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April 26, 2011, 10 a.m.

The Pearl Project: Bringing colleges into the investigative ecosystem

Does a piece of the future of in-depth reporting include a pack of students, a couple of veteran journalists-turned-academics and some college credit? At Georgetown University, Barbara Feinman Todd and Asra Q. Nomani believe they have created an investigative journalism model that will bolster the type of intensive long-form reporting that’s fading from many newsrooms.

Todd and Nomani are the creators of the Pearl Project, a course that spends a semester reporting on a single topic related to slain or imperiled journalists. The classroom acts as a newsroom — Todd and Nomani are the editors and the students are the reporters.

The project, which partnered with the Center for Public Integrity on a three-year investigation into the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, received national attention in January for its findings. But the project continues past its namesake investigation. Now the group has moved on to a new project (with a new crop of students): finding out why so many journalists connected to something called the Iraqi Media Network have been killed.

But the broader mission for Todd and Nomani is to improve their investigative model so other universities and news organizations can more easily replicate it. So, what exactly does that mean? For educators: Nomani and Todd literally want you to call them, pick their brains, and launch an investigation. For newsrooms: They want you to partner with what will eventually be a consortium of student-faculty investigations, and give their stories a home.

The number of university journalism programs doing investigative work is growing; the Downie-Schudson report famously called for more universities to view the work of journalism the way they view teaching hospitals — a chance for students to learn by doing, while helping the communities around them. “There’s no money being put into these types of investigations. We think this is one of the options for that,” Todd, the university’s journalism director, told me. “We don’t have to pay salaries.”

How it works

I sat in on a recent Pearl Project class, which is held in what looks more like a newspaper conference room than a classroom. The seven students sat around a conference table, each with a laptop in front of them. Throughout the two-and-a-half-hour period, students gave updates on their reporting, discussed ethical dilemmas, and strategized over how one student should phrase a phone call to a source who would likely be unwilling to provide information (even doing mock phone conversations to practice).

Homework assignments involve exhaustive reporting and research. One student rehashed a two-hour phone interview she had — with the help of an Arabic interpreter — with the brother of a slain journalist who lives in Iraq. Another student described the difficulty she was having tracking down a key source who was evading her. “Students are able to commit hours of attention to a single project,” said Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, “and that’s something professional journalists don’t get to do in a newsroom anymore.”

Todd says students have to apply to the course by submitting a proposal for what they think the class should investigate. The first several sessions are spent determining which idea works best and after that, students focus on specific angles of the story.

Of course, the Pearl Project is not the only student investigation course out there. There are many — of different sizes and themes — including at Northwestern, Columbia, Northeastern, American, the University of Massachusetts, Berkeley, and Boston University to name a few.

But Todd and Nomani say their program is different from some of their peers. Their end goal stretches beyond reporting and teaching on a single campus: They want to build their college journalism consortium, and they’re in the process of applying for grants to do just that.

Another difference at the Pearl Project model is that the teachers are just as involved in the get-your-hands-dirty reporting as the students. During the Daniel Pearl investigation, Nomani knocked on the door of Omar Sheikh (the mastermind of Pearl’s kidnapping) and questioned his brother at the London home. She also called the mother of “shoe-bomber” Richard Reid. “Our investigations are true collaborations. The students find sources, and we follow up on some of their leads. We find sources, then hand them off to our students,” Nomani told me. Todd added that it’s a student-faculty team: When the semester ends, students tend to say, “I enjoyed working with you.”

During my visit, the class was honing their ideas in preparation for a pitch meeting with Washingtonian Magazine editor Garrett Graff. Each student did elevator pitches (seriously, they did them in an elevator) making their case while going from floor three to one and back to three. This is the informal environment Todd and Nomani say is necessary to emulate a newsroom.

How you can do it

A few universities have already reached out to the Pearl Project about installing the model into their programs, but Nomani and Todd want the idea to spread further. And although they’re still working out the kinks, they’re certain that their template can be mimicked. Here are some of the things they’ve learned so far:

— It’s important to determine the length and scope of the investigation. One semester? Two? The group’s probe of the Daniel Pearl slaying took more than three years; their current project will likely not come close to that. Todd and Nomani also advise that you figure out how much support your project has — both financially and administratively — before jumping into anything. It’s better to know your limitations — in both time and resources — before deciding what you’ll be investigating.

— Find a media partner early. A news organization will be more likely to publish your work if they are involved from the start. And getting a commitment before the semester begins will save time. But, they warn, make sure your team does the reporting legwork, not the media partner’s reporters or editors.

— Decide on an investigative topic the first week of class, and assign students to reporting beats by the second. The reporting beats focus on different angles of the story. The students should then be divided into groups with specific tasks based on specialty — for example, one student is the photographer, one’s the video journalist, and one’s the team leader.

— What exactly should the finished product look like? That obviously depends on the subject matter, but for reference, here’s what the Pearl Project aims to produce: A written narrative, a photo slideshow, audio, video, documents, and a public page (using Google Docs or a university-built wiki) that illustrates how the project was completed.

Class struggles

The Pearl Project model has flaws, with the most visible one being the academic calendar. A semester is less than four months, and nailing down a story idea, finding sources, conducting interviews, writing, and pitching will eat up most of the semester, if not all of it. A previous group of students spent their semester digging up information on human rights issues in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Nomani and Todd were pleased with the work their students did, but they didn’t have anywhere to publish the story and time simply ran out at the end of the semester.

The solution? Well, they don’t have a clear-cut one (the two are still refining their syllabus before making it publicly available). One idea they’re toying with is to have students in one semester pick the story for the next semester’s students. Another thought is to begin as an online course, before classes first meet, to get a head start.

But for now, Nomani says a key first step is to “come to a sense earlier rather than later of what it is that you’re going to try to publish. Because it’s really easy to have every student come up with a different story, but guaranteeing publication of the stories as a package is hard to do.” And that’s where news organizations factor into their master plan.

POSTED     April 26, 2011, 10 a.m.
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