The Chronicle Review

University-Based Reporting Could Keep Journalism Alive

Joyce Hesselberth for The Chronicle Review

November 15, 2009

When the first U.S. school of journalism opened its doors at the University of Missouri in 1908, so did a new daily newspaper, the University Missourian (now the Columbia Missourian), that the school runs to this day. Professional editors manage a staff that, especially in the midst of a deep recession, has a great business advantage: cheap labor. The reporting in the paper is produced by students at the school who receive neither salary nor benefits for their work. Their rewards are academic credit and marketable experience. The newspaper, says the school's dean, Dean Mills, loses money, but it is still "a bonus, not a drain" for the school because it is a laboratory for students to test out their knowledge, it keeps the school closely tied to the community, and it puts the school before the public daily in a way attractive to donors.

The Missouri model of clinical professional education did not become a template for most other leading journalism schools. But in recent years, more journalism schools have plunged into producing news for the public. Journalism schools are finding ways to use what might loosely be seen as a "teaching hospital" model of professional education.

Last month, at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Michael Shapiro introduced students to a new course to begin in January: "City Newsroom." In this course, three journalists with years of experience covering local news will be the editor-instructors guiding the students, who are assigned to Brooklyn, the Bronx, or Queens. Each section will produce an online news site for its borough. "Will you have an audience?" Shapiro asked the students. "Yes. Some days hundreds, some days thousands, because this work gets linked."

Something new is going on here, even though Columbia students and students at some other journalism schools have published for general audiences for a number of years. But "City Newsroom" will replenish its Brooklyn site five days a week, not three as the school did in the spring of 2009; its Bronx site replaces a weekly print newspaper with a Web site updated daily; and it inaugurates a site for Queens.

Shapiro told students, "We are surrounded by people who say that the world is coming to an end, but it is just beginning for you." He stressed that the world of journalism is changing so rapidly that no one could tell them what it would look like in five years. ("Or in five months," whispered another faculty member.) Whatever the students produced, it would not be and should not be "your father's newspaper," which was, Shapiro gently said, "too often uninspiring." What the students would produce would be something new: "It's your sensibility that animates what this course is really about." And the new sites would produce something valuable to audiences­—these New York boroughs are "woefully undercovered," he said. "There's a void, and we are going to rush to fill it."

This is a taste of what is happening at a handful of universities across the country—and of its spirit, reflective of both the uncertainty of the moment and of an air of opportunity.

The digital-media revolution is the most obvious reason that a change has begun. Publishing for the general public can now be done at minimal cost­­—no need to contract out to a printing company, no need to distribute to newsstands—just construct a Web site. Distribution has moved from major barrier to trivial expense.

Journalism schools can see which way the wind is blowing, and it's a brisk wind coming in from Silicon Valley. It's clear that students who can report and write are better off if they are also comfortable with and imaginative about the ways of the Web. These students will be in greater demand than students without Web skills. They are learning to be "platform-agnostic" journalists. They may have come to journalism because they fell in love with writing, photography, radio, TV, or online media, but they learn the skills that allow them to operate across the board.

Meanwhile, the major engine of original news gathering since the 19th century—the daily newspapers—are producing less original news reporting than they did a decade ago. Few newspapers have actually shut their doors in the past few years, but many of them have sharply cut their budgets to survive. They have closed foreign bureaus and statehouse bureaus, reduced the number of days each week that they print and deliver the papers. Major papers across the country have bought out or laid off editors, reporters, and photographers. In the past few years, The Baltimore Sun's newsroom went from 400 to 150 journalists, The Philadelphia Inquirer from 600 to 300, the Cleveland Plain Dealer from 400 to 240, the San Francisco Chronicle from 500 to 200, and the Los Angeles Times from 1,100 to 600. The cuts continue, even at The New York Times and The Washington Post. Over all, the number of daily-newspaper journalists has shrunk from 59,000 in 2002 to somewhere close to 40,000 today. There has been a substantial loss of reporting capacity.

Journalism schools, thanks to the Internet, can help fill the gap. Florida International University now has an arrangement in which the Miami Herald, Palm Beach Post, and South Florida Sun-Sentinel use the work of student journalists. Columbia's Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism has in its few years of existence had students produce work that has appeared in The New York Times, the Albany Times Union, Salon, and on PBS and NPR. Students at the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism have produced work for the public posted on the school's news Web sites. It is beginning another news Web site in cooperation with San Francisco's KQED public radio and television stations. The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University runs the Cronkite News Service, which provides student-reported work to 30 Arizona client news outlets, while other ASU journalism students have worked as paid reporters in the Phoenix suburbs for the Web site of the major metro daily in the city, The Arizona Republic. Similar work is taking place at Boston University, Northwestern University, the Universities of Maryland and Wisconsin, and elsewhere. In some cases, the university houses an independent or largely independent news operation—but one that makes uses of students as interns and apprentices. In other cases, the work is supervised by regular journalism-school faculty members and integrated into the school curriculum.

Northeastern University is a large private university in Boston, long known for its "cooperative" program, in which students do extensive paid internships for credit. In 2007, Walter V. Robinson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter and editor for 34 years at The Boston Globe, left the Globe to teach at Northeastern, his alma mater­—where his journalistic career had begun when he served two years as a Globe intern. Robinson began a course on investigative reporting that typically enrolls six to eight students. "Depending on how good the students are, we do one major piece that involves everybody or a couple of pieces in different groups," he says. Robinson emphasizes stories that use a lot of documents and do not depend on anonymous sources. Story after story out of these classes has run in The Boston Globe, including a dozen Page 1 stories. "In all the stories so far, we've not had a single correction or substantive complaint," he says.

Robinson himself selects topics for all the stories. When he ran the Globe's investigative-reporting "Spotlight" team, it was an important conduit for tips that came to the paper. "I'd send these tips around to other department heads, and a lot of stories would get done." But the resources for that at the Globe are much thinner today.

When Robinson started teaching at Northeastern, he found the students "writing practice stories" in their classes, but some of them were really good. "Why can't they do real stories?" he wondered. Well, they can.

Robinson's may be a special case: "I have a very good association with the editor of the paper," he says. "You have to have that. There's gotta be trust. The newspaper has to have confidence that a journalism faculty has the experience and oversight capacity to make certain that students get it right." But there may be many special cases of this sort, built from the experience of first-rate journalists who have turned to teaching. "Our modest start at Northeastern can be replicated by any adventurous journalism program," Robinson wrote on the Nieman Journalism Lab blog.

Journalism schools would seem to be the natural campus home for efforts at reporting, but they are not the only possible home. In 2008 the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies began an online magazine that offers reporting, analysis, and commentary about environmental issues. Yale Environment 360 runs two or three original feature articles a week and provides a daily news digest, too. With three-year grants from the William and Flora Hewlett and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundations and with strong support from the forestry school, the magazine employs three full-time staff members, all of them journalists with substantial background in both newspaper and magazine journalism, and it draws on freelance journalists (as well as scientists and other scholars) for its original reporting and commentary. James Gustave (Gus) Speth, dean of the school at the time the publication started, saw it as contributing to a major goal of the school's strategic plan—"the elevation of public discourse on environment." This fall the Hechinger Institute on Education and Media at Columbia University's Teachers College has begun a program to produce in-depth news coverage of education, supported by the Lumina Foundation for Education and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. "The Hechinger Report" will be run by three experienced journalists with a few more staff journalists yet to be hired as well as contributing editors and freelancers. Its first story, on tuition and college costs at the University of Maryland, has appeared on the education Web site of Washington Monthly.

What makes a teaching hospital congenial to universities is that it is a site for the most advanced medical care, the varieties of clinical practice most closely linked to the research mission of the faculty and the training of interns and residents. Thinking through what universities can do for journalism requires some serious conceptual work about how best to integrate the legitimate educational and research missions of the university with service to society. Can university-based journalism enhance the quality of public information available to citizens and contribute to the intellectual life of the university at the same time? It needs to do the former to help serve the broader society; it needs to do the latter to justify itself in the university over the long haul. It can probably blend these purposes best if it focuses on the most ambitious and exploratory journalistic work­—the in-depth stories that make use of new and complex databases, investigative reporting, new ways to make good use of multimedia technologies, and experiments that link volunteers and amateurs to professional guidance and editing (what is known as pro-am journalism).

Different university-based programs for doing journalism have different modes of support, different forms of organization, different missions, and so far as we know, no common culture across institutions, no handbook of best practices. Most of them are very new, many of them experiments with foundation seed money, and few are well institutionalized in a college's curriculum. There is a need for communication and cross-fertilization. There will be a need for assessment. And there are tough questions not yet answered: Can university-based journalism efforts take advantage of university-centered research without becoming promotional tools for a particular institution? Can they link the news organizations they serve to distinctive university resources? That is, can students pick up the scent of what's going on in computer science or social work or art history or other fields at the university in ways that might help them report stories in the communities they cover?

Dreaming a little further still, could universities do better work in teaching and research because faculty members and students in journalism help them become more attuned to how their work plays out in public? Already, faculty members in law schools, medical schools, political science, sociology, and other fields assign the writings of journalists in their classes because these works inform, inspire, and raise vital questions in accessible ways. With universities more engaged with the work of journalism, and journalism schools motivated to engage with other parts of their universities, there are opportunities for growth all around.

Michael Schudson is a professor of communication at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Leonard Downie Jr. is vice president at large of The Washington Post and a professor of journalism at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. They are co-authors of the recently issued report,"The Reconstruction of American Journalism" (