Len Downie: The teaching hospital model works, but it will require drastic change

Journalism students are best served when they actually produce serious, real-world work, the former Washington Post editor argues. But many journalism schools aren’t set up for that.

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When the Nieman Journalism Lab asked for my thoughts at the beginning of another academic year, I realized how my career has been book-ended by meaningful experiences in journalism education.

At the Ohio State University School of Journalism in the early 1960s, we learned primarily by producing, under the supervision of ambitious professional journalists on the school’s faculty, a large-circulation daily newspaper that covered the campus and relevant news in the city and state around us. It made a summer internship on a metropolitan daily a familiar next step.

Now, after 44 years as an editor and reporter at The Washington Post, I’m starting my fourth year on the faculty of Arizona State University’s innovative Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, where it’s my turn to help today’s students do professional-level journalism. Cronkite is one of a growing — but still too small — number of journalism schools around the country producing vitally needed journalism for their communities, states, and the nation, while also teaching, researching, and experimenting with mass communications in the digital age.

Students working in the Phoenix and Washington, D.C. bureaus of the Cronkite News Service cover government and public affairs for newspapers, television stations, and websites throughout Arizona. Students at Cronkite NewsWatch report and produce nightly half-hour local newscasts on the state’s largest public television station. Cronkite students worked with others from 10 universities across the country on this year’s Carnegie-Knight News21 national investigative reporting project on voting rights. Their stories and multimedia have been published by a number of newspapers and news websites, including The Washington Post, NBCNews.com, the Center for Public Integrity, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Arizona Republic, and nonprofit news site members of the Investigative News Network.

The Cronkite School is not alone. The student-staffed Capital News Service of the University of Maryland’s Merrill College of Journalism has provided news from College Park, Annapolis and Washington for that state’s newspapers and television stations. Students at Northwestern’s Medill News Service have produced journalism for local and national news media from bureaus in Chicago and Washington. Missouri’s journalism school has produced a local newspaper for the city of Columbia, staffed by faculty and students, for more than a century. Temple, Columbia, CUNY, NYU, Illinois, Columbia College in Chicago, Michigan State, UC-Berkeley, USC, and Texas have experimented with city and neighborhood news sites staffed by their journalism students. American, Columbia, Boston University, Northeastern, Wisconsin, and Iowa have enabled students and faculty to do investigative work for a variety of news media partners.

Advocates of university-produced journalism compare it to medical schools placing their students in teaching hospitals. Experienced (often prize-winning) journalists on the faculties of these journalism schools give their students rigorous, realistic experiences in professional journalism, multimedia innovation, and media entrepreneurship. The students can get a leg up on competition for jobs when they graduate. Future employers of the best students can use their help in coping with the changing news media environment. The schools’ news media partners can share in journalism that downsized newsrooms can no longer produce on their own. Their audiences, including communities around universities, can benefit from more journalism that matters to them.

Read more at niemanlab.org

 

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