The real question is could and should universities support the creation (and distribution) of serious news and analysis of current affairs by students? I say yes. Somebody’s got to do it!
This question is being asked on many fronts at a time when universities are also economic engines. With the newspaper industry in severe distress both economically and technologically, publishers and editors are starting to see universities as their potential saviors. As a seasoned writer about to pick up her journalism master's degree, I find these discussions both intriguing and promising. I hope universities will join the fight to save newsprint.
In the minds of most journalists, the work we do is valuable and necessary to the successful operation of a democratic society. We need an informed public, and that’s what journalism generates (or used to). More and more, it feels as though the entertainment media and a cadre of untrained bloggers are creating the only news for the masses. Does anybody else think this could be dangerous?
Reporters have long been the one to monitor the performance of government, ensuring that it honestly and capably serves the people. In journalism schools, J-school academics believe they are here to train nothing short of the future bearers of America’s integrity.
When the first U.S. school of journalism opened its doors at the University of Missouri in 1908, so did its daily newspaper. Most schools have something similar as a result. Editors at college papers manage staff that has one great business advantage - students make cheap labor. Still, even the majority of college papers lose money today. Yet, they are considered worthwhile to their universities.
A high-quality student newspaper keeps maintain close ties to its community, and puts the school out there in such a way that it attracts both new students and donors.
Last month, at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, a new course was introduced: "City Newsroom." In this class, three well-respected journalists serve as editor-instructors. The question on everyone’s mind now is: Will this product have an audience? If the work is excellent and can be linked and uploaded in creative new ways, these young Columbia journalists may find thousands of readers.
Something new is going on here. "City Newsroom" teachers are telling students, "We are surrounded by people who say that the world is coming to an end, but it is just beginning for you, our journalism students."
The future of newsprint
The world of journalism is changing so rapidly that no one can tell today’s students what it will look like in just five years. The digital-media revolution is the obvious reason for all this. Who needs newspapers today when you can just construct a Web site?
Most journalism schools have felt the wind blowing out of Silicon Valley. Clearly, students who can report and write are better off today, but only if they are also comfortable online. Today's universities are about to graduate their first classes of "platform-agnostic" journalists. As one of them, I can tell you that we came to journalism because we fell in love with writing, photography, radio, or TV, but now we have learned new skills that allow us to operate across the board.
Meanwhile, daily newspapers across the U.S. are producing less original news. Foreign bureaus are closed. Across the country, papers have bought out or laid off their editors, reporters and photographers. The Baltimore Sun's newsroom has gone 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. Cuts continue even at The New York Times and The Washington Post – the gold standard. Over all, the number of daily-newspaper journalists has shrunk from 59,000 in 2002 to somewhere close to 40,000 today. With this change has come substantial loss of reporting capacity.
In my opinion, Journalism schools can help fill the gap. Florida International University just signed arrangements with the Miami Herald, Palm Beach Post, and South Florida Sun-Sentinel to begin using the work of student journalists. The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University offers the Cronkite News Service, which provides student-reported work to 30 Arizona client news outlets.
Can university-based journalism take advantage of university-centered research without becoming just another promotional tool for the institution? Can they link to major news organizations? Can students pick up the scent of what's going on in other areas - computer science, social work, political science, art history or other fields in ways that might help them report stories to the community at large?
Dreaming even further, with universities more engaged in the work of journalism, and journalism schools motivated to engage, might there be opportunities for growth all around?