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Oct. 13, 2011, 1 p.m.

Eric Newton: Journalism schools can be leaders in innovation and the news

The Knight Foundation’s Newton writes about the impact of the Carnegie-Knight Initiative, which has tried to improve the quality of instruction and research at the United States’ journalism schools.

Editor’s Note: In 2005, two of America’s most important foundations announced the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education, a multi-year project to improve the quality of instruction and research at the country’s journalism schools. A report in August detailed some of the project’s impacts at universities. Here, Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president at Knight Foundation, sums up what he sees as the key lessons of the initiative. (Disclosure: The Knight Foundation is a funder of the Nieman Journalism Lab.)

Everyone knows the news about the news. A once-in-a-generation media policy report for the Federal Communications Commission — The Information Needs of Communities, released this summer — made things abundantly clear. It detailed the decline of “local accountability journalism.” The evidence: 15,000 journalism jobs lost in the past few years, the lion’s share at daily newspapers. It’s a paradox of the digital age: More information than ever, but less local watchdog journalism. The same communications revolution that makes everyone a potential journalist has at the same time maimed America’s heavily advertising-based method of paying for professional journalism.

The nation’s institutions of higher learning have an important role to play in the local news crisis. In August, at the annual convention of the Association for Journalism and Mass Communication Educators in St. Louis, universities showed they are increasingly getting into local journalism. This is good news. Watchdog journalism is the “security camera” that keeps the powerful honest. Without it, government corruption always increases. The story of Bell, California, a town too small for a daily newspaper, where officials raided the city coffers to pay themselves six-figure salaries, is proof enough that a decline of local news is not without dire consequences.

Can journalism education really play a major role in local news flows? Teaching hospitals are some of our best medical institutions. Legal clinics at law schools take on major cases. And a new Harvard report, on the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education, shows that journalism schools can do it, too. Long thought to be the caboose on the train of American journalism, they can instead be engines of change that drive news agendas.

The Carnegie-Knight Initiative, a $20 million effort funded equally by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the foundation where I work, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation of Miami, was discussed at a packed conference session at AEJMC in St. Louis. The big lesson of the initiative: Great journalism schools can teach substantive “knowledge journalism” and at the same time practice innovative real-world digital newsgathering. Applied nationally, these practices could unlock the potential of more than 200,000 journalism and mass communication students to help underserved communities.

A survey of news industry leaders included in the Harvard report showed that attitudes about journalism education have changed significantly in the past six years. Before the Carnegie-Knight initiative began, news leaders were mostly unimpressed by journalism education. Schools were seen as out of touch with the digital age. But today, news leaders for the most part believe journalism education is improving. They said better quality leadership and faculty are keys to developing more digitally savvy, knowledgeable graduates.

In particular, the news leaders citied the efforts of the 12 Carnegie-Knight schools. They are the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Southern California, Arizona State University, the University of Nebraska, Northwestern University, the University of Texas/Austin, the University of Missouri, the University of North Carolina, the University of Maryland, Syracuse University, Harvard University, and Columbia University. All are increasing both the rigor of their teaching and their news production.

Why did our two foundations get involved? Carnegie has long been associated with higher education excellence. Knight is known for journalism education and media innovation. The two parts of the initiative complemented our strengths. Carnegie’s Susan King coordinated curriculum reform grants aimed at connecting journalism and mass communication schools with the rest of the university. At Knight we focused on News 21, designed to show that top students could do journalism desired by the nation’s most important news organizations and innovate at the same time.

The initiative’s results were many. A few of them: new master’s degree programs in specialty journalism; curriculum reform tearing up the old “silos” of broadcast and print journalism; and student journalism appearing in The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, NBC, Yahoo, and MSNBC. Last summer, News 21 produced a major investigation of America’s transportation system. First, a seminar on the topic was presented by former Washington Post editor Len Downie. Then the students went to work. Their stories revealed that scores of National Transportation Safety Board recommendations were never acted upon, endangering countless lives. Their work received more than five million pageviews.

Not everything about the Carnegie-Knight Initiative was perfect. News leaders said they wanted closer partnerships, so that the News 21 stories weren’t dropped on them suddenly. And they also said that journalism education, in general, has a long way to go to catch up to the work of these leading schools. The criticism and potential remedies are also in the Harvard report.

If journalism schools are to improve, university presidents must be involved. The first group of five universities in our initiative was chosen because Carnegie president Vartan Gregorian, himself a former university president, personally knew those presidents. Gregorian believed they would contribute financially. He was right. In every case, the presidents put money behind the idea that journalism education must either modernize or become irrelevant. And when the second group of seven universities was chosen, from schools with Knight Foundation funded chairs or centers, those presidents too contributed.

Faculty learned they could connect to the whole university by team-teaching courses with other professors. Business professors helped with business journalism classes; scientists joined in to teach science journalism; art educators, arts journalism, and so on. The journalism students learned a great deal about the subjects they wanted to cover. Their teachers gained respect for each other. When the funding ended, many of the classes continued.

Journalism schools learned they could innovate and even develop their own tools. Partnerships sprung up between journalism and engineering schools, between journalists and computer scientists. Spin-offs were common, like all-night hackathons where participants developed new tools on the spot. These developments were encouraged by Knight Foundation president Alberto Ibargüen with grants outside of the Carnegie-Knight Initiative.

All this required a new open, collaborative style of teaching, learning and doing. Journalism students learned that independence does not mean they must be lone wolves like the great literary journalists of 20th century lore, staring at blank pieces of paper in their typewriters until, the saying goes, drops of blood begin to form on their foreheads. Nor would they have to work only as cogs in giant news organizations run by business people they resented. They learned to work in small, integrated teams with people from many disciplines — graphic artists, business students, computer scientists, videographers, designers, and yes, investigative journalists. These are the teams they will form themselves after graduation as they create the small, nimble, fast-changing media companies of the coming century.

Best of all, they soared to new heights in creating content of benefit to their communities. Six years ago, many Columbia University journalism students produced “stories” for classes that were, like term papers, seen only by professors. Today, so much “live” journalism is done that dean Nicholas Lemann recently announced the school is launching a new news outlet, The New York World, named after Joseph Pulitzer’s famed paper. The University of Southern California, inspired by News 21, created Neon Tommy and more than a dozen other community news experiments, including an expansion of Spot.Us, where web site users determine what stories freelancers will do and even fund them with small donations.

At North Carolina, an energy web site told compelling stories, such as the one about the Alaskan town that must move because the tundra is melting out from under them. Berkeley created special web sites for underserved communities, including Richmond, a city that has suffered long without a daily newspaper. Northwestern designed an entirely new kind of news service driven from the bottom up by user interests.

The Carnegie-Knight schools are not the only journalism school transforming. Others of the nation’s more than 450 college journalism programs are reaching out to the whole university, innovating, teaching open, collaborative models and providing engaging community content. What we hoped the Carnegie-Knight Initiative would offer is a high-visibility example of what happens when university presidents, deans, faculty and students all are interested in reform. We wanted to show what the turning point in journalism education looks like.

A new study, to be released next month in Washington by Knight Media Policy Fellow Tom Glaisyer of the New America Foundation, looks at content creation at America’s universities. His headline? “A lot is going on, but a lot more could be going on.”

A final round of grants this year opened up the Carnegie-Knight Initiative to all schools. With Arizona State University’s president Michael Crow and dean Chris Callahan providing 80 percent of the funding, Carnegie and Knight have filled in the rest to pay for News 21 for at least 10 more years. It will field an “all-star team” of student journalists; other foundations are donating scholarship money to send top students from their states. All schools also can share in the lessons of curriculum reform, detailed in the Harvard report produced by the Shorenstein Center. The center also has established a major new web site to promote “knowledge journalism” at journalistsresource.org.

We do not yet know if most universities will join in or how many presidents will take a new look at journalism education. But here’s one more example of how higher education can help: Many public radio and television licenses are held by universities, and more than a few produce broadcasts with no local news. What if universities turned their growing numbers of journalism and mass communication students loose on that unused local news capacity? If medical students can cure people as they learn to be doctors, why can’t more journalism students inform and engage communities as they learn to be professionals?

We are at the dawn of a new digital age of communication. This new age is remaking the tools and rules of an industry America depends upon. The transition is as profound as the human transformation from the written to the printed word. If our educational leaders do not choose to rethink journalism education now — with communities hungry for local accountability news and the entire world moving toward an information economy — all I can ask, respectfully, is this: When do you believe the time will be right?

Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president at Knight Foundation, writes and speaks on journalism and media innovation.

POSTED     Oct. 13, 2011, 1 p.m.
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