Five grant-making lessons from the rise of NewsU

Journalism / Article

I’m in St. Petersburg, Fla., at the 10th birthday of News University, celebrating the more than 325,000 journalists, students, teachers and communicators who have signed up to use it and get better.

We once thought the target for registered users should be 1,200. Really. But more on that later.

In 2003, Knight Foundation gave its first grant to The Poynter Institute for what eventually became News University. RELATED LINKS

We thought e-learning could help grow journalism education and training. Companies such as Microsoft were teaching online. But the news industry lagged behind. We worried about journalists stuck out in the middle of nowhere, no good schools around, no newsroom training at all, no money for conferences.

At the same time, Knight wanted a long-term Poynter partnership. Journalists liked Poynter. Its website was popular, averaging 34,000 daily visitors. (I crowed about that traffic! Had I looked beyond journalist-to-journalist sites, I would have realized it was not all that great.) Lesson No. 1: Get out of the box.

My first description of NewsU, from that original grant: “a portal called News University … to link thousands of journalists to the growing number of midcareer training programs at good schools of journalism …” Link to universities? Not really. NewsU moved faster than the schools, did its own thing, marketed, found a community. Lesson No. 2: If it’s not working, let it go.

When NewsU officially launched in 2005, Poynter was drawing about 1,000 people a year to its physical location. We thought teaching “at least” 1,200 people online would be a reasonable goal. Wrong again. Technology blasted individual learning to heights beyond our imagining. Lesson No. 3: Never underestimate the digital age.

We got some of the basics right. Journalists were desperate for training (8 in 10 said so in our first national study, and it is now seems to be about 9 in 10.) And Poynter did become a leader in e-learning for journalists. Lesson No. 4: The general direction is what matters. Or, as Joi Ito from the MIT Media Lab would say, these days a compass is better than a map.

When NewsU clearly could do more, higher goals were set. Karen Dunlap, Howard Finberg and their team worked hard to make it so. In all, Knight put roughly $5 million into NewsU. Seems like a lot, but it’s only about $15 per registered user (and worth every penny in the opinion of this zealot.)

The Knight-funded courses on NewsU are free. Self-directed courses abound, from a game I worked on that the Newseum donated, Be a Reporter, to the popular Digital Tools Tutorials co-sponsored by the American Press Institute, Poynter and Knight.

Two thirds of NewsU’s signups are from journalists, from a mix of media. The rest? Students, faculty, communications people and even members of the public interested in how news works. Users average three classes each; 63 percent say the modules are either helpful or extremely helpful in getting better on the job; 79 percent say they are willing to try another.

In recent years, Poynter has partnered with major news organizations to provide affordable training to all the journalists in a given company. One of the original goals was for NewsU to inspire news companies to do more training. It took a while, but there you are. Lesson No. 5: Even if it hurts, sometimes you must be patient.

Eric Newton is senior adviser to the president at Knight Foundation.