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Building a new J-school? Build the newsroom first

by: Lisa Williams |

Not too long ago, I visited Gainesville, Florida, home of the University of Florida/Gainesville, where I participated in Journalism/Interactive. The main focus of this organization?  Reforming, and reinventing journalism education.  

Journalism education is at a crossroads: As tuition continues to rise while employment in the field has taken a terrifying nosedive in the last five years, many people feel that journalism education hasn't changed fast enough to give graduates a shot at entering, and staying in, their chosen profession.  Surveying 1900+ professionals, Poynter found that more than half felt that journalism education wasn't keeping pace with changes in the industry.

VIDEO:  "Creating the Journalist Coder," with Cindy Royal, University of Texas, Jeremy Gilbert, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University, Mike Foley, University of Florida, and me, Lisa Williams:  

When I listened to instructors from schools across the country at Journalism Interactive, what I heard was that for many of them, getting to consensus about changing a curriculum that took decades to build was a real slog. Journalists with decades of experience and Ph.D.s with serious scholarly work were, understandably, less than eager to do things that felt like giving up on, or minimizing the importance of, skills and knowledge they'd spent a lifetime acquiring to replace them with classes about entrepreneurship, programming, or data visualization. 

"What would you do if you could start from scratch?" I asked one journalism educator. Seeing the pained expression on their face, I was immediately sorry I'd asked - it's not like they had the freedom to redesign their school from scratch.  

I'll admit, I thought of the "start from scratch" question as entirely hypothetical, but there is, in fact, one School of Communications in the US that IS starting from scratch.  As surprising as it is to find that any university is starting a school of communications today, that's exactly what Montclair State University is doing. 

And Montclair State - part of New Jersey's public higher education system - is doing something really interesting: they're building the newsroom first.  

Michelle Johnson of Boston University talks about bringing real-world newsrooms into collaboration with j-schools as "a teaching-hospital model of journalism education."  Usually, this means partnerships with local news organizations, along with an apprenticeship or internship program, or in BU's case, students run a news bureau with the goal of producing output of high enough quality to be picked up by their area's print, radio, and television broadcast outlets.  

But in Montclair State's case, the strategy isn't "outbound" - the school isn't sending out students or clips to news organizations. The school is bringing news organizations in - hosting news organizations right on campus. No less than eight newsrooms will have a presence at the university's Center for Cooperative Media:  

  • AOL/Patch New Jersey;
  • NJ.com, which includes the online presence of the Newark Star-Ledger, New Jersey's largest paper by circulation, and the Trenton Times, the daily paper of the state's capital;
  • North Jersey Media Group, which publishes several papers including the Bergen County Record;
  • NJ Spotlight, an award-winning watchdog news site;
  • Reuters
  • WBGO, an NPR affiliate;
  • NJPR, a series of four New Jersey stations run by NPR affiliate WNYC, as part of WNYC's effort to expand news coverage of New Jersey;
  • NJTV -- NJTV's 25-person newsroom will be housed at the Center, and the network's nightly news program NJToday will be broadcast live from the campus

The Center will also be the host to the NJ News Commons, which was the Center's first funded project.  The NJ News Commons, a Knight Community Information Challenge winner, will provide training opportunities, host public conversations and conferences, and promote collaborative news projects.  

"We're building a bricks-and-mortar home for the major media organizations in the state," says Matthew Frankel of Montclair State, "a place where NJTV can walk down the hall and bump into NJ Spotlight -- one of the most important policy-oriented sites in the state -- and collaborate on something." 

In an era where there's so much focus on the virtual, Montclair State's new initiative is focused on real-world interaction: "The second thing that this hub is going to provide is bricks and mortar for these entitities that may not necessarily have office space and give them a situation where they have a phone, internet, and conference rooms, as well as an HD studio and radio studio at their disposal.  So the idea is (in part) to take these things that the university has and leveraging them so that media organizations aren't focused on finding money for these things and instead spend that effort on newsgathering."  

The fact that news organizations have a presence on campus offers a unique opportunity for students, Frankel says.  "I'm a product of internships," says Frankel. "I went to school in Ohio but I got to go to Washington DC to intern.  Our students are getting really interesting, valuable, on-campus opportunities -- and we hope the students will be really valuable to [the news organizations] as well."  

This blog is made possible by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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Lisa Williams

Lisa Williams is the Director of Digital Engagement for the Investigative News Network. She is also CEO and founder of Placeblogger.com,
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