Thursday, January 20, 2011

More on j-schools as news providers

(Author's note: This post is being made as part of a "blog carnival" being organized by David Cohn of the University of Missouri. Many thanks to David for his efforts and for selecting such a great topic -- "The changing role of universities for the information needs of a community.")

The idea that journalism schools should be contributing to the ecosystem of local news is one that's intrigued me for the past year, since I read some of the ideas along those lines that Michael Schudson and Len Downie suggested in their report on "The Reconstruction of Journalism." And, as David Cohn pointed out in his message organizing the blog carnival, it's something the Knight Commission has suggested as well.

Not all of the ideas in the Reconstruction of Journalism report were well-received, but this one deserves to be. In their discussion of the topic, Downie and Schudson use what I think is a great analogy, which is that of teaching hospitals. Wherever a top-flight medical school is found (and we have one here in my town, associated with the University of Rochester), there is an affiliated hospital offering treatment to the community, much of it by the medical-professionals-in-training.

In like fashion, Downie and Schudson reason, why shouldn't journalists-in-training provide news coverage for their communities. This is already happening and it's fairly easy to find examples of this, actually.

The challenge for me, at a small institution where I am essentially the only teacher of both traditional and emergent journalism classes, has been figuring out how to do this on a shoestring. But this semester I'm taking a shot at it, using off-the-shelf tools and a "baby-steps" approach to getting student work about the community out there for public consumption.

My approach is going to be using a Feature Writing class that until this semester has followed the traditional model of stories produced basically for the professor's eyes only and making it into a truly public effort. Using basic blogging software, I'll set up a class "website," with headlines and story summaries, each of which link to the full story on a student's blog. By using the same blogging software and similar templates, the class site and all of the student sites will have a coherent look. The students will of course produce text stories on the the topics, but some multimedia extensions as well (likely slide shows and/or short videos).

As for the "baby steps" toward community coverage, that will come in the form of the story assignments themselves. One themed assignment will be the college's engagement with the community. Fisher has a wide range of programs in which service learning classes, student organizations and other campus groups go into the Rochester community for service activities. A set of class stories -- one from each student -- will focus on some of these activities. Another assignment will be to profile young alumni from our program who are active in the community.

Neither of these is exactly the same as using a class to cover an entire community the way, say, NYU is able to do in partnership with The New York Times on The Local: East Village. But they are a starting point to tell community-based stories through the classroom experience. It's a novelty for our school, and my teaching, so I'm looking forward to working on it and seeing how it comes out.

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