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March 1, 2010, 11:22 a.m.

What the Times-NYU partnership says about the future of journalism education: A Q&A with Jay Rosen

When The New York Times and New York University announced last week that they would collaborate on a news site covering the East Village neighborhood, it got me thinking: Beyond Manhattan, what could this mean for the future of journalism education?

While it’s true that this isn’t the first pro-academic partnership — even the Times already has turned over editorial control of a hyperlocal site to CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism — this partnership is different in kind: NYU and its Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute get to approach this project (dubbed The Local: East Village, or LEV) like a true startup, as students and faculty work to build, design, and learn to maintain the site from the ground up.

That level of “ownership” makes this a unique experiment, and raises the specter of increased ties between j-schools and news organizations, both working together to plug holes in their offerings. Journalism programs need more opportunities for students to get in-the-field experience that is digital, “real,” and attuned to the hyperlocal, entrepreneurial, bootstrapping kind of newswork of the future. And news organizations need more outside help to blanket news and information at the block-by-block level, especially as in-house resources shrink.

Put the two together, and the possibilities are intriguing. (While critics cry foul over the Times’ “exploitation” of free student labor, they miss the point here: that this marks a progressive step for journalism training, and something students might actually want to do. Having your work appear on nytimes.com is worth a little “free” labor now for bigger benefits later.)

For NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, the partnership is something of a breakthrough, a melding of so many journalistic elements for which he has advocated over the years:

Permit me to say what I find so fascinating about this project. Man, it has everything in it — everything I’ve been studying since I gave my first talk to newspaper editors in Des Moines, Iowa in 1989. It’s neighborhood journalism; it’s cosmopolitan too. It’s about innovation; it’s about the classic virtues, like shoe leather reporting. It combines the discipline of pro journalism with the participatory spirit of citizen journalism. It’s an ideal way to study the craft, which is to say it’s an entirely practical project. It’s what J-school should be doing: collaborating with the industry on the best ways forward. It’s news, it’s commentary, it’s reviewing, it’s opinion, it’s the forum function, community connection, data provision, blogging — all at once. LEV I said is a start-up, but it’s starting with the strongest news franchise there is: the New York Times.

Last week I asked Jay to join me in a Q&A via Gmail chat. While his post at PressThink covers all the nooks and crannies of this partnership, I wanted to get his thoughts on what this arrangement could mean for journalism educators elsewhere.

Seth Lewis: What’s the key takeaway for other journalism programs? What can they learn from this partnership?

Jay Rosen: Well, first, I am hoping there are lessons in the set-up, or structure of the relationship between us and the Times, in which we have a “small project,” confined to one neighborhood, 14 blocks long, but a “big puzzle” and not a lot of bureaucracy — a simple “hinge,” as I said in my PressThink post. Then, I am hoping there will be lessons from what we actually do with the site, but those are to come.

So, are you suggesting that journalism schools could do well to focus on small, incremental steps toward local media partnerships? I mean, if I’m a journalism school director and I like what I see from this partnership, what’s the first step? What should I do?

This project began when I noticed what the Times was doing with The Local, and thought I glimpsed a need to experiment and learn. I mean, that was the logic of what they were doing. So, the first step is to get inside the head of the potential collaborator and start with a need or interest they have. The next step was to look at what we are doing at NYU and where we wanted to go with our program, and figure out where the two circles overlapped.

So, my Studio 20 concentration wants to work on innovation puzzles that matter in journalism in the broadest sense, but to do that through projects that can be completed in a semester. The Carter Institute at NYU teaches local reporting and needs a better way to do that. Put those things together and you get a version of The Local that Studio 20 can incubate, that the Reporting New York concentration at NYU can “own,” and that the Times can benefit from as a learning lab — and the community can gain from because it serves the East Village well. So it’s really four or five overlapping circles, because this is a community that NYU, the university at large, has a big stake in; it’s a big land owner and expects to own more land here.

Once I had the idea — East Village! The Local! — I just looked for ways to multiply the overlapping circles.

Oh, and one more thing: I tried to listen well to what the Times needed from such a project and understand it from their perspective as well as I did from ours.

As University of Nevada journalism professor Donica Mensing mentioned in her comment on your post, there are some structural factors in higher education that can pose a challenge for these kinds of projects. For example, university curricula (particularly at the grad level) emphasize an individual-based pattern of learning, as opposed to the group collaboration required for something like The Local. And, of course, there’s the issue of transitory students staying with a project after the semester ends. Studio 20, being nimble and adaptive, seems better equipped than most for these challenges, but can you talk about how journalism programs in general can address these structural barriers in seeking to set up media partnerships?

There are a few answers to that. The first is: I built Studio 20 for projects like this, and the whole premise and starting point for the class that is incubating The Local: East Village (LEV) is, “everyone works together on one big project.” The basis on which students are accepted into Studio 20 is collaboration is key, so that’s not a “new” demand or a detail left to be worked out later.

Also, The Local is going to migrate over to the part of the Carter Institute where it is more logically sustained: Reporting New York, where it is an ideal teaching vehicle. And we thought a lot about the sustainability puzzle before we even started down this road. Third, the way I run Studio 20, people take the lead on parts of the project, which become their “baby,” so to speak. For example, Tim Stenovec is taking the lead on community relationships within the East Village — that becomes something he can own.

Finally, the most important thing is we knew going in that we would have to overcome the biggest hurdle for academic partnerships in journalism, which is the semester clock runs one way, but a news site runs all the time. That was present at the beginning, it’s not something we overlooked at all, and it’s been in our sights since day one.

So, perhaps one lesson from this is that journalism programs need to reform the curriculum first, seek media partners second, rather than the other way around?

We were greatly aided in this project by a Studio 20 curriculum that is built around doing projects, yes. And we planned far enough ahead to have a Reporting New York course, The Hyperlocal Newsroom, that feeds talent to the project. Without those two things, I don’t think this would work.

Compared to the New York Times’ partnership with CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism, which has assumed editorial control of an existing Local site, NYU will be building something from scratch. How important is that, from a journalism education standpoint? Can you talk about the “value added” involved in that process, and perhaps how that should figure into other partnerships that j-schools might develop elsewhere?

For Studio 20, all the value is in the startup, design phase, figuring out workflows and how it should operate, and making it come alive not only for NYU journalism students and faculty, but making it come alive as a “learning project” for The New York Times. That is just very, very challenging and real. What I want for my students in Studio 20 is to grapple with the innovation puzzle whole; I wanted to walk into the classroom on the first day of the project with the entire problem on the table, as it were. And this project comes very close to that.

My approach intellectually speaking borrows a lot from American pragmatism. In pragmatism, the idea is our knowledge develops not when we have the most magnificent theory or the best data but when we have a really, really good problem. How to make The Local run and perform well, given the constraints and tools we have, is a really, really good problem, and I think that is where universities should start. The result is what I said last night.

Yes, like I think you’ve said before: It’s better to focus on questions rather than topics.

Topics suck. If you have a topic, you are nowhere.

You have a media partner here, but what about a funding partner? Do you foresee nonprofit foundations wanting to underwrite this kind of project, as Carnegie, McCormick Tribune, and Knight have done with CUNY’s partnership? And, for the cash-strapped j-school out there that’s thinking, “Hey, this is a cool idea, but I’m not sure we have the money to make the structural and curricular changes needed” — any thoughts to offer on funding options?

We are fundraising for this from potential donors, and we have an idea for a revenue model, that is all I can tell you now. We would love a funding partner that understands what we are up to and why it matters for journalism education.

Photo of Jay Rosen by Joi Ito used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 1, 2010, 11:22 a.m.
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