Twitter  On the risks, costs and benefits of foreign reporting  
Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

Columbia developing a year-round news outlet to let students learn how to build and serve an audience

It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that journalism schools, even more than other media institutions, are experiencing an existential crisis under news’ new conditions. On the one hand, schools are upholders of tradition and journalistic principles; on the other hand, their practical mandate — “to prepare the next generation of journalists” — requires them to be forward-looking in ways that would intimidate even the most prescient futurists among us. And the schools are navigating the common anxiety in remarkably unique ways: CUNY, under the guidance of Jeff Jarvis, is bringing a new focus to journalistic entrepreneurialism; Arizona State’s Cronkite School is partnering with The Arizona Republic and 12 News to fact-check politicians; NYU recently launched The Local East Village, a community-driven, hyperlocal site, in conjunction with The New York Times; Columbia has developed its Tow Center for Digital Journalism, which launches this Tuesday, and established its joint master’s program with the university’s engineering school.

To Columbia’s list we can now add another innovation: The j-school is developing a new site that will function as a year-round, standalone news outlet. It will be topic-based rather than hyperlocal — think broad concepts like health, crime, government spending, etc. — but it will be focused on New York City (or, as the j-school’s dean of academic affairs, managing editor Bill Grueskin calls it, “our local hometown of 8.3 million people”). The site is still in its early planning stages, and details are still being worked out; as a strategy, though — and as a symbolic step forward — it has a mission that feels appropriately back-to-the-future: The site, Grueskin told me, will be about “doing journalism that’s of real value to the community.”

A permanent home for content

Websites featuring student work are nothing new, of course, at Columbia or other programs: Columbia’s introductory reporting and writing courses have web presences that act as training venues and work-distribution outlets, as do many of its content-specific courses (one of which, Columbia News Service, distributes its work via the New York Times News Service and Syndicate). And, school-wide, The Columbia Journalist exists to showcase some of the best student work produced during the academic year. Those products don’t, however, operate year-round; on the contrary, their content yields to the semester system, complete with vacations, interruptions for exams, and, of course, the summer hiatus. “You create these beautiful sites,” Grueskin points out, “and then two months later, they go dark.”

To change that — to create a site that produces content year-round, enabling it to be a destination rather than simply a means of distribution — the school will establish a new post-graduate fellowship program, along the lines of its Columbia Journalism Review and digital media fellowships, both of which currently take two students from each graduating class to work at the school for a year after graduation. (I was one of the CJR fellows after I graduated from the school.) Though the number of fellows to be hired, and their pay, remains to be determined — everything depends on the amount of money the school is able to raise for the project — the influx of journalistic manpower will add to the crop of students who stay on to contribute something and, in the process, extend their education. It will also combat the dark-site problem.

The new importance of audience

Which is only a problem, of course, if you care about building an audience for your work — if you define a school’s mission not only in terms of educating students, but also in terms of education more broadly: cultivating a community around journalism. That’s where Columbia’s upcoming site becomes especially significant: It’s merging the two goals, broadening its definition of good journalism education to include those clichéd-but-crucial new media buzzwords: “user engagement.” That’s a pedagogical mandate. Understanding the nuances of building and keeping an audience “is a crucial skill,” notes dean Nick Lemann — particularly given the increasingly common assumption that editorial content will be produced in some kind of partnership with consumers as journalism reinvents its compact with the public. (The people formerly known as, and all that.) So “a big next step for us to take is to have a real audience for one of our sites that we can interact with,” Grueskin says.

That really is a big next step. J-schools, in the “conservatory” model of arts programs, have often regarded journalism not only as a public service, but also as a craft. In that, they’ve prided themselves on their very separation from the vagaries of the marketplace — which is to say, from audiences. The site’s bid for audience alone marks a significant shift in the role j-schools are carving for themselves in the new media landscape. “Journalists love to have impact,” Grueskin puts it, “and you want to feel that the journalism that you’re doing is being read or watched or listened to, and then acted upon.” There’s also the nice education loop a standalone site provides: “If this got up and running, it could actually create a fair amount of data and information that could feed back nicely into the way we continue to try to improve the way that we teach journalism.”

Part of that approach could come in collaborating with other outlets. “We are probably less interested in pairing up with a single news organization, and more interested in acting as what you might call ‘a news service for the 21st century,’” Grueskin says. The focus will be broader than content alone: “news, or tools for news, that can be adopted by other media players.” (Think along the lines of ProPublica’s embeddable and adaptable news applications, for example — or, from a content perspective, data sets that “can be very easily localized and adapted by either big players or small.”) So “while there would be a website associated with the effort,” Grueskin says, “that wouldn’t be the sum total.”

Indeed, the site, like most news sites nowadays, will be only one aspect of the school’s broader push toward community engagement and journalistic impact. “Because of who we are and what we do and the larger institution we’re located in,” Lemann says, “we can probably do year-round, meaningful local news coverage more cheaply and sustainably than a standalone, de novo, web-only organization can do. So we may be a more efficient way to meet that social need — and that’s a good motivation for us, too.”

What to read next
Joseph Lichterman    Aug. 26, 2014
Previously proudly without a homepage, the business site is trying to shift its email success to the web to build loyalty.
  • Kelsey Proud

    “Because of who we are and what we do and the larger institution we’re located in,” Lemann says, “we can probably do year-round, meaningful local news coverage more cheaply and sustainably than a standalone, de novo, web-only organization …can do.”

    Yes, you can. The Missouri School of Journalism has been doing this for years. It’s called the Missouri Method. Classroom instruction coupled with professional, real-stakes, real-market experience.

    At the Columbia Missourian, the metro newspaper (and online site) for which journalism students work, this method has been in practice for 102 years. Year-round. And, it has a local focus by default.

    As I read this article I kept trying to see what the real difference is between this “new” project and Missouri’s system,you know, really give this “innovation” a shot. The only difference I found was that it was solely an online format(?)versus the several multiple-format news organizations Missouri students operate within.

    If someone can point me to how Columbia’s project is significantly different (other than the only-online format and absence of ties with traditional media organizations) and how it truly shows innovation, I’d be happy to notice and eat my words. However, as I see it right now, somebody needs to do a little more research.

    Disclosure: I am a Missouri School of Journalism alum. BJ Convergence ’10.

  • Megan Garber

    Thanks for the comment, Kelsey. I’m a bit confused by it, though: I don’t think the piece argued for the new site’s innovation from the macro perspective; it’s an innovation for Columbia. One that I find symbolic. And I wouldn’t brush aside the fact that the new site will focus on collaboration with external outlets, particularly as far as tech tools go; to my mind, the other outlets that are already engaged in that type of work — ProPublica, for example — are on the forefront of something big: They’re collaboration-minded not only when it comes to content, but also when it comes to the platforms that facilitate it.

    That said, thanks for pointing out the great work Mizzou is, and has been, doing in this area; clearly, it’s an ideal educational tool.

  • Kelsey Proud

    Point taken Megan, and thanks for the reply.

    The tech tool argument is a valid one, and something that is great for students.

    I’ll be excited to see how the project works in practice, and how the students benefit, as I feel students at Mizzou do, from having their work out in the public sphere year-round.

  • John C Abell

    I read it the same way, Kelsey, and there were obvious places to refer to the Missou program in the original piece.

    Here’s my disclosure: I once worked for the Committee of Concerned Journalists, under the auspices of Missou, and students like yourself were permanent fixtures in the office (in Washington) doing exactly what you describe.

  • Barney Calame

    It seems to me that it shouldn’t surprise my fellow Missouri alumni that Megan Garber failed to take note of our school’s roughly a century of publishing a newspaper serving the citizens of Columbia, Mo. She has multiple ties to Columbia University and ample reasons to focus on praising and explaining the innovations there. But it does seem to me that it would have been nice if some editor at Nieman Journalism Lab had made sure the piece disclosed more prominently her current adjunct professor position at Columbia. And one can wonder–parochially, of course–why some Nieman Journalism Lab editor with a few years of newspaper experience didn’t think to ask her, “Say, Megan, hasn’t some J-school out in the Midwest been publishing a city paper for awhile?”

  • PJ Brunet

    Easy. Tap your students for “user generated” content, no need to find a real audience. And don’t forget alumni, we can read (and click ads) too.

  • Jonathan Michels

    It seems that college online news sites are becoming increasingly common.

    These are exciting times for journalism students that are thinking beyond ink and paper. I’m happy to say I’m one of those students.

    I’m a multimedia journalist for ReeseNews is an online news site affiliated with The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

    Read about our mission:

  • Pingback: Veille technologique du 14 octobre au 18 octobre

  • Pingback: Droid Does Mizzou: Student app building as a new framework for journalism experience » Nieman Journalism Lab

  • Pingback: Columbia’s j-school will launch The New York World, its accountability-focused news site, this summer » Nieman Journalism Lab » Pushing to the Future of Journalism

  • Pingback: FCC report recommends targeting government ads toward local news » Nieman Journalism Lab » Pushing to the Future of Journalism

  • Pingback: FCC report recommends targeting government ads toward local news | | hungamahungama