Co-authored with Josh Stearns
Editor’s Note: This post was written before a big announcement: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill announced Wednesday it will open a new research center to explore new models for community news and support the testing and development of innovative digital media products for local news sites. UNC received a $3 million grant from the Knight Foundation, with a $1 million match from the University Provost’s Office.
Too often when we talk about innovation in journalism we focus on the biggest tech companies partnering with the biggest media companies. This is a troublingly narrow view of what innovation in newsrooms looks like. For those of us working with local journalists, we know there is much more to the story.
When Snapchat launched Discover, a feature putting news beside messages from friends, all 11 media partners were national brands. When Facebook created Instant Articles for publishers to create stories inside Facebook, it was only open to a few national and international news organizations.
That’s bad for journalism because local news is a critical space for innovation, technical creativity and community. As the director of the UNC School of Media and Journalism’s Reese News Lab and a former leader of an online local news source (John Clark), and the director of journalism and sustainability at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation (Josh Stearns), we’ve seen plenty of innovations emerge from small media organizations. But too often, the word about those innovations doesn’t spread beyond a small geographic area.
Local Innovation At Its Best
Around the country, local news organizations are bringing incredible creativity to their work, undertaking deeply innovative projects with limited budgets.
Brick City Live, a new local news site for Newark, N.J., is not only doing data journalism but also testing explainers behind the news that teaches people how to read the data and put it to use in their own lives. For example, people use the explainers to learn how to read crime stats not just see visualized data.
Dallas Morning News’ event division, CrowdSource, helps advertisers attract engaged audiences. And, Neighborsgo is a print and digital product for North Texas designed to connect neighbors to each other.
WRAL created several niche products including GoAskMom for local moms, and HighSchoolOT.com to drive Raleigh, N.C. prep sports coverage for online, radio and TV. And Jersey Shore Hurricane News has developed a two-way news platform and attracted 220,000 fans by publishing on Facebook long before Facebook created instant articles.
The trouble with these experiments is that they’re limited in size and don’t always get the attention they deserve. They tend to be designed to respond to unique community needs and are informed by their local context. Because of this, the experiments are not always being informed by each other.
It’s a missed opportunity.
At the same time, many people working in local news are hungry for creative sparks and potential partnership that can help them test new publishing models, new revenue streams and new ways of connecting with their communities. There is a clear need as local newsrooms operating with small teams and smaller margins are trying to balance the demands of daily reporting with the need to step back and reimagine their work.
We’d love to see the biggest tech players invest in deeper partnerships with local journalists. They could contribute much needed capacity and funding to help make more space for newsrooms to strike a balance between planning and publishing. We know it is difficult for big tech companies to develop partnerships across many smaller organizations because it’s not efficient. And we know that local journalists cannot wait for a tech company to help them innovate. That’s why universities need to step in.
Campuses As Local News Labs
Although universities are themselves large, bureaucratic institutions, new hubs for journalistic innovation and experimentation are emerging within some universities to help local media expand and adapt to the digital age. We’ve seen this first hand with the campuses we work with. The Reese News Lab at the University of North Carolina is focused on student-driven innovation that serves local media. The Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University is helping build a more collaborative local news ecosystem in New Jersey.
The Tow Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York recently brought together educators from campuses across the country who are working to catalyze innovation in communities, classrooms and newsrooms. But we need more pathways for communications, sharing and collaboration across media innovation hubs at universities and local organizations. We need to find ways to give attention and scrutiny to local innovation.
A lot has been written about the potential for campuses and journalism students to contribute to the local news ecosystem by producing original reporting. However, the innovation labs can be active participants in the search for local, sustainable business models with new products, services and revenue models that serve specific communities. They can study, test and search for sustainable products. And these products and services must go beyond a reliance on advertising. Universities have the opportunity to pursue solutions in ways that local media organizations, due to lack of resources and time, can’t.
These hubs can work with local partners to develop and test new products and services while drawing on the information being shared from others. But it’s not enough to collect and disseminate the information. There should be active participation in research and development at the local level in partnership with local organizations. Hubs shouldn’t just convey the insights; they should partner to put the insights to work.
Creating New Networks For Journalism and Campus Collaboration
Finally, just as campuses have created great networks of knowledge and practice around so many critical issues, we believe we need to begin connecting these hubs of campus and community innovation. Together we can create stronger support systems for local innovators – technologists, journalists, salespeople and executives – and celebrate truly original projects focused on new models of sustainability for local news. Campuses can be critical partners in documenting what is working and replicating that in other communities, not as a one-size-fits-all approach, but in ways that embrace the cultural differences of our local towns and cities.
Campuses have stepped in to supercharge innovation in local news in places the nation’s biggest tech companies have forgotten. The growth of entrepreneurial journalism classes, university news labs and campus journalism partnerships are promising. But we need to be working together to elevate the lessons learned on the ground and reassert local news as a vital space of innovation in and of itself.
Help us build this network and document how universities and journalists are collaborating to support innovation, sustainability and community engagement in local news.
Josh Stearns directs the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation’s journalism sustainability project, designed to develop new structures and strategies to support a robust future of news. Prior to joining the Dodge staff, Josh spent 7 years running national advocacy campaigns in support of freedom of expression and media diversity. Most recently he served as Press Freedom Director at Free Press, a national nonprofit fighting for all people’s rights to connect and communicate. Josh is an award winning journalist and the author of numerous reports on local news, public media and media policy. His articles have appeared online at the Columbia Journalism Review, MediaShift, Orion Magazine and BoingBoing. He is a founding board member of the Freedom of the Press Foundation and served for almost 10 years on the board of the Student Conservation Association. Find him on Twitter at @jcstearns.
John Clark has directed the Reese News Lab since July 2011 and teaches courses in entrepreneurship for the UNC School of Media and Journalism and UNC’s minor in entrepreneurship program. He is the former general manager of WRAL.com, one of the nation’s most successful local news websites. He led the technical development of the nation’s first local television news application on mobile phones and helped create News Over Wireless. Clark managed content and development for an experimental service to deliver news and information through digital television subchannels. In 2001, he co-founded appcomm, inc. a local Internet services company.