Report: The road to journalism’s future runs straight through college campuses

Students aren’t the future of journalism. They’re the present.

That’s the bottom line of a report from the New America Foundation, a public-policy think-tank chaired by Google’s Eric Schmidt that includes prominent journalistic thinkers such as The Atlantic‘s James Fallows among its leadership.

The report, “Shaping 21st Century Journalism,” concludes that America’s 483 (or so) journalism schools must fill the gap left by dwindling professional news staffs by refocusing their efforts on the creation of content for public consumption. The report analogizes the role that j-schools can play to that of teaching hospitals, where doctors-in-training serve the community by providing direct patient care. It faults journalism schools for failing to step up and assume primary responsibility for meeting the public’s information needs, while acknowledging noteworthy exceptions, including bilingual Spanish/English news outlets at the University of Texas-El Paso and at California State University Northridge.

That journalism students have a central role to play in a post-apocalyptic news-industry future is of course not a new idea. For years, college journalists from Michigan State and the University of Maryland have been feeding stories to the professional media from under-covered state Capitols. Even the eminent New York Times has, since January 2010, used graduate students from the City University of New York to staff a hyper-local Brooklyn news blog, The Local.

“[T]he mere existence of ‘actual’ reporting projects at journalism schools is not necessarily new; what is new are the underlying purposes of these projects, their ambitious scope and the notion that they function as genuine news institutions, not simply class projects,” the New America authors write. “To build a healthy information ecosystem … journalism schools everywhere must catch up.”

Among the report’s primary recommendations:

  • Create federally funded journalism scholarships through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to enable low-income students to become news gatherers.
  • Build partnerships among journalism schools to jointly provide community coverage and to share educational materials.
  • Encourage community foundations and the professional news media to invest more heavily in research and development of new models for delivering local news.
  • Liberalize FCC licensure policies to encourage innovative uses of the broadcast airwaves.

(Authors C.W. Anderson, Tom Glaisyer, Jason Smith and Marika Rothfeld recognize the Student Press Law Center several times as one of the resources on which students can rely on for help in surmounting impediments to gathering news, and we appreciate the shout-out.)

The report is an intriguing start to a needed conversation, but it is just that, a start.

The authors briefly acknowledge — but make no effort to resolve — the tension between student editorial independence and school-directed news coverage. While journalism faculties are increasingly populated by award-winning professional veterans whose guidance can supercharge students’ reporting, the relationship ideally should remain one of “guidance.” When the adviser becomes the editor, students lose the autonomy to take ownership of news coverage decisions — and advisers lose all insulation from culpability for the end product.

The report also fails to grapple with the unspoken issue of legal protection to bring students’ rights in line with the professionals they are being asked to replace. Students need the assurance of a robust reporter’s privilege that enables them to confidently promise confidentiality to their sources; too many states — Texas and Florida among them — extend the reporter’s privilege only to salaried professionals. And they need laws like those in California and Illinois that protect college journalists against retaliation if their reporting discomforts the powers-that-be running their institutions.

And ultimately, neither the New America authors nor any of the journalism sages (inside the profession or commentating from the outside) can answer the elephant-in-the-room question: If students do the work that we used to pay professionals to do, then how will these superbly trained apprentices make a living when they are no longer students?