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Feb. 28, 2014, 11:03 a.m.
LINK: www.niemanlab.org  ➚   |   Posted by: Joseph Lichterman   |   February 28, 2014

As dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, Edward Wasserman’s goal is simple: “I’m trying to turn out journalists who get Pulitzer Prizes.” But with limited resources, achieving that goal requires prioritizing initiatives. And that’s what happened at Berkeley this week, as Wasserman said the school was ending its involvement with Mission Local, the hyperlocal news site it has run in San Francisco’s Mission District since 2008. Mission Local will be spun off as an independent, for-profit site. “Mission Local was moving toward a stand alone operation,” Wasserman said. “That’s testimony to their success.”

(We didn’t get a chance to talk with Wasserman before our story yesterday on the move, but we connected Thursday evening and wanted to share his perspective.)

Many saw Mission Local as a prime example of the teaching hospital model of journalism education; just as medical students can provide services to their community, so could journalism students. Wasserman praised Mission Local for the work it was doing in the Mission, but said many aspects of running a successful local news organization — covering community events and businesses or marketing the publication, for example — do not help in training journalists who are able to tackle hard, complex stories.

“The question then becomes: Do you face a choice at a certain point of providing that news site what it needs to fulfill that function in the community, or giving your students the training they need to be the kind of high impact, sophisticated, well-trained reporters going after difficult stories?” Wasserman asked.

Wasserman also emphasized that Mission Local was not a core component of Berkeley’s curriculum. Students were required to work for Mission Local — or one of Berkeley’s two other hyperlocal sites — as one of their first-semester courses. They could choose to continue working for the site for another semester, but it was optional, he said. And continuing to run the sites year-round distracts from the school’s chief mission of educating students.

“Part of that teaching hospital model is a kind of implied obligation for a year-round service,” he said. “Who pays for that? I don’t have the money for that. I’m trying to throw as much money as I can to financial aid for my students.”

And while Wasserman acknowledged that it is important for students to understand the business side of journalism, with only two years to provide a comprehensive education, he argues there isn’t enough time to fully educate students in areas like marketing, circulation, and other areas critical to running a news organization — especially with a glut of digital tools that students need to master to be successful reporters.

“You don’t expect lawyers to get of law school and understand how to run a law firm,” Wasserman said. “You don’t expect doctors to run a hospital.”

Berkeley runs two other hyperlocal news sites, Oakland North and Richmond Confidential, which are closer to the school’s campus, and Wasserman said the school is still figuring out the best way to utilize those resources. He said they will likely continue in some form, but could be consolidated into a school-wide site focusing on the entire Bay Area or focus on certain coverage areas like criminal justice, civil justice or healthcare.

“The teaching hospital model is a noble thing,” Wasserman said. “There may be elements of that we want to retain, but it’s not some template that you simply apply and follow.”

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