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Oct. 15, 2010, 10 a.m.

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.”

POSTED     Oct. 15, 2010, 10 a.m.
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