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The Dallas Morning News, looking for critics to boost its arts coverage, turns to local professors

Think of it as a twist on the teaching model for journalism education: Rather than students producing local news, it’s established professors offering their part-time expertise — at a cost savings for news organizations.

The Dallas Morning News has been without a full-time staff art critic since 2006, so when it was announced last week that a professor from the University of Texas system had been hired to fill that position, people were excited — both because, hey, more critics are better than fewer critics, and because it seemed to point toward a new model for cooperation between academia and news organizations.

According to UT Dallas, Rick Brettell is one of the most popular educators on campus — no small feat at an institution more known for its science and technology strengths. Brettell, a former director of the Dallas Museum of Art, will remain a professor and academic chair in his department at UT Dallas; through the collaboration, he will allot 20 hours a week to work for The Dallas Morning News. “Getting 20 hours of Rick Brettell, in my opinion,” says editor Bob Mong, “is like getting 60 hours from some other people.” Of course, it still means considerable savings for the paper, which Mong says was otherwise planning on hiring a full time critic.

This isn’t the Morning News’ first joint hire with the UT system. In the spring, they reached an agreement with Mark Lamster, a professor at UT Arlington, who is now the paper’s architecture critic. That arrangement, Mong says, is a slightly different one than the deal with Brettell; it was borne out of a relationship with the architecture department at UT Arlington, which the paper had given a donation to in honor of David Dillon, critic for the Morning News from 1984 to 2006.

In both cases, however, the paper strengthened its arts coverage through partnerships with local institutions, saving itself some money by cashing in on available local talent. It’s not a perfect analogy, but Mong compared these hires to the relationships that The New Yorker has with writers like Steve Coll and Nick Lemann, the current and former deans of Columbia’s journalism school, who’ve managed to balance their journalistic and academic lives.

“I think it’s a good deal for our readers, and it’s also a good deal for us,” Mong says.

Mong says the Morning News would be interested in pursuing similar partnerships with local academics and experts in other fields as well; he’d especially like to hire a medical doctor to write on health issues. “In several fields, there are terrific people who don’t get much exposure,” he said, “and if we can encourage them to write for us — this is mostly on a freelance basis, but it could turn into something more.”

The benefits here are obvious: Readers get better coverage — both more of it and higher quality — and the paper saves money by not having to hire a professional journalist. It’s the kind of small-bore savings that media bigwigs are talking about when they say improving the health of the news industry will require a lot of small moves at least as much as a few big ones.

“We have a strong staff. It’s smaller than it was 10 years ago, but it’s a big staff and we can do what we need to do,” says Mong. “The question is, how do you rebuild in some areas where you’re not as strong? We hadn’t had an architecture critic. We had not had somebody doing art full time in an area that has many fine museums and a lot of collectors and interest in the field. It’s important to the creative class that lives here.”

And the idea that local universities — already in the knowledge-spreading business — should take a bigger role in meeting the information needs of communities has been around for years, perhaps most notably put forward by the Downie-Schudson report in 2009. Journalism schools are becoming teaching hospitals and producing news for local communities; in fields like economics and political science, academics are producing news that reaches audiences, whether as independent online publishers or under the rubric traditional news organizations.

But just as clear as the benefits is one big question: If journalism relies more on partnerships with public institutions to subsidize its reporting, are we squeezing out the professional journalists?

While the upsurge in online work from niche experts has been a boon, it’s easy to see why some non-academic critics would worry about their status as independent voices attached only to their news organization.

When I asked Mong if he was worried that this sort of partnership was helping to push out the professional critic, he replied: “I don’t know that we are or not. I just look for the best person I can get.”

Photo of Rick Brettell courtesy UT Dallas.

                                   
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