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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

What role should universities have in reinventing American journalism?

When Greg Munno started CNYSpeaks in June 2008, he was the civic engagement editor for the Syracuse Post-Standard in upstate New York. Inspired by the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Great Expectations project, CNYSpeaks was aimed at rallying the Syracuse community around the idea of improving the city, and it included a blog, news stories and residents’ forums. The newspaper teamed up with the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University to make it happen.

In June 2009, Munno took a buyout from The Post-Standard. But he’s still running CNYSpeaks — paid as a consultant by a grant the Maxwell School obtained. The CNYSpeaks blog still appears on the newspaper’s website. Munno still pitches stories for the newspaper’s print edition, including this piece from last month that led up to a forum for mayoral primary candidates.

To me, this is a great example of the type of collaboration between academia and media that needs to happen more and more as journalism re-invents itself.

Complementary skills

Academic institutions know how to obtain grants in a way many journalists just don’t. They often have resources and an environment that fosters innovation in a way that a busy newsroom doesn’t. And often the nearby university and the local newspaper share a common goal — engaging the community. It makes perfect sense to work together.

Collaboration of this sort can help make newspaper websites the town square that I believe they really need to become. A while back, Steve Yelvington blogged about how journalists need to perform three roles for their community: town crier, town square and town expert. He asserted that journalists often gravitate to the town crier role, but that the other roles are just important.

I couldn’t agree more. Newspaper websites, particularly those of smaller dailies, need to become the place to be in that community. They need to become the place where readers can get everything they need to make sense of living in that area. That includes linking to local blogs that aren’t affiliated with the newspaper. That also includes collaborations like CNYSpeaks and the Inquirer’s Great Expectations, which is a joint project with the University of Pennsylvania. These type of projects have the potential to serve readers, which helps the newspapers, but also to improve a community, which helps everyone. It’s the kind of effort that newspapers and universities should be leading.

In the case of CNYSpeaks, the idea was to build an audience around a specific conversation — about improving a community — rather than just covering the news as it comes, said Munno, who was a colleague of mine when I worked at The Post-Standard.

Building community

CNYSpeaks started by surveying community members about what they like about Syracuse’s downtown. That led to organizing public forums to discuss the city’s challenges and how to overcome then. Eventually, the effort produced a citizens’ agenda for Syracuse. Munno said the plan is to present that agenda to the city’s new mayor, once he or she is elected, as a show of what the people want out of government. (The CNY, by the way, stands for central New York, where Syracuse is located.)

Munno said that having the Maxwell School on board from the beginning helped. Maxwell provided technical guidance on how to produce a quality survey and a sounding board for ideas. The school’s professors also provided the theoretical framework of deliberative democracy to encapsulated the engagement CNYSpeaks was trying to accomplish. Plus, the school’s name lent credence to the effort.

“We weren’t just exercising some type of newspaper agenda here. We were working with people who had some expertise,” Munno said. “I think it legitimatized our efforts.”

When Munno decided to leave the newspaper, he pitched to both the Maxwell folks and the newspaper that he’d like to keep working on the project. After figuring out some logistics, both agreed. He’s working about 20 hours a week now instead of full time, as he did when employed by the paper. Stories he writes about CNYSpeaks now land on the newspaper’s opinion page, rather than its news pages.

I for one would like to see more of this type of creativity. The goal isn’t to save newspapers per se; it’s to improve our communities. News organizations and universities and citizens should all be part of that. I can imagine other type of collaborations:

  • A university’s school of education teams up with the local public school district and hosts an interactive website to gather ideas from parents, taxpayers and educators on how to improve children’s education.
  • A local child-care resource agency works with a university’s early-childhood development educators to create an interactive forum to inform child-care providers and parents about the latest in what is known about how young children see and respond to the world.

Both are good ideas by themselves, but what makes them relevant for newspapers is that the news websites can be the conduits — the places to hold these interactive programs — to bring people together. Some of this will cost money; much would just take time, innovation, and the will to experiment. I think these ideas could be part of helping newspaper websites become places that are so vital to readers that readers feel they must visit them daily. In the end, the news websites that will thrive will be those that are just that indispensable.

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  • John Coonen

    Please define your final word, “indispensable.” Do that, and you’ve answered your headline. A duh.

  • Matt Mireles

    I seriously doubt the ability of newspapers to be creative on the scale that’s needed. The culture, the mindset, is just not there. That’s not to say that there’s not creative people inside of newspapers––there are––but unless there is a radical change in the players managing the organizations, I think all the creative people (like you) will and are abandoning the industry in search of more entrepreneurial pastures.

    Fundamentally, newspapers are dinosaurs. They have a vested interest in resurrecting the past––which is impossible––which makes them very poor as partners in the task of creating and imagining the future. Seriously, these are people who are still figuring out and debating the value of the hyperlink. This isn’t trailblazing the future, it’s living 5 years behind the times.

    Rather than waste their time trying to teach newspapers how to use the internets and youtubes, universities should seek to pluck gold nuggets of talent from the industry (like you, Gina) and put them in a room with Google-bound software engineers and user interface designers and having you all collaborate to build some stuff, meanwhile facilitating access to the VC industry and the capitol markets.

    Anything else is a waste of time and money.

  • Gina Chen

    John – You are totally right on that one. The media biz hasn’t figured out what indispensable is, but that is the key. I do think it’s possible to figure out, though. There are part of my life that I cannot live without (my morning coffee, for example.) What that is may be different for different people.

    Matt — Thanks for the very kind words! (And if anyone from Google is reading this, I want to go on record as saying I’d love to sit in a room with Google engineers!

    You do make a good point. I fear you’re correct about newspapers, although in my heart I wish it weren’t so.

    – Gina

  • Matt Mireles

    Gina –– A few thoughts:1) You could actually try and get a job at Google. 2) You are a PhD student, no? Is there an engineering program at your university? Perhaps you could organize some meetup or booze-driven social activity to get your peeps and the engineers in a room and talking.

    My point is that you CAN get yourself into a room with engineers, although my guess is that no formalized structure currently exists to do so. That said, I def. think it’d be worth your time to go and visit places like the MIT Media Lab (Boston) and to attend events like the NY Tech Meetup (you’re outside of NYC, right?) where engineers and entrepreneurs already gather systematically to see cool projects and mingle. If nothing else, it’ll get you excited about the future and start to think about news and technology in a different way.

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