Skip to content
Guest Thinkers

Universities as Innovation Hubs for American Journalism

–Guest post by Jan Lauren Boyles, American University doctoral student.

Eloquent eulogies have wistfully mourned the Ghosts of Journalism Past – the muckrakers, the ink-stained wretches and the shoe-leather reporters. The funerary narratives have spooked aspiring practitioners of Journalism Present, particularly cub reporters in American journalism schools.

Undergraduate students brave enough to choose journalism as a major are constantly besieged by the gloom and doom prospects for their future employment. Yes, massive downsizing efforts have decimated traditional newsrooms. And yes, the industry itself is a rudderless ship – adrift in a sea of content overload, crowdsourced material and confounding business models.

But journalism is not dead. At this vital time in the lifespan of news, journalism schools should re-orient themselves, infusing innovation into the industry itself through research translation.

In my last Big Think post, I argued that journalism schools struggled to locate their appropriate station in the academy because of an ambiguous disciplinary lineage tied to divergent fields like sociology, political science and psychology – among others. Today journalism schools can forge a distinctive identity through rich, real-world research to gain legitimacy and respect on campus. Furthermore, such study can help journalism redefine its image and reconsider its future.

In “The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” authors Leonard Downie and Michael Schudson advocate such an approach. The duo champion j-schools as “laboratories for digital innovation.” Using an academic lens to address journalistic woes “can enhance the teaching and research missions of universities.” That recommendation was echoed in the Knight Commission’s 2009 report, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age.” The scholars similarly state, “Institutions of higher learning should likewise regard promoting community information flow as central to their mission.”

Such research translation could include:

  • Operation of university-sponsored news outlets, newsrooms and wire services that serve local communities
  • Creation of new pro-am community, Web-based collaborations
  • Development of niche publications that capitalize upon the university’s strongest realm of expertise (the arts, business, politics, science)
  • Scholarship investment could yield a positive externality to the communities served: quality local news. In many cases, journalism schools are now filing a vacuum vacated by legacy media. The FCC’s 2011 report, “The Information Needs of Communities: The Changing Media in a Broadband Age,” contains a chapter on how journalism schools can assist in local news creation. As Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism’s Dean Nicholas Lemann shared with the FCC’s working group, “With the typical metro news editor looking at a half-empty newsroom, the question isn’t whether to cover local issues with journalism students or veteran reporters, it’s whether to cover local issues with journalism students or not at all,” Lemann says.

    Achieving success will not be simple, as journalism school administrators will initially need to seek internal support to launch such costly, broad-based initiatives. Released earlier this year, the Carnegie-Knight Report on the Future of Journalism Education (a project headquartered at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center) emphasized that j-school deans must curry favor from the highest institutional levels – efforts that include knocking on the university president’s door. Additional institutional supports, such as redefining tenure guidelines so that research creativity will be rewarded through promotion, must also be assessed. And external support – funding from foundations, charitable trusts and private donors – remains another crucial component to the program’s success or failure.

    Despite the arduous road, some institutions have already accepted the challenge. At New York University, Prof. Jay Rosen’s course launched a hyperlocal in the East Village. “Deciding how to launch the site, how it should operate, and how to make it effective in the East Village community are ideal tasks for students,” Rosen told the FCC panel. Through the work, students are “immersed in the innovation puzzle in journalism.”

    At American University, veteran journalist and professor Chuck Lewis launched the Investigative Reporters Workshop which produces originally reported investigative stories in collaboration with PBS Frontline, MSNBC and other news outlets.  Through this process, IRW researches and experiments with new models for creating and delivering investigative projects. The collaboration among faculty, students and professionals also features iLab, an initiative that identifies and evaluates new business models for investigative reporting.

    Solving the puzzle will keep journalism alive and well, albeit a ghost of its former self.

    –Guest post by Jan Lauren Boyles, a doctoral student at American University’s School of Communication.  She currently serves as project manager at AU’s Center for Social Media. Before joining American, Boyles served for five years as a faculty member and Director of Advising at West Virginia University’s P.I. Reed School of Journalism. She is also a former newspaper reporter for the Charleston Daily Mail.

    Smarter faster: the Big Think newsletter
    Subscribe for counterintuitive, surprising, and impactful stories delivered to your inbox every Thursday

    Read other posts by AU doctoral students and find out more about the doctoral program in Communication at American University.

    See Also:

    Reading List for Doctoral Seminar on Advanced Media Theory.

    Internet Politics Scholars Join School of Communication at American University

    Science Journalists Online: Emerging Practices and Shifting Roles


    Up Next