NEWS21: An Analysis of Impact – Knight Foundation

NEWS21: An Analysis of Impact


In 2011, the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation committed funding for Arizona State University (ASU) to operate the News21 in-depth digital journalism program. Since 2011, more than 360 students from more than 40 universities have taken part in the program. Participants have produced more than 260 stories, many with multimedia elements, and, in one year alone, 89 different news organizations published News21 content.

The goal of this program review is to assess whether ASU’s stewardship of News21 has met the objectives set forth in the original agreement. The review team was charged with determining if News21 has been able to:

  • Facilitate employment at higher rates for graduates;
  • Facilitate employment in positions where graduates would be able to innovate;
  • Be recognized by news outlets as a trusted provider of quality journalism;
  • Prompt participating universities to innovate within their curricula;
  • Prompt participating news outlets to innovate in their newsrooms.

The researchers combined survey results from News21 alumni and in-depth interviews with stakeholders, including alumni, journalism program administrators, newsroom partners and representatives from the Knight Foundation, The Miami Foundation and ASU.

Key research findings related to the original program objectives include:

  • Just over 88% of alumni survey respondents indicated they have previously worked or remain working in journalism––64% reported that they currently hold jobs in news organizations. Alumni said that participating in News21 was helpful in searching for employment after graduation and in networking throughout their careers.
  • The program’s newsroom partners universally confirmed that News21 is a trusted provider of quality journalism. News21 content has garnered dozens of awards in some of the most prestigious journalism competitions.
  • Journalism program administrators said News21 does not directly impact their curricula, but they value what the initiative offers students. They also indicated that the price of the program was a concern. The current cost of supporting each fellow is approximately $22,000, but the amount schools must pay to send a student to News21 ($11,500) is beyond the reach of many schools, including historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
  • There was little direct evidence that News21 fosters innovation in partner newsrooms. Many news partners tend to be industry leaders in innovation in their own right. However, 84%
    of alumni reported News21 made them more innovative in their approach to journalism and multiple News21 projects have received awards for use of innovative techniques.

The alumni questionnaire and in-depth interviews revealed some additional results relevant to the assessment of News21. These findings cover the topics of skills enhancement, the culture and climate of News21, the long-term effect of News21 on journalism careers and the impact of the journalism produced.

Survey results indicated that the skills most enhanced by participating in News21 were either soft skills like teamwork or personal traits like creativity. Participants who said they are able to innovate on the job mentioned data journalism skills as being most helpful in those efforts.

When asked to evaluate the cultural climate within the News21 program, the participants indicated a generally favorable view of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) within News21, though some stakeholders suggested that DEI efforts should be more intentionally highlighted.

Alumni seem to especially value personal connections fostered by News21 and several suggested that the program should create a more formalized network that would allow graduates to stay connected to ASU and each other throughout their lives.

Academic research and interviews with News21’s publishing partners suggest that assessing the impact of News21’s journalism is difficult and is a challenge shared by the entire industry. Determining the appropriate impact metrics to collect and analyze is key if this becomes a primary objective for the future.

Finally, the researchers make four recommendations:

  1. Involve administrators from partner schools in discussions about the program’s future and institutionalize procedures that might promote more impact on curricula. For example, prioritize participants who will return to their home schools for at least a year or invite faculty from schools that send students to the program to serve as teaching assistants in News21.
  1. Double down on finding new types of partners to publish News21 content and consider involving interested partners earlier in the process. Incorporate a regional component in which partner schools could report on the same topic as the primary News21 cohort and offer that content to regional news outlets.
  2. If innovation goals remain as objectives, what constitutes innovation should be better defined, benchmarks should be set and thorough assessment should be built into annual reviews.
  3. Explore how the program could build on existing diversity, equity and inclusion efforts to identify and mitigate any barriers to selection or participation. Develop closer relationships with HBCUs and other schools with large enrollments of underserved populations. Better understand why women and men have different views on how diverse perspectives are valued in the program.

Our research suggests that News21 has been instrumental in nurturing journalism careers through the production of quality work. There is room for improvement as the program seeks to more fully achieve the original objectives of its funders.