The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Feb 19, 2012

How a student news project helped make an impact through partnerships with local media

Posted by Alyssa Lenhoff and Tim Francisco is a community media project in Ohio that  received funds from the Knight Community Information Challenge through the Raymond John Wean Foundation. Here, the co-directors talk about how the project has helped inform the local community by creating valuable partnerships with local media.

By Alyssa Lenhoff and Tim Francisco, co-directors, The News Outlet

In our third year, has emerged from an experimental partnership between Youngstown State University’s journalism program and a local newspaper and public radio station, into a regional media collaboration. Today, our student journalists at three state universities, along with three newspapers and two radio stations are producing multi-platform investigative journalism that tackles the region’s most pressing issues.

Currently, The News Outlet collaborative has expanded to include student journalists from Youngstown State UniversityKent State University and The University of Akron. Our media partners include The Akron Beacon Journal, The Ravenna Record Courier and Akron’s Rubber City radio, in addition to “founding” partners the the Youngstown Vindicator and WYSU.FM.

With more than 80 print stories, more than 50 radio packages and numerous video and graphics packages placed with our legacy media partners, we’ve made great progress in fulfilling the key goals of the project—to inform community residents of important political and social issues, to inspire and train students to practice quality journalism, and to help revitalize local media.

Our stories have prompted change in local government, helped to close a troubled mental health facility and inspired community groups to take action on local issues. Two of our stories have been nominated for Ohio Associated Press awards in investigative journalism.  Another made ProPublica’s “muckreads” section and is being used as the source for politicians’ calls to action over loosely regulated taxation of gas wells in the state.

And just this week, our place-based foundation partner asked us to brainstorm ideas for a multi-state public radio project on gas and oil exploration in our region.

Currently, we are in the midst of an extensive look at natural gas exploration and fracking as our region prepares for what some have estimated to be a multi-billion dollar economic boom stemming from the gas- and mineral-rich Marcellus Shale formations beneath Northeast Ohio and Western Pennsylvania.

Our student journalists are coordinating and helping to shape coverage of the issue with our media partners The Akron Beacon Journal and Youngstown Vindicator. The Beacon Journal is using data, maps and graphics created by News Outlet interns.  The gas and fracking project is a prime example of both the possibilities and the challenges of newsroom/classroom collaborations.

As we wind down our second year of Knight Community Information Challenge funding with support from the Raymond John Wean Foundation, we are sharing what has worked for us and what hasn’t with other Knight grantees, journalists and educators throughout the country.

We believe there are two major factors contributing to the project's success. Legacy media leaders in our region have recognized that they are in need of new ideas and energy, and they have found a dynamic source of both with our students and faculty.  At the same time, our students understand the power of experience and are interested in growing their skills and their portfolios.

For instance, with the fracking project, our students, faculty and key staffers at The Beacon Journal and The Vindicator have been engaged in an exciting, three-month project with all sides learning and teaching.  During weekly meetings and near daily e-mail exchanges, all sides discuss the project and challenge one another to keep looking for more facts, to rewrite drafts or to refine a graphic to make it more understandable.

The News Outlet interns come to this project with incredible curiosity and energy.  They also come with a technical sophistication and ability to manage, manipulate and represent data that our legacy media partners don’t necessarily have. Our media partners are able to take our students’ raw enthusiasm and information and help shape both into compelling narratives that capture important stories.

We believe that the relationships we enjoy with our media partners are strong, in part, because they trust us as faculty and have come to realize that our students have something to contribute that is more meaningful than just another body in the newsroom.  

Although we developed these strong relationships with our media partners fairly quickly, it was not without significant effort and a few difficult conversations where we had to stress that our purpose was not just to provide the media partners with soft, free content and extra reporters.  Instead, we were insistent that our students be making meaningful contributions by reporting about important issue and trend stories.

These first conversations revealed to us the challenges of combining newsroom and classroom cultures. At first, media professionals were wary of what university faculty and undergraduate students could bring to the “real world” of the daily newsroom, and more than one of our partners suggested that we simply provide interns for them to train according to their existing models.  Implicit in these conversations were larger issues, the perception that education should be about vocational training, the mistrust of the “ivory tower” and the skepticism that Ph.D-holding faculty members have any real value to a daily news operation.

In large part, we’ve overcome these obstacles by producing a product that speaks for itself. The fact that the majority of our stories have landed on the front pages has convinced our partners of the practical value of what we are doing. More broadly, and perhaps more importantly, we’ve challenged one another to think differently about the possibilities of collaborative journalism and collaborative education.

The News Outlet harnesses the immense resources of the university. Our interns come from journalism, computer science, art and political science. In our meetings, we approach projects from a “story first” perspective, so that as reporters are outlining an issue, computer science and art students are suggesting ways of representing data or suggesting “cool” illustrations and graphics.

This synergy challenges participants to embrace innovation, experimentation and inter-disciplinary thinking, the franchise of a liberal arts education. 

The News Outlet project has, in many ways, met and exceeded our expectations, but has not been without snags, struggles and challenges. The greatest lesson of the project may be that on order for university/newsroom collaborations to become truly innovative, each “side” must be willing to experiment and to remain committed to the larger goals of quality journalism.

Faculty and students must understand the very real pressures and time constraints on already strained legacy media and professionals must be willing to take some steps into the unknown. The value of such partnerships is enormous, but only if the models resist the urge to replicate the existing newsroom cultures and practices or the “what is,” in order to push one another to remain agile and innovative in an information economy that changes daily, to be willing to imagine and to invest in the “what could be.”

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