What universities can do for journalism: Innovate!

By Steve Outing

Thanks to the enthusiasm of David Cohn, a.k.a DigiDave, the Carnival of Journalism has been resurrected. Somehow I missed participating the first time around several years ago, but with a name like that it must be fun, right? So I’m in this time.

The Carnival revolves around a monthly topic, with a bunch of smart people in the journalism field presenting varied points of view, usually on their own blogs, but republished and/or linked to on the Carnival site. David chose as this month’s topic: “The changing role of Universities for the information needs of a community.”

OK, I’ve got some strong opinions on that, especially now that I work at the University of Colorado Boulder running its fledgling Digital Media Test Kitchen program, which I founded.

David asked us to ponder a Knight Commission recommendation to “Increase the role of higher education … as hubs of journalistic activity.” (He also wrote: “No box here to write inside of.” … Good, otherwise I’d probably go outside of it.)

It’s all great that some university journalism programs are putting students to work as reporters in new forms of news media. Their work makes up for some of the journalism that’s been lost in recent years as mainstream news organizations laid off thousands upon thousands of professional journalists. And students get to learn in a dynamic, innovative new news environment, rather than a depressing old-media newsroom in decline.

Some students at UC-Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, for instance, work as interns for the non-profit Bay Citizen news website in a joint partnership which also includes an innovation initiative. The City University of New York (CUNY) Journalism School is collaborating with the New York Times and has students producing neighborhood (or “hyper-local,” if you prefer) news for The Local. Fantastic.

However, I want my university and others to go further — or more specifically, to look further into the future.

My focus of late has been on identifying emerging technologies that will or might have significant impacts on journalism and the news industry. Actually, the most fun part of my current job is scanning the horizon, spotting some fledgling technology or oddball Internet or mobile start-up, and thinking, “That could be really useful as a journalistic tool!” or “There’s a business model that might work in the news field!” Often, the technologists and entrepreneurs I run across do not have news or solving the news crisis on their radar screens.

At CU, I’ve been lucky to have the student-run news website (nope, there’s no print edition) to work with in experimenting with new technologies on both the editorial and advertising sides. The CU Independent‘s editors have been eager (or at least willing to be persuaded) to try new experiments. (Since they make the decisions, it’s the editors’ call whether or not to try what sometimes may seem like crazy new ideas.)

They’re trying things like website and mobile social gaming tied to news to increase reader engagement and news awareness. … The editor-in-chief is starting a video channel where she’ll answer student text questions with short video answers, as a way to better interact with the campus community and put a human face on the CU Independent brand. … A couple of graduate students are working with me to develop a premium membership model for collegiate media, and the CU Independent is going to try it out when it’s ready. … And more.

The student editors also are encouraged to innovate by their staff media advisor, Gil Asakawa, a news and new-media veteran who joined the CU Journalism School last fall after most recently working for MediaNews Group.

Gil and I talk and collaborate a lot, and he recently remarked to me how refreshing his new job has been in terms of trying new innovations. Where implementing a new technology at MNG more often than not took months of meetings and deliberation, in the university media environment, you just do it. Now.

I think that’s where university journalism programs — and especially student media — can push old news organizations forward. We can run with ideas that a prudent and more conservative newspaper publisher would put off. And in fairly short order, we can tell that publisher and the rest of the news industry how it turned out, and if others should follow our lead.

Bless university student journalists, but their work in covering their local communities is often not as good as that of experienced professional journalists (many now in other careers, unfortunately). That’s not an insult, just a fact.

But I think that beyond producing community journalism, where student journalists and Journalism Schools can best serve their communities is by innovating (dare I say) radically where the traditional media serving their cities or towns innovate too conservatively or hardly at all.

Communities need better information, as the Knight Commission has concluded. Journalism schools and journalism students can provide it, in a roundabout way, by teaching professional news organizations (old and new) how to leverage new and emerging technologies and techniques to create a better-informed citizenry (and perhaps make enough money to afford to cover their communities adequately).

The Knight Commission is correct in urging universities and their Journalism programs to do more for their communities in these tumultuous days of media transition.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!