Putting Local Journalism at the Core of Higher Education

Last Friday, about 35 of us got together at Ohio State for an informal symposium about the local implications of Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age, which was the final report of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy. As the Commission's former executive director, I had the privilege of starting the day with a brief history of the Commission's work and a summary of some of its key themes. (Full remarks here.)

In addition, however, I posed the following question to those present: What would it be like to organize an entire college or university education around the idea of journalism? Here is the portion of my talk that addressed this idea:

"I am not talking here about what we think of as vocational journalism education. The idea is not to make everyone a professional editor or reporter. I am talking, instead, about conceiving an entire program of liberal education that takes as its central theme the idea that the new media phenomenon is potentially making everyone a journalist. Thus, for both students and faculty, it is critical to be able to analyze media products and to have the skills to help meet the challenge of arriving at "truthful, comprehensive, and intelligent account[s]" of a day's local community events "in a context which gives them meaning." (I am borrowing here the definition of news from the 1947 Hutchins Commission.) What would such an educational program look like?

"We could imagine freshman writing courses devoted to some combination of news literacy and training in reportage. Students would have to learn something about who makes what decisions for the local community and what rights and capacities everyday citizens have to obtain information. They would have to learn about how to make technical matters accessible for a general audience. They would have to learn to evaluate information sources. Some might go on to be the campus equivalent of professional journalists, working for a student paper, radio station, or television outlet. Others might become bloggers or just better online commenters on the blogs of others. Perhaps some would form expert networks that would check on the accuracy of stories in mainstream media or offer their services in vetting professionally produced stories within their areas of expertise. Is something like this imaginable? Maybe even in, say, a state capital, where there would be lots and lots of government stories to tell at local, state and regional levels of decision making? . . .

"[A key insight of the Knight Commission] is that we need not just to preserve journalism where it exists; we need to create it where it does not. . . .[Moreover,] the production of local news has always depended on some form of subsidy, and markets without subsidies will not produce enough journalism to keep people informed on public issues. We will certainly not have enough investigating and exposing corruption and neglect by the powerful.

"Of course, this is not to deny the flowering of many local experiments that are doing good work based on combining support from advertising, individual philanthropists, foundations, corporate sponsorships, and citizen "members," but I wonder both about their staying power (especially in smaller communities) and their scope. I am thus especially interested in the prospects for other anchor institutions in local communities to provide ongoing social support for the gathering and dissemination of local news. I am looking for the kind of resource stability that will support what two noted authors have described as not just 'information, but . . .news judgment oriented to a public agenda and a general audience.'

"And that brings me back to the question with which I started. What would it mean to build the theory and practice of journalism into the very DNA of American higher education? How would it affect communities to see a flowering of news outlets grounded in local universities, colleges, and community colleges?

"For starters, it seems to me that journalism-centered liberal arts education would respond simultaneously to three major social problems. One is the shortfall in local news production around the country. The second is the well-documented deficiency in college student writing. The third is the low level of Americans' civic literacy, their knowledge about how social institutions work and who makes the policy decisions that affect their lives.

"Involving students in local journalism also wins what I like to think of as the educational trifecta. The issues posed are intellectually challenging. Students like dealing with them. The skills students develop increase their marketability and enable them to function more effectively as citizens.

"An excellent recent study prepared by famed journalist and editor (and OSU alum) Len Downie and the noted sociologist of journalism, Michael Schudson, reports on a variety of exciting models for connecting journalism to higher education. As they report in, "The Reconstruction of American Journalism," KQED in San Francisco is partnering next year with the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley to launch an independent nonprofit Bay area news organization. According to Downie and Schudson, 'The new entity's reporters, working with KQED journalists and Berkeley students, will cover local government, education, culture, the environment and neighborhoods for its own Web site, other digital media, and public radio and television.'

"Along similar lines, several newspapers in southern Florida have agreed to use reporting from journalism students at Florida International University. The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University in Phoenix operates a service provides student reporting to about thirty client newspapers and television stations around Arizona. Both Berkeley's and Columbia's journalism schools operate a range of online news sites that feature reporting by its students in city or outlying neighborhoods.

"Universities are even becoming homes for independent nonprofit investigative reporting projects started by former newspaper and television journalists, at such places as San Diego State, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Northeastern, and Boston University. As a law professor, I have especially admired Northwestern University, where journalism students are working with the Innocence Project to investigate death penalty convictions. They are obviously doing important work because the Cook County prosecutor has already subpoenaed the students.

"My point is not that universities are the single, exclusive, or even best answer to satisfying the daily news and information needs of local communities, but unless there are nonprofit social institutions of significant heft shouldering a lot of this burden, things will get worse. And it's not just student journalists who can help. Business schools can help teach marketing to online entrepreneurs. Law schools can help local media outlets to pursue Freedom of Information requests and defend against libel suits. This is not just the business of big research universities either. Although I may be giving in to stereotype, it may be that, in covering union news or news of relevance to new immigrant communities, our community colleges may have a strong comparative advantage. Indeed, if you let your imagination roam here a bit, you can envision a consortium of higher education institutions in a local area combining talents and resources to provide a wide range of local information in the public interest.

"The Knight Commission was impressed, as am I, by the wondrous range of new technological tools that are enabling more and more people to be creators, shapers, and distributors of information than ever before. We do live in a renaissance moment. But tools are only tools. They can be turned to democratic advantage only with skill and by design. Right now, the technology-fueled information revolution is not serving all Americans equally well, and our local communities are in need of help. The Knight Commission urges Americans to "embrace the quality of community information flow as an issue worthy of their concern and involvement." My plea is to universities to take this cause seriously."