Note: This post is part of the January 2011 Carnival of Journalism, which asks bloggers to address the "changing role of Universities for the information needs of a community". Whatever that means.
I've been incredibly privilidged to work with almost every stripe of news organization in the past few years, from one of the biggest dailies to a non-profit bi-weekly. I've also been given the opportunity to work closely with the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, a Knight-funded investigative non-profit that works as a regional ProPublica, based out of Boston University.
I think NECIR is a great model of what Universities can do to help promote quality journalism: They're helping train community journalists through watchdog workshops, building partnerships with traditional news institutions and involving the student body in the production of important, meat-and-potatoes investigative work.
But this model is only a partial solution, particularly if the "creative destruction" currently going on in media remains more destructive than creative. We need to go farther in a way that is self-perpetuating, sustainable and makes an impact.
I'd suggest the following tenets:
- No more Ponzi schemes: It didn't work for Madoff, and it won't save journalism. I've seen friends enter programs where the theory seems to be: Train students to do investigative journalism, with the hopes that they'll get University jobs training students in investigative journalism. It's not every program, but it's a model I've also seen as both traditional and startup media ventures: Free labor from interns, who then get experience that will maybe land them a job relying on the free labor of interns. That's just circling the drain.
- Immitation is flattery, but not flattering: College newspapers are great. The Sun was the single most influential thing I did in college. But you're trying to shoehorn amazing resources into mimicking an existing institution, and even when the results are good, you still just get an imitation newspaper, one that is often far removed by its very nature from the community it is embedded in, even in the best circumstances.
- Play to the institutional strengths: At a research university, encourage researchers to blog their ongoing trials, creating more transparency and points for collaboration. Force students to engage with the material, creating coursework out of real-world scenarios where what they're learning actually has an application. The economic collapse has made this an imperative: So many questions have been raised not just in the fields of economics and finance, but history (How much more useful would a historical look at partisan politics be than the contextualless drivel we hear about "heated rhetoric"?), engineering, and the liberal arts.
- Checks and balances: If you follow the above, however, you are not likely to get "traditional" journalism, neatly packed, carefully cited stories that balance political hack vs. political hack. That's okay, but we'll have to have new methods for checking and balancing the news products that come out. Maybe it's a collaborative form of peer review, or more accssible primary documents (I'm always a fan) that invite readers to examine the same evidence your students and researchers did, and maybe suggest new avenues for inquiry.
So how would you do it?