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New models for news: Northeastern University

by: Sandy Rowe |

June 28, 2011

New models for news: Northeastern University

Northeastern University’s Journalism Department proudly displays 19 story summaries and links to the full text on its website. What school wouldn’t? Those are the 19 stories that have been published on the front page of The Boston Globe since Professor Walter (Robby) Robinson began teaching an investigative seminar at the university for hand-selected undergraduate and graduate students four years ago.

By Sandy Rowe

Robinson came to his alma mater with the best of credentials. He had worked for The Globe for 34 years as a reporter and editor and had led its Spotlight investigative team’s reporting of the Catholic priest abuse scandal that will be cited for decades as a model of the imperatives of investigative reporting and the impact it can bring.

From the beginning, Robinson and School of Journalism director Stephen D. Burgard decided Robinson would go beyond teaching investigative skills and assigning “practice stories.” “Students are either doing a rehearsal for journalism or they are doing real journalism,” Burgard said. He believes real journalism is the fertile ground.

Robinson sees what he is doing today as a potential model. “Our modest start at Northeastern can be replicated by any adventurous journalism program. Journalism teachers need not limit themselves to wringing their hands at the plight of the news business. Nor should students need to wait for newsroom internships or graduation to do reporting that gets published in a metro newspaper—reporting that makes a difference. And savvy newspaper editors ought to
welcome the help.”

Robinson’s class, usually about a half-dozen seniors or graduate students, learns how to “scrub” local candidates’ and public officials’ records through the full range of public databases available. Robinson then has them do initial reporting from that material and from the ample cache of story ideas he has. He guides students through every step of the reporting, occasionally conducting the most important in-person interviews himself with students in attendance. He keeps Globe editors informed and understands they will edit even after he finishes.

Marty Baron, editor of The Boston Globe, who benefits from the decades-long relationship with Walter Robinson at Northeastern, also sees what the university program gets: “We’re the necessary piece.” If Northeastern students were doing the same stories and published them on the university’s website, they wouldn’t have any impact, he says. True enough. Newspapers in almost every city, despite losing print circulation at a five-percent-per-year clip, still have a reach beyond other local news outlets and still have the voice of authority, if no longer the voice of God, in reporting matters of importance in their communities. Their brands and coverage matter.

Baron would love to have Robinson teaching an investigative class in the newsroom where he once worked and still has a desk. “And why couldn’t we offer a class for the public on researching public records, a citizen journalism academy,” Baron asks hypothetically. Baron is acting on the conclusion that even metro dailies cannot supply all—or even most—of the investigative and accountability journalism needs of the community. “We can’t be the only ones doing that,” he says. “You can’t be the eyes and ears for everybody and everything.” He can see a time when a wider group of people is contributing, with Globe encouragement. He sees how a working or retired journalist could contract with a newspaper to teach an extension class at a community college on investigative techniques and data mining. “We need an RFP [request for proposal] for investigative reporting,” he says of news businesses.

Despite his determination, the barriers are real, Baron says. “It takes just as much time as if doing it ourselves.” Also, he notes, newsroom culture can work against change: “In all newsrooms, there’s always a reason not to do something.” Having a former highly regarded employee leading the university project makes the Northeastern and Globe partnership unique, all involved acknowledge, and would be difficult, but not impossible, to replicate. Given the number of experienced investigative reporters available in most markets, it is possible to envision a metro newspaper sponsoring an investigative reporter instructor at the university to kick-start this variation of collaboration. Virtually all of two dozen journalism deans surveyed would welcome such a plan.

This is the last in a series excerpts from “Partners of Necessity: The Case for Collaboration in Local Investigative Reporting,” written by Sandy Rowe, former editor of The Oregonian, as Knight Fellow this year at the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.

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The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

By Michele McLellan, 06/28/11 at 5:52 am