused on digital delivery networks, kicked off the presentations in economic terms: “We don’t have a crisis of ideas,” she said. “We have a crisis of money.” She set forth an innovative way of thinking about how building the country’s fiber networks could help support local news.

As the presentations and discussion evolved, our existential crisis also started to show. It’s not just the economics that have shaken us up; the rapidly evolving delivery systems have transformed the ways people access, consume and perceive the news. This led the Knight Foundation to create shorter funding cycles for Knight News Challenges — to help innovators stay ahead of the curve and jump on their ideas.

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Michael Maness

Michael Maness, vice president of journalism and media innovation at the Knight Foundation, pointed out that digital natives don’t think they’re missing much with the demise of news as we’ve known it. They don’t miss what they never consumed.

But the view in the room was that accountability journalism is a social good, which is where partnerships came in — partnerships with j-schools and community organizations and foundations. Partnerships expand distribution and traction, Maness explained, even pointing to Pinterest as a distribution model worth watching.

Several attendees agreed that community foundations are untapped resources that should be encouraged to help support local, watchdog reporting. Len Downie, a professor at ASU’s Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, called out California Watch as a good example of how to engage at the community level. He called them “the leader of the clubhouse” when it comes to partnerships, pointing to the organization’s award-winning “On Shaky Ground“ series and the educational coloring book that they produced to inform children about earthquake safety.

But, Downie acknowledged, non-profits are “financially fragile” and sustainability is both unclear and won’t come in a one-size-fits all model.

The j-school newsroom

A major thrust of the meeting was identifying ways journalism schools can help inform communities. Many schools in the room already play active roles in their communities, but the effort doesn’t come without its own set of complications and additional work.

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Mary Kay Quinlan

Mary Kay Quinlan, an associate professor at the University of Nebraska College of Journalism and Mass Communications, runs a j-school-based newsroom. She emphasized that university-based programs need to be more sophisticated about how they reach out to audiences. She had several tips for university-based newsrooms, including:

  • Identify the audience you’re serving
  • Understand how to reach that audience
  • Get buy-in from partners
  • Understand the role such a program plays within the curriculum
  • Allow for flexibility
  • Treat partners with professional respect

The idea of j-schools adopting the teaching-hospital model was debated with a fair amount of pros and cons. Regina Lawrence from the University of Texas urged the attendees to explore the issue not from the perspective of the schools, but the communities. “It’s clear what the students gain,” she said. “What, if anything, does the community gain?”

Overall, it was agreed that best practices for university-based reporting would be helpful, including transparency about failed initiatives.

What’s the fuss?

Dean Smith, a lecturer at the University of North Carolina, described the situation another way. The issue, he explained, is “the people who take advantage of the fact that we have less accountability journalism.” In other words, there are those who try to take advantage of the current landscape, believing they won’t be held to account.

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Lawrence Pintak

Lawrence Pintak, dean of the Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University, took a similar stance. While sharing a graphic of the many cities in Washington state that are experiencing an information “black hole,” he asked, “If nobody’s watching, what are they doing?”

And that really is the issue. How many cities like the small but scandal-plagued Bell, Calif., are out there? And how will we know? The group came up with no clear or easy answers, simply because there aren’t any. But it was refreshing to see universities committed to working together to at least flesh out issues and share ideas, if not take direct action.

It was even more refreshing, however, to see that there’s been a radical shift in how journalism educators define the community in the journalism-community relationship. There seemed a sincere belief that the communities are not just passive audiences, but full partners in the effort to provide information in the public interest.

There’s a long way to go to better understand the information needs and desires of individual communities, but if academia can embrace community engagement, perhaps the mainstream media can too.

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Carrie Lozano is a Bay-Area based journalist and documentary filmmaker. She is currently the project director for “Collective Work” a project about collaborative, multiplatform investigative reporting at the Investigative Reporting Program, UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She is also directing and producing a documentary film with Charlotte Lagarde about jazz pianist and composer Fred Hersch. You can follow her at @carrielozano.

Collective Work is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Copyright 2012, The University of California at Berkeley.

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