A new direction: J-labs turn classrooms into newsrooms

A wire service covering the inner workings of Maryland politics, a community website following the at-risk population in Durham, N.C., and a national investigative reporting project tracking the evolution of election laws are among the ways the nation’s top journalism schools are working to keep up with a rapidly changing media environment.

Today, journalism schools are increasingly transforming their classrooms into newsrooms – offering new opportunities for students but raising new legal and philosophical questions.

While each of these “journalism labs” is different, they all share a basic starting point. A small group of students — usually no more than a dozen — works under a professor who typically has years of reporting experience. While the course is completed for a grade, the professor effectively serves as the editor-in-chief of an online publication, guiding the content selection process and shoring up students’ copy before it is published.

“When you have an entrepreneurial startup like this, students are going to be thrown into a daily news operation,” said Jan Schaffer, executive director of American University’s J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism. “They have to figure out how to report the story, what kinds of media to use to report it and how to distribute it. I think that’s an invaluable program for students.”

Although these labs provide students with unquestionably useful opportunities to learn from some of the best journalism practitioners in the industry, they do not come without their concerns from the student media community.

Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMonte is concerned that the ultimate editorial authority in many of these programs does not lie with the student reporters, as it does at traditional student media outlets, but rather with the faculty that manage them.

“You have to be mindful of the trade-off that’s being made when students lose their editorial autonomy,” LoMonte said. “One of the most important learning experiences in college journalism is serving as the editor-in-chief of the independent student newspaper who has to make the final judgment call. If you absolve students of that opportunity, you lose an important learning experience.”

Across the country, models vary

Among the first fully-fledged journalism labs in the country was the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service, launched in 1989.

The CNS model is unique. As staffing issues have forced many Maryland newspapers to scale back on their coverage of local governance, students in UM’s program have stepped up to fill that void.

CNS student reporters are assigned to work at one of four bureaus — Annapolis, College Park, Washington, D.C., or the service’s broadcast studio. Students are then “thrown right into the game” of covering the news of the day at their respective locations, said Adrianne Flynn, director of the program’s Washington bureau.

Flynn said the basic goal of CNS is to “serve the public good by giving them news of high public importance from the state capital while also training excellent journalists.”

The program shares its content with several major regional and national publications, including The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post. This, said College Park bureau director Sean Mussenden, gives students the added bonus of having their work published in professional media outlets — an opportunity nowhere to be found in the more traditional non-publishing journalism course.

While Flynn, Mussenden and Rafael Lorente, the Annapolis bureau director, all agreed that they are the final content arbiters for their respective bureaus, they emphasized that CNS is at its core an educational program before it is a news service.

“There’s no reason for a journalism college to run a news organization for the sake of running a news organization,” Lorente said. “We’re not here to compete with the private sector. It’s important to publish because of the experience it’s providing students.”

Much of the same is true at the University of North Carolina, where journalism professor Jock Lauterer runs the Carolina Community Media Project.

Lauterer described the Carolina Community Media Project as “relentlessly local,” with its basic goal to cover the local Carrboro and Durham communities. He calls himself the students’ “editor, their coach, their zen master and their old professor.”

While Lauterer’s project is fully integrated into the curriculum — students participate by enrolling in a journalism class — another UNC journalism lab is still in the process of fitting into the school’s course structure.

John Clark’s Reese Felts Digital News Project is run solely as an extracurricular activity, though student journalists who participate are paid a small stipend.

Unlike the Carolina Community Media Project, Reese News and its sister website, WhichWayNC, focus their coverage on issues all across the state, from local Chapel Hill stories to state politics in North Carolina.

The basic philosophy of Reese News, Clark said, is learning by doing. Like other journalism labs, Clark believes that some of the best journalism lessons are learned when students are working on deadline, on the job.

Marc Cooper, founder of University of Southern California journalism lab Neon Tommy, agreed.

“We don’t treat our student journalists as student journalists, but as professional journalists,” Cooper said. “I think that mindset helps them grow immensely.”

A replacement for student newspapers?

Journalism labs like Reese News and Neon Tommy, however, pose potential problems for the independent student newspapers on their respective campuses.

Some advisers and student editors said they have lost both staff resources and readership to the journalism labs at their schools — a surprising and sometimes irksome source of competition.

Kevin Schwartz, general manager of The Daily Tar Heel at UNC, said Reese News took a good deal of the newspaper’s senior staff members a few years ago, largely because the fledgling online news source offered a larger stipend.

Similarly, Giovanni Osorio, editor-in-chief of USC’s Daily Trojan, said he has noticed more students moving toward Neon Tommy — a trend he finds disturbing.

“Print journalism is still around and we provide that experience for students, whereas these labs just publish online,” he said.

Cooper disagreed, saying there is no major competition between the two publications and that Neon Tommy is structured “unreservedly as a student publication.”

Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism — which will open officially in the fall semester following a $4.6 million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation — presents another interesting case study. While the student newspapers at large universities are able to maintain relatively stable staff sizes despite popular journalism labs, Mercer offers a far smaller talent pool for the Cluster student newspaper to pull from.

In addition to having the school’s approximately 50 journalism students produce original content when the Center for Collaborative Journalism opens, it will also house the staffs of The Telegraph, a local Georgia newspaper, as well as Georgia Public Broadcasting.

Tim Regan-Porter, the Center’s director, acknowledged that the presence of professional journalists may be a pull for Cluster staff members to get involved with the Center in place of their work on the newspaper. Still, he maintained that “none of us wants this endeavor to make the student newspaper an afterthought. How exactly we encourage students to work on both isn’t something we’ve exactly figured out.”

The Knight Foundation has made journalism education reform one of its priorities, calling on universities to fill the void left by shrinking professional media outlets. The foundation believes schools need to become creators of original journalism through an approach comparable “teaching hospital” model.

Students and professors at several campuses said they don’t see any issues between journalism labs and student newspapers.

Samantha Kiesel, editor-in-chief of The Daily Illini at the University of Illinois, said there is no overlap between the student newspaper and the school’s CU-CitizenAccess journalism lab.

Brant Houston, founder of CU-CitizenAccess, thinks this is because the lab’s coverage is focused largely on poverty-related issues in the community, rather than campus events and student affairs that the Illini covers.

Schaffer has observed that most journalism labs are focused on niche news whereas student newspapers are focused strictly on campus news, and said she has not noticed tension.

College Media Association Vice President Rachele Kanigel, who advises the Golden Gate Xpress at San Francisco State University, believes both journalism labs and increasing unpaid internship opportunities in the media industry have contributed to staff reductions at some schools’ student newspapers.

“What’s happening is that students have a lot more options now for getting credit and preprofessional experience, and that really does have an impact,” she said.

Jason Manning, director of student media at Arizona State University, said the school’s newspaper has had to compete with the popular News21 journalism lab, but doesn’t necessarily think that is a bad thing.

“I think the experience of participating in student-run media is a vital part of the journalism education mix,” he said. “The ‘live, without a net’ nature of it teaches judgment and responsibility in ways that no other program can. It is not a better experience, it is just different in a way that can’t be replicated.”

At the end of the day, said Yasmeen Abutaleb, editor-in-chief of The Diamondback at the University of Maryland, what matters most is whether student journalists are getting clips that can ultimately help land them a job.

“Journalism can only teach you so much in a classroom,” Abutaleb said. “The only reason I’ve been able to get internships is because I’ve been published, and I’m sure that’s true of everyone.”

First Amendment concerns

In addition to being a potential source of competition in the market for student newspapers, emerging journalism labs have also prompted some questions from First Amendment advocates.

“You have to be mindful that, at the end of the day, the professor leading this program is a university employee,” LoMonte said. “It’s not a remote possibility that a college would use control over its professors to influence the students’ editorial product.”

Most lab directors interviewed said the fact that they are not readily covering university affairs has kept them out of any hot water with administrators.

There has been occasional controversy, however,

When Capital News Service filed an open records request to gain access to disciplinary records of students who had allegedly committed sexual assault, it took a great deal of time to get the university to comply, Flynn said.

Flynn added that state legislators have in the past complained to UM administrators about CNS coverage.

While CNS and other major labs have never faced a lawsuit from a source, the structure of these journalism training programs poses an interesting question: with whom does the ultimate legal liability for content lie?

Traditionally, LoMonte said, legal liability rests with student journalists — even in a school-sponsored publication — if it is clear that the students are calling the shots and have final editorial authority over their product.

However, because faculty have the final say in programs like CNS, LoMonte believes these lab environments are a different story.

“It’s hard for a college to disclaim liability if the professor is editing copy and controlling publishing,” he said.

Though not a legal problem, another great dilemma for lab directors, said Lauterer, of the Carolina Community Media Project, is the challenge that comes with having to serve as the students’ editor while assigning them a grade at the end of the day.

“That’s one of the most subjective, daunting tasks that comes with this,” Lauterer said.

CMA’s Kanigel believes that, as long as journalism labs are not branding themselves as student publications, there are no problems with faculty serving as editors.

“The more skills a student can develop the better off they’re going to be, and these programs help with that,” she said.

LoMonte agreed.

“There’s a lot to be said for learning your craft under the coaching of Pulitzer-winning professionals in the prime of their career,” he said. “If you look at this as a supplement where students are able to publish work that used to be thrown into the professor’s trash can, then it’s nothing but a good thing.”

Filling a void

Like the student newspapers at their respective campuses, the fundamental goal of most journalism labs is simple: provide the most thorough, comprehensive coverage possible to the public.

Few tackle this endeavor with the same depth and scope as the News21 project.

News21 — a national program that brings together student journalists from across the country to produce in-depth multimedia content for major national media — was created in 2005 with support of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Knight Foundation.

Though News21 labs have spread to individual journalism schools nationwide, the program’s nucleus still rests with its national operation, based out of Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

In the past few years, News21 has produced major investigative reports on topics like food safety and transportation. This year — under the direction of award-winning professional journalists — students are working to produce a project on voter rights in the United States.

“Students going into journalism today essentially have to be digital decathletes. They aren’t necessarily experts on all multimedia skills, but they have to be adept enough at them to get by,” said Jody Brannon, a former national director of News21. “I think those are the skills this program is going to provide.”

In a similar vein to News21’s public service goals, Illinois’ CU-CitizenAccess believes that by partnering with various local media outlets, it has been able to get its reporting out more readily and effectively to the community.

“That and educating our students is what we’re about here,” said Houston, the program’s director.

Moving forward, Schaffer believes the journalism lab model will continue to catch on at journalism schools around the country.

“These programs are about more than popularity — they’re real curriculum decisions. It’s one way to really get people involved in convergence without having them take too many classes,” Schaffer said. “They make a lot of sense, and I think there’s no denying [these labs] are part of the future.”

By Seth Zweifler, SPLC staff writer.