A project of Democracy Fund

July 22, 2015

How We Are Working with Universities to Strengthen Local Journalism

By Molly de Aguiar and Josh Stearns


Photo by Alan Levine, used via Creative Commons

Across the country, people are taking a fresh look at the role of universities in the journalism landscape and as critical anchor institutions for helping meet community information needs.

A lot of attention has been focused on journalism schools as producers of original reporting and their potential to help fill the gaps in local coverage facing many communities around college campuses. However, just as important is the role of universities in helping build the infrastructure for more sustainable journalism.

Campuses can be:

1) Trainers — Leveraging their resources, skills, knowledge and technology colleges can train current journalists in best practices.

2) Advertisers — Local newsrooms should tap into various budgets across college campuses for sponsorship and ad dollars. (For more on this see my blog post here)

3) Conveners — Campuses have great meeting spaces and technology making them terrific hosts for local events. They can also help draw in experts and scholars on a given issue from around the nation.

4) Practitioners — The teaching hospital model for journalism education involves students directly in covering local communities alone or in partnership with local outlets.

5) Consultants — Universities are full of experts, and not only in subject areas where they have departments, but also in terms of event planners, marketing, technology and more.

6) R&D — Schools can be terrific laboratories for research and development. They can help with mapping and research or create space for cutting edge experiments and technology development.

As part of our journalism and sustainability project at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation we are currently partnering with six departments across four universities on projects that involve students, faculty, staff and newsrooms:

Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University:

A key part of the ecosystem approach we are pioneering in New Jersey is built on the Center for Cooperative Media and NJ News Commons at Montclair State University. The Center and NJ News Commons act as a clearinghouse of free support, services and resources for journalists across New Jersey. The Center and Commons offer business and journalism training, opportunities for collaborative reporting, a Story Exchange for sharing content, personalized coaching, peer-to-peer learning, legal help and many other services. MSU has also taken the lead on mobilizing efforts around open data in New Jersey and sponsored two hackathon events connecting journalists and programmers.

Tow Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY:

In recent years the Tow Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism has contributed important research to help model possible sustainability paths for local news. Currently, we are partnering with CUNY in a number of ways. They are doing a series of in-depth reports and events on best practices in local news ads, sales, events, membership and other revenue and engagement strategies. They have also just published a legal guide tailored for local news entrepreneurs and offered a free business training for news start-ups this summer.

Media and the Public Interest Initiative at Rutgers University:

In a project that we are co-funding with the Democracy Fund, professor Phil Napoli of the Media and the Public Interest Initiative and grad students from Rutgers and NYU are undertaking a major research effort in New Jersey focused on three reports. 1) Developing methods for assessing quality journalism, 2) Mapping the media landscape in Newark, New Brunswick and Morristown and 3) Interviews, observation and focus groups around people’s news and info needs, desires and habits. While still in process, this research has already helped us understand the needs of local communities in more direct ways.

Rutgers Institute for Information Policy and Law at Rutgers University:

Prof. Ellen Goodman of Rutgers Law School and the Rutgers Institute for Information Policy and Law is creating a living document detailing and responding to the legal questions of local journalists and providing general legal guidance. This is the start of a larger project focused on creating a First Amendment Lab at Rutgers that might over time help serve as a new legal backbone for independent media in the state.

Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University:

Professor Todd Wolfson is working with students at Rutgers University on an in-depth project designed to train students and communities new modes of journalism through the lens of urban poverty and social justice. The project has four dimensions: 1. Working with students to report on issues of poverty, unemployment and socio-economic struggles, 2. Partnerships with local community groups and service organizations, 3. Training partners from these groups in basic media production practices so they can also tell and share their stories and 4. Develop a platform to share and distribute these stories.

Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University:

In Professor Rich Gordan’s analytics class students become digital media consultants for local news sites, applying what they are learning in the classroom to develop concrete advice and action plans for newsrooms. This year his students worked with three of our sites over the course of a semester and developed valuable action plans for the sites to strengthen their presence from social to SEO.

At their best, these experiments between local newsrooms and universities are desgined to create positive feedback loops. Research informs trainings which inform experiments and learning in local newsrooms which feed back into meaningful real-world research.

University loop.001

Universities are not always perfect partners, but by working closely with staff and faculty in a range of departments we have been able to test a range of important experiments in the state. Our ecosystem approach to supporting journalism in New Jersey focuses on building strong local news through collaboration, and universities are important partners in that work.