Newsroom-Classroom Panel at ONA: A Bridge to Nowhere?

As yesterday’s Online News Association conference panel about collaboration between universities and newsrooms drew to a close, it was becoming clear that intellectual transactions were just waiting to be made, that a new marketplace must be created. The room had decided that the news biz did indeed have problems and that the academy just might be stocked with the resources needed to solve them.

The only thing standing in the way of better collaboration had been the difficulty so far in matching the problems with the resources. We would need to create a of journalism innovation, I said, where newsroom leaders could submit RFPs and where educators could post the research and technical resources of their students.

So with 10 minutes left in the panel, I whipped open a Word document and projected it on the screen at the front of the room. I was ready to start brainstorming right there and begin making a quick list of research questions and innovation projects. Oh, the excitement of a panel discussion that would be more than just talk! The bridges that would be built!

But then we hit just one small snag. Of the hundred or so people in the room, about 90 percent were from the classroom. Somehow, on an otherwise unremarkable Friday afternoon in Washington, the Statler conference room at the Capital Hilton had transformed in to an ivory tower. We had built a bridge to nowhere.

Larry Dailey from the University of Nevada, Reno, made the good observation after the session that we probably had a marketing problem. We had the words “university” and “academia” in our panel title. We were competing against one called “Optimize and Monetize.” Not really a contest, is it?

All that said, we still had a great group of panelists I had the privilege of moderating. One panelist — Paul Volpe, the deputy politics editor at — made a dead-on observation that makes the homogeneity of the panel moot anyway. “Pitch me,” he told the journalism instructors in the room. He said he gets more proposals than he can handle every day from vendors who are trying to sell a product to The Washington Post. Some of them, he said, are attempting to solve a problem he didn’t even know he had until they made their pitch. If academics want to play a leading role in “research and development” for the news industry, he said we needed to be the ones to identify market needs and build the solutions. Journalists, whose days are more than full simply trying to deal with immediate publishing demands, don’t have time to ponder these things.

He make a good point. If universities want to be R&D shops, then we need to start being the places where services like Pluck or Inform or Apture are born. We need to be the places to create original sites like Slate or MediaStorm or Everyblock. Why not? In Chapel Hill alone we have incredible resources to foster and incubate these kinds of projects — resources like Carolina Launch Pad and the Carolina Challenge. Shoot, we have one of America’s best journalism schools at what The Princeton Review has called the most entrepreneurial university in the country.

The other two panelists are tackling the newsroom-classroom partnership from two different angles. Jay Rosen is getting ready to launch Studio 20 at New York University and Retha Hill is gearing up for her second year as director of the New Media Innovation Lab at Arizona State University.

Rosen said he was trying to shake the metaphor of j-school as boot camp and replace it with the metaphor of the studio theater — maybe like the one at Yale. “If you imagine yourselves that way, people will treat you that way,” he said.

Studio 20 aims to partner with a news organization around a specific project. That project will then get taken “in to the studio” and become an integrated part of the curriculum. In fact, it becomes the whole curriculum. Everything about the Studio 20 master’s degree program is centered around these projects. If the Studio had been up and running this year, for example, Rosen said they would have partnered perhaps with Talking Points Memo to do a project.

When the program gets up and running next year, it will have 15 master’s students and three instructors. Rosen also said the program would have visiting fellows from the profession who would help lead some of the projects.

Rosen’s suggestion for academics who want to make better connections to industry:

  • Make a personal connection to a decision maker by teaching that person something. Become a one-on-one tutor demonstrating that your expertise can fill his or her need.
  • Offer to build something for free for that decision maker’s news organization.

Hill’s program in Arizona is already up and working with clients such as Gannett and One of the products they’ve created is a Facebook application for the Arizona Republic’s coverage of high school sports.

Clients approach the New Media Innovation Lab, the students consult with the client and then provide a demo.

At ASU, the experience is extra-curricular. Hill pays her grad students $10.75 an hour and her undergrads $9.75 an hour. Each works about 20 hours a week in the lab. The students come not only from journalism, but engineering and finance as well. For each role in her lab, Hill said she has six or seven openings, with anywhere between 10 and 40 applicants for each role. One of the challenges, she said, was that some of the more experienced programmers and designers can easily make more money by taking their skills outside the university.

One thing that struck me is that while students in these programs are doing a great job creating products, there isn’t much time left for creating knowledge, for creating broader theories from the specifics of the project and engaging the research faculty to better understand the broader lessons about how or why a particular product works or fails.

Retha and Jay ARE building bridges. Paul Volpe has some great ideas about creating a place where students can train alongside newsroom veterans who want to re-train. And I see more and more examples of these kinds of partnerships every year.

So what if we didn’t get to create our database of newsroom client needs and academic resources yesterday. I’d like to do it here. You have a resource in your classroom, or a problem in your newsroom? Post it to the comments are here and we’ll keep the conversation going.

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3 thoughts on “Newsroom-Classroom Panel at ONA: A Bridge to Nowhere?”

  1. There is a general misconception — evident in your posting — that research + academia in journalism is the boring end of the equation you seek to solve. No one thinks or says that R&D is boring in the space program, because astronauts make it crystal clear that R&D saves their lives every minute of every day they’re aloft. Neither do general medical practitioners say R&D in the health industry is boring, because it helps them cure patients every day.

    Neither should journalist practitioners say that journalism R&D is boring: but *they do* … perhaps it’s because they’re closed to new ideas (there is evidence to support this) or because they don’t realise how much they depend on our work, or because the previous work of some journalism academics has steered away from cutting edge R&D. We need to keep up with the cutting edge if we’re to BE AT the cutting edge. We’re in the business of news … our R&D news should be the newsiest of all.

  2. Amen, John. Good journalism can save lives. It can help readers prosper and can make people feel better about their choices in a democracy, I believe.

    Do you think industry or academia is more cutting edge at this point? Or do you believe that — as some have suggested to me — that the distinction between the two is false?

  3. No I think there’s a real distinction … because what I do now *is* quite different from what I finished doing for News Corp in 2002. Now as a journalism researcher/educator, I am paid to read, talk, think, research, experiment and pass on new knowledge. Working for News Corp, the focus was always on production of the next edition/bulletin/whatever, and reading-talking-thinking-researching-experimenting had to take place in spare time, while passing on new knowledge was problematic because field staff in journalism seem to innately distrust research staff. Pity … because research staff keep field staff afloat 99 percent of the time, in journalism as in all professions/industries. Let’s start a movement to promote the simple idea of Journalism R&D!

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