In May 2005, you could almost hear the flourish of trumpets when the Carnegie Corporation and the Knight Foundation joined with five prominent journalism graduate schools in pledging $6 million over three years to create the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education.
The idea was to integrate the journalism schools with other areas of study at the universities to “better teach, challenge and prepare the next generation of news industry leaders for an increasingly complex world.” A cornerstone of the project is News21, otherwise known as “News for the 21st Century: Incubators of New Ideas,” where 44 journalism fellows on five campuses would work on long-term investigative projects in new ways.
Participating schools are the University of California-Berkeley, Columbia University, Northwestern University, the University of Southern California, and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. The fellows spent the spring semester studying the topic of their investigation at school, and then 10 weeks reporting the story in the summer.
Now, after the first year’s projects are complete, we can check in on News21 and see whether these lofty goals have been met, and whether the projects are indeed “seeding innovative reporting on little covered issues important to American’s robust democracy in ways that attract new and younger audiences” (as the marketing copy reads). From what I’ve seen so far, the fellows have done some great investigative work on topics such as digital data trails and life in the military abroad — but I wonder whether they are doing really cutting-edge, innovative work that will live on beyond the annual program.
News21 had dual goals: to get the work of the fellows placed into mainstream media outlets, and to do innovative reporting and multimedia presentations on the web. The first goal has certainly been met, with student-created reports showing up in the New York Times, L.A. Weekly, Forbes.com and future exposure coming from the Associated Press and CNN, according to Merrill Brown, News21’s national director. But the second goal has only partly been met, because some projects included citizen journalism aspects and new storytelling techniques while others did not. (Note that many of the reports have not been released publicly yet.)
At the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California, for instance, the topic was immigration. The fellows created an outreach program to immigrant communities to try to get them to participate on a blog at ImmigrationOutpost.com. (The image above was shot by USC fellow Karl-Erik Stromsta for the blog.) But that blog has basically expired as of late July. As the fellows graduate and move on from their investigative projects, they leave websites orphaned in their wake.
Diana Day, one of the USC fellows who worked on the immigration blog, told me she was heartbroken about the blog’s end. (Full disclosure: Day was my former editor at Online Journalism Review.)
“Look at ImmigrationOutpost.com, I’m sad about it,” Day said. “I’m new at this, so I don’t know how reporters feel when they have to leave a beloved beat. We had this for three months and now it’s finished, so now what? For ImmigrationOutpost.com, that’s it.”
What Went Right
After talking to various fellows and program administrators at the schools, I get the impression that they were satisfied with the work they did and the skills the students received through their fellowships. The students had an entire semester to learn new skills and find out more about their subject matter from experts. Then, during the summer, they reported the stories and created the web experiences.
Longtime broadcast journalist and USC associate professor Judy Muller was a News21 project coordinator. She told me the students really learned “convergence journalism” where they took on different roles for different stories.
“My print majors did camera work, my broadcast students did online, they all do everything,” Muller said. “They worked on teams and traded roles on each story. This is the real newsroom of the future, where the person who shoots it may edit it and write it, or may do one of those things and do something else the next time. This is what newsrooms are looking for.
“My generation is playing catch-up with this. For this generation, it’s second nature. I think it’s interesting that we as coordinators were like, ‘Oh, how can we ever answer this?’ But it was never a question for them. Let’s go do good stories. Oh, sure we can do it on the Internet, sure we can blog, sure we can do radio and television and print. This is who they are, and it’s very exciting to teach them. What I’m giving them is my skills as a storyteller.”
At the University of California at Berkeley, News21 project coordinator Bob Calo told me his students tried to cover the military abroad in an open, non-political way that let the subjects tell their own stories, a la The War Tapes documentary. What I’ve seen of Berkeley’s project online is impressive, and keeps a pretty neutral tone about soldiers and their life away from home. (The scene above is from “Days of Our Tortuga” aboard a naval ship.)
“We set out some rules that we didn’t quite follow but we thought it was a good idea,” Calo said. “Don’t pretend you’re alone, which is the classic TV dilemma. ‘Here I am alone in Tora Bora,’ but who is there with you? What are their names? We broke that whole producer/crew thing by introducing both people in the story. Everybody who wrote or filmed were in the story. And the other rule was don’t pretend you’re an expert if you’re not…The other thing is that if anyone has a question for you, give them the camera. So we had this device where we took the power away from the media and shared it with our subjects.”
Calo said the students’ interviews were not done to prove a point or prove someone wrong, giving them more credibility with their subjects and the audience. “There are no pundits, there are no experts, there’s no pro-con,” he said. “You can easily do the Sunday morning [pundit shows] with this, but that’s why we’re in a logjam right now. People just watch what they want. It’s either a piece of propaganda for one side or another. So we were trying to reach a middle ground.”
What Went Wrong
In some cases, the administrators and fellows tried to take new approaches to journalism, but just a quick tour around the clunky News21 online presence shows how traditional some of the stories and subject matter were. For instance, Columbia University’s investigative look at the money going to the Department of Homeland Security was deep work, but didn’t break any new ground in reporting techniques.
Clyde Bentley, an associate professor of convergence journalism at the University of Missouri, was not involved in the News21 project but had mixed feelings about its goals and accomplishments. Bentley told me via email that he was happy about any project that looks hard at how journalism schools are teaching students.
“My main criticism, however, is that the effort is blinkered by the traditional attitudes of metropolitan newspapers,” Bentley said. “Citizen journalism, blogging, YouTube and other user-generated media forms are rampant on the American scene. And they should be. We priests of truth have too long dictated what is important and what is not. Get out of the city and walk into any coffee shop, church or hardware store. I very much doubt that the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. military abroad, the immigration debate, and privacy and national security will come up in conversation as ‘issues of high public interest.’ I would be more comfortable if the initiative helped journalists understand the audience they serve.”
Brown said that the school deans and administrators came up with the overarching subjects — immigration, military abroad, data privacy — but that it was something they might improve with the fellows’ feedback for the coming years.
While USC tried to incorporate citizen input into its immigration blog, Muller told me the problem was that illegal immigrants were loathe to identify themselves in an online community. “We hoped that [ImmigrationOutpost] would live at Annenberg [School], but it was a great idea if you were talking to a community who wanted to talk. But these are the [people] who don’t want to talk and we learned from that,” she said. “I hope whatever topic we have [next year], I’m hoping we can create a site that is dynamic and can carry on and live here at USC.”
Leonard Witt (pictured here), communication chair at Kennesaw State University who blogs at PJNet, concurs with Bentley that the News21 administrators need to prepare journalism students for a new media world where they will have to include their audience more in the newsgathering process. Witt wrote me an email (posted in full to his blog) taking aim at the project’s Deans’ Manifesto for using the word “professional” 25 times and using the word “public” as in “delivering news to the public” rather than including the public.
Here are some salient points from Witt’s critique:
The journalism schools should be providing training not just for the would-be journalists, but for the would-be audience too, who, as we know, are also would-be content producers. Rather than building a professional school that by its nature is exclusive, as in excluding others, why not find ways to make it more inclusive, as in including others?
The last thing that journalism needs is more of the fortress mentality, where its students think: “I am a professional and therefore I can practice journalism and you are not a professional and therefore you cannot do journalism.”
Why aren’t these J-schools the incubators for student-initiated grassroots endeavors be they journalism majors, art history majors or any other major? What an opportunity to further encourage truly motivated students and expose them to the best practices as well as the theoretical, ethical and legal underpinnings of responsible journalism.
Matt Ford, a fellow in the program at Northwestern University, told me via email that the fellows experimented somewhat with blogging and other new media, but that wasn’t the focus of the initiative this year.
“Truth be told, this was first and foremost an investigative project utilizing the power and resources of multiple people focusing on one overarching theme,” Ford said. “As News21 develops I think they will continue to look at new ways to share information during the investigative process without compromising the final product. I don’t see this as a significant setback, although it is certainly an area ripe for improvement and experiment.”
I also asked Merrill Brown, News21 national director, to address the lack of citizen journalism and involving the audience more.
“We did some of that, not as much as I would have hoped,” Brown said. “It was hard to integrate that into the actual reporting part of the program, but early on we did do a bunch of blogging and engaging with people to try to shape the coverage…Next year we want to figure out how to build an infrastructure to solicit ideas and get key constituents actually producing content. So yes, citizen journalism and the new techniques it encourages are something we’ll absolutely do better next year. Citizen involvement, citizen engagement, user-generated content are all things we’d like to improve.”
Ideas for the Future
Despite all the critiques, the initiative has certainly created solid investigative journalism while teaching graduate students useful real-world techniques. Day, a fellow at USC, told me she felt lucky to have the opportunity to pursue deep pieces on various platforms with such robust support.
“Other fellows feel the same way I do, that we were lucky to be reporting these very meaty stories and have really rich resources and incredible support,” she said. “You simply take a videocamera with you. You take a still camera with you. Everything is game. I saw someone at the Tijuana border smuggling someone in the dashboard of a car. I was stunned. And the professors urged me to do a slide show on it, and two other fellows jumped in and said they would help me out in the tech assembly of it. Another fellow coached me in the sound booth.”
Today, the fellows and administrators of News21 are meeting at Carnegie in New York to talk about their lessons learned, and what to do going forward. Perhaps they will consider one of the weaknesses of the program: that students look so deep at one subject and then graduate and move on.
“One of the things that makes for great journalism is people being involved with a topic over time, developing a beat, and these graduate students are in a transitional moment in their lives,” Brown said. “They won’t stick with it, and they don’t come to it with any deep background, which is one of the reasons we had a course so they could learn about the topic beforehand.”
At Northwestern, the school had to contract out for Flash development for two of their more complex animation projects. The News21 administrators are struggling with what skills potential fellows should possess when it comes to computer work.
“Where should the fellows spend their time?” said Rich Gordon, News21 web coordinator at Northwestern. “What development/technology skills and resources are necessary to pull off the innovative presentation aspects? When should the pieces go live on the web? All four schools are best known for turning out students prepared to work as reporters, not as multimedia producers. Most of the fellows were selected based on their reporting skills, not on their ability to develop content in Flash, HTML or searchable databases.”
So why not take the $6 million and create real new-media incubator businesses? Stanford University helped create Yahoo and Google, but those companies didn’t come from the journalism school. Perhaps the journalism schools could team with computer programming departments to create hybrid sites that combine the best technology of sites such as Digg or YouTube with the editorial standards that come from journalism.
Ford, a fellow at Northwestern, told me he thinks journalism schools should be a place for innovation and experimentation as they live outside the commercial media world.
“In many industries, universities are the breeding ground for the cutting edge,” he said. “Whether it be science, industry, business or engineering, often university research can foster new development in a given industry. This has not always been the case in journalism schools. More often than not, students in J-schools are being trained on outdated equipment, with outdated technology, with the ultimate focus on theory and basic skills. This training can produce good, even great journalists — an admirable goal — but it does little to move journalism forward in innovation.
“Few are the media organizations with the resources and time to commit to experimenting with new ways of reporting and disseminating content. News21 is an experiment in itself, a chance for the time and resources to be committed for the sole purpose of trying something new. Whether our work resonates or not will be evident in coming weeks. In the end, it was a daring experiment, and will be worth its effort in lessons learned, if nothing else.”
Because of some of the deals in place with mainstream media outlets for distribution, many of the News21 stories are still not posted on the program’s web hub. So perhaps we’ll see more innovative approaches appear on the site this year and in the coming years.
Now is the time to tell the school administrators what you think about their efforts so far. Is this program a much needed boost for journalism education, or is it missing the point? How could it improve in future years? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
UPDATE: News21 national director Merrill Brown gave me an update on some recent mainstream media deals for the students’ reports:
CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” will be airing work from six News21 fellows from the graduate school of journalism at UC Berkeley — three segments will be aired either on Sept. 8 or the week of 9/11 (date not confirmed yet). In addition to the segments being aired, CNN will also interview the fellows involved. UC Berkeley’s television and multimedia teams traveled to Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia, Djibouti in East Africa, South Korea, the Persian Gulf and the South China Sea to bring home the world of the American soldier serving abroad.
Four AP stories from the Northwestern University News21 fellows are scheduled to be posted today. These stories will be running out of the AP’s Washington bureau. Northwestern University’s News21 fellows have assembled a detailed look at America’s new system of surveillance, developed by the government with the help of private data mining firms after Sept. 11. Their stories describe how the U.S. government is gathering and using information about citizens and others, the effectiveness of this network of information-sharing and its impact on Americans’ privacy and civil liberties.
UPDATE 2: Mindy McAdams, who teaches online journalism at the University of Florida, has also weighed in on the News21 projects, and she’s not happy with the text-heavy reports.
Here’s the meat of her criticism:
There’s some nice journalism in the collection, but very little innovation. My question is: If you’re funding a project that looks to “the future,” shouldn’t it require innovative approaches to the story selection, the reporting, the production, the approach to the work, the final delivery?
I mean, was the idea only to get some stories? Or was this supposed to show us some original and fresh approaches to stories? These packages should engage the visitor immediately. They should explain their purpose and their importance clearly and quickly, up front. Long menus of headlines don’t do that. Flash fronts with generic-looking photos don’t do that.
There’s nothing in the packages that we have not seen many times before. There are reams and reams of text. Yeah, there is some video and some Flash. But it seemed to me that 90 percent of what I opened up was text, text, and more text. I feel disappointed.
UPDATE 3: Jane Stevens, who teaches multimedia journalism at UC Berkeley and who helped coordinate the News21 project there, writes in comments that the Berkeley package is more than just text. Here are some highlights from her comment:
Their story package is not 90 percent text. The fellows used text where it was best to use text, video where it was best to use video, stills and audio and graphics where it was best to use those media. The story drove the decisions.
What they’ve done is what all modern journalists should be able to do: this new medium demands it. Just as NPR wouldn’t send a radio reporter out to do a story without skills appropriate to the medium of radio, the modern news organization shouldn’t send a reporter out to do a multimedia story without skills appropriate to the medum of the Web.
Not only do news organizations need to train their experienced reporters and editors how to do this type of reporting (and editing), but journalism schools need to make sure that each one of their faculty members is trained how to do multimedia reporting and editing, so that they can incorporate that knowledge into how they teach their courses. Otherwise, they’re teaching their students to be accomplished journalists…..for the 20th Century, not the 21st.
Now that the first learning year is over, I hope that News 21 embraces three of the most important characteristics of the Web: continuity, participation and context. To do that, the project must be continuous, i.e., have standing editors and reporters to follow up on and add to stories; integrate information and stories from citizens and citizen journalists; and build databases and resources that provide contextual links for readers to personalize stories, i.e., pursue more information and more depth.
I agree that those weaknesses should be addressed more than any others in the upcoming years of the News21 project — continuity year to year, citizen journalism contributions, and networked journalism with context. We’ll see how they improve going forward.