The ‘teaching hospital’ — a goal for journalism education

Eric Newton, Knight Foundation’s senior adviser to the president, addressed Dutch educators on Nov. 20 at a conference on the teaching hospital model of journalism education. Above is the video.

Below is an edited, updated and slightly longer version of the talk.

Thanks to editor-in-chief Bart Brouwers from and René van Zanten and Rick van Dijk from the Netherlands Press Fund for their kind invitation to keynote this symposium, “De Journalist in opleiding” — The Journalist in Training. Thanks most of all to Jack and Jim Knight. They donated the fortune they made building an extraordinary newspaper group to Knight Foundation, which continues their work in journalism and communities. Without them, I most certainly would not be here.


Searchlights and Sunglasses

Continue the conversation with #edshift and at

Keynote, the word, means the single note upon which a key, or a system of notes, is founded. So I’ll do my best to hit that note. But whether anyone wants to sing along, that’s another matter.

This talk covers the “teaching hospital model” of journalism education. In discussing it, let us be radically clear about three things. The first is that there is not, in my opinion, any current example in the world today of a fully formed teaching hospital for journalism education. I believe it is an aspiration. The second is that working together, students, professionals and professors can build the ultimate teaching hospital for journalism. And the third is if it is built out, I think this model will help lead journalism to a better future in the 21st Century.

I hope after today you will consider moving journalism education in the Netherlands and in Europe further in this direction.

The teaching hospital for journalism education rests upon the ancient idea that people learn by doing. There’s a quote often attributed to Ben Franklin in the United States. It is on all the quotation websites. You can look it up. It says, Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”  The only problem with that: Ben Franklin may have never written it. No original can be found. When you do your homework, however, when you learn by doing, you discover this idea is not 200 years old. It is more than 2,000 years old. Confucian philosopher Xunzi seems to have written it down first. It’s a Chinese proverb, commonly translated thusly: “I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand.” Education thrives through learning by doing.

Farmers, lawyers and others

As the United States was moving from an agricultural nation to an industrial one, our nation created dozens of land-grant universities. These colleges were designed to create practical education in the study of science, the military, engineering and especially agriculture. In the century since, these land-grant universities improved American farming. A Department of Agricultural study said for every dollar invested, the public got $10 in benefit. New seeds, new plants, new farming and food processing techniques, all were developed through those land-grant agricultural programs, created because students and their professors were learning by doing.

Today in the United States, law schools have spawned some 800 law clinics. Professors and students handle some very difficult cases. Students can handle cases alone, even at times arguing in court. A dozen of the legal clinics specialize in Supreme Court cases. They’ve been involved in some of the most important victories that we’ve had. Law schools believe that learning by doing helps students master skills faster. The clinics motivate and invigorate them. Abstractions become real; ethics becomes easier to teach.

Learning by doing is not limited to agriculture and law. In the arts, students at the more than 600 college-level music programs routinely perform live in the real-world orchestras and jazz ensembles and all other kinds of real performances for real audiences. We have students sitting in with some of our very best symphonies.

The field of education learns by doing. In 2011, a graduate school called Relay made headlines in the United States. Philanthropy Magazine called it the first graduate school of education in more than 80 years to win credentials in New York State. In order to get a master’s degree from Relay, you have to prove that your students are learning. You must measure student performance. If you can’t teach, you can’t graduate.

In other fields, science students work on real experiments with their professors. Sports students participate in actual sports. Computer science students program real computers.  Journalism educators interested in learning by doing could find examples in studies of agriculture, law, the arts, education, science, sports and many other fields. But I believe medicine, and its concomitant, the teaching hospital, holds the most promise for journalism education — because like many news organizations, the teaching hospital is deeply rooted in community.

The teaching hospital

In these hospitals, medical students under the tutelage of actual doctors learn how to draw blood, how to insert catheters, how to set broken arms, even deliver babies. Why? Because book learning and passing tests are just not enough to teach you how to be a doctor. How many of you would like to go to the doctor’s office, only to have your young physician say to you, “Well, gee, I read about this in my textbook, but I’ve never actually inserted a catheter before, so, bear with me…”.

Thankfully, in the United States, there are about 400 teaching hospitals. They develop new cures and treatments. They set high standards for patient care. And they treat the most difficult cases while serving the poor. At the same time, they train more than 100,000 new doctors and other health professionals every year.

So if giving physicians real-world experience is part of their education, of course it should apply to journalism. Young journalists need to employ objective techniques to collect facts. They need to use the latest equipment. They need to learn how to communicate clearly. They need to understand that journalism is not about them, it’s about the community. Communities need news for their social health as much as they need clean water and clean air for their physical health. News and information are the lifeblood of communities.

But at this point no journalism education program mirrors exactly an actual teaching hospital. In my country, that may be a controversial statement. We have deans and directors who raise money by extolling the virtues of their journalism and mass communication programs. That is hard work under difficult circumstances. Many people, including more than a few university presidents, don’t appreciate journalism. Journalists have this irritating habit of telling everyone uncomfortable truths. So it’s an uphill battle, with funders the likes of me saying universities should care more about the future, and many news companies not willing to fund journalism education in the present.

There is some good news. American foundations are not only investing more in media at triple the growth rate of their other grant-making, but we’re also investing more in journalism education. The teaching hospital model is helping with that. But if schools don’t do actual journalism, it heightens the criticisms of those who argue that foundations should pour their money directly into critical areas like investigative reporting.

So you might hear after this talk something from the University of Missouri saying, “We are a teaching hospital.” And as much as I admire them, they’ve been learning-by-doing for a century, I’d say that’s not exactly right. They have great learning-by-doing at their television station and newspaper. They have experiments in their Reynolds Institute. They have great professionals and great researchers. But I don’t think they’ve put it all together to create the ultimate teaching hospital for journalism education.

Six elements of a teaching hospital

So let’s unpack the workings of these hospitals. They cure people in the present, but they develop new cures for the future and they focus on community. A study by the American Hospital Association calls teaching hospitals centers of innovation. They are credited with pioneering polio vaccines, infant intensive care, burn treatments, heart transplant protocols. The survival rates of seriously ill patients in teaching hospitals are higher in the United States than at other hospitals. Their level of overall patient care is higher than at non-teaching hospitals. They offer many community services other hospitals do not. They have health fairs, support groups and information centers. Though they make up only six percent of our hospitals, they handle half of the poor and Medicare cases. In Europe you have hundreds of teaching hospitals; there are two here in Amsterdam.

To duplicate a teaching hospital, a university-based community-news organization would need to combine in one effort six different elements:

1.     Students doing the journalism;

2.     Professionals mentoring them to improve the quality and impact of the journalism;

3.     Professors bringing in topic knowledge and raising issues;

4.     Innovators pioneering new tools and techniques;

5.     Academics doing major research projects;

6.     Everyone working together with an emphasis of not just informing a community but engaging it. The sixth element is not a type of person, it’s a way of doing things: working with each other and a community.

In Searchlights and Sunglasses: Field Notes from the Digital Age of Journalism, an e-book that we’ve just released, I offer the following definition of the “teaching hospital” model: A model of learning-by-doing that includes college students, professors and professionals working together under one “digital roof” for the benefit of a community.

You don’t have to build a whole hospital as long as whatever you do has its own sense of wholeness. Experiments of any size that contain the six teaching hospital elements will move journalism education forward. They will encourage real-world experience; the latest tools and techniques; best-practices; continuous experimentation;  applied research and an open, collaborative relationship with each other and a community The result is knowledge both to a single community and the larger news community. As results multiply, many communities can benefit.

Knight Foundation has invested about $200 million in journalism education during the past 15 years. So we know a little bit about the programs in the United States. And we’re not aware of anyone that has all of these elements in a single effort. That’s not a criticism. It’s an observation. Many schools considered among our best are close to having combined all the parts. But in the digital age, I argue that a school of any size or history can put the pieces together. Some professors certainly seem to be one-person hospitals.

Let us look at three categories of activity within journalism education today and see how they relate to a teaching hospital model.

The first category: First Aid

First Aid is in the moment. It’s a do-it-yourself thing. In a journalism context, First Aid is all about the stories. It’s about students producing content, which they do quite naturally in social and mobile media, with or without professors. In a university context, students may cover the neighborhoods around a university as part of a class, or file blog posts or fix Wikipedia entries as class assignments, or blog or tweet or tumble on their own. First Aid goes on everywhere all the time. There are educational benefits of it even without professors. By putting yourself out there, you can learn clear expression, the rules of expression, how to do things fast and how to handle reaction and feedback.

So educators should be commended for doing “open assignments.” In other words, rather than have the class do papers for them, these teachers have the class posting assignments online. Educators who experiment with the “flipped class” should get an ovation. Flipped classes switch homework and class work, basically, by offering video lectures at night online and using the class time to do group projects (which, in a journalism context, can be put out for public consumption in any medium).

We should admit though that First Aid, just as it works in the medical world, sometimes has results and sometimes doesn’t. The students who told each other about the shooting as it was happening at Virginia Tech, who shared the news through social media long before traditional media showed up — they were practicing First Aid and they were saving lives. But that does not happen every time. As with actual First Aid, the responsibilities of the responder rarely extend beyond the initial moment of engagement. Even so, if you think about public-produced media as First Aid, you realize the importance of teaching 21st century literacies such as digital and media literacy as well as news and civic literacy. Anyone can act journalistically in mass media context today. That is one of the defining characteristics of the new digital age. We can’t turn our back on it.

The second category: clinics

Clinics contribute in many ways to the healthy flows of fact-based news in a community. Many schools have excellent clinics; unlike law schools, they do not call them that. A key element at a clinic is the involvement of a person with serious professional experience. The result of that kind of mentoring is journalism that can have a real impact, journalism that matters. There are many different forms of clinics. Some last a week, some a quarter or a semester, some go on all year. Clinics can focus on a single story, a series of stories, a topic or a community. Student media in which the students have reached professional level can also be thought of as clinics.

Almost any university can have a clinic like the one at Northeastern created by Walter Robinson. Walter was the investigative editor of the Boston Globe, and now he teaches a class in investigative reporting. He works closely with his class on investigations. Their stories can end up on the front page of the Boston Globe and have an impact on the community. Why does this work? Because Walter Robinson is Walter Robinson. He is an excellent investigative editor, a master at verifying and clarifying. He has the trust of the Boston Globe. He does not seem the sort who would ever offer up substandard work. So, to do this kind of class-based clinic, you don’t need additional funding. You don’t need a foundation to help you do it. All you need is your own Walter Robinson. The educational value of it is immense; complexity becomes manageable, and students get more than their money’s worth.

One of the biggest clinics we have is called News21. At Arizona State University, students from all over the United States spend a summer doing a major investigation. And again, there are top professionals involved, including Len Downie, the former executive editor of The Washington Post. The students that are selected for this  program, like an all-star team of college journalists in the United States, get a special semester of training in the topic that they’ll be investigating that coming summer in their 10-week fellowship. This helps them develop the subject expertise in voting rights, veterans’ rights and the other topics that they cover. We used to call that specialty reporting. Now the scholars at Harvard have started calling it “knowledge journalism.” Whatever you want to call it, it helps to know something more about the news you’re reporting. News21 is a regular journalism award-winner. Their stories have impact.

Some clinics publish their own stories, such as the New York World at Columbia University or Neon Tommy at USC, which has 7 million pageviews per year and is one of the most popular student journalism projects. When smaller or less wealthy schools say they can’t do this kind of thing, I say, remember Walter Robinson. Or if you want another example take a look at Middle Tennessee State University, where pro-and-prof-taught students cover the Nashville federal courts out of the Nashville Tennessean newsroom for Seigenthaler News Service. My argument is that each and every journalism school could have a clinic totally integrated into the educational environment, as a class run by a top professional, at a cost of precisely zero.  You already pay teachers. Students already are doing assignments. All you need to do is reorganize things.

What the clinics have in common is the publication of real journalism and strong professionals. Instead of delivering babies, we’re going to deliver stories. And in my opinion, clinics are an essential part of journalism education, especially clinics that teach digital skills. They’re prized assets at the schools that do them, just as good law clinics are prized assets at law schools and symphonies at music schools, and just as teaching hospitals are prized by communities.

These clinics provide tens of thousands of stories in American communities that are no longer provided by traditional media. Because we’re so heavily dependent on the advertising  model in the United States, traditional local newspaper journalism is in freefall. In our nation the local newspaper provides most local news. Its shrinkage hurts. The universities with strong clinics are providing a real service to those communities. They focus on the best practices of today; they serve communities right now.

Working journalists admire clinics. At the University of Alabama, we have a master’s degree that’s taught 50 percent in the classroom and 50 percent in the newsroom of a newspaper called the Anniston Star. This program supports itself through a tuition surcharge. Why are the students willing to pay more? It has a placement rate of 90 percent. And in fact, clinic work makes students employable at rates that exceed our national average.

The third category: Labs

Labs experiment. They’re not as interested in what’s going on in journalism at the moment as they are in what’s going to be needed tomorrow. They develop new software, new applications, new systems, new story forms. They fail a lot because they try a lot of very new things. They’re more aligned toward the way the millennial generation thinks. A lab doesn’t even have to be a physical place. It can be a mind-set — the sort of thinking that caused a young graduate named David Cohn in the United States to create Spot.Us, which was a platform that allows people to crowd fund stories, fund the reporters for individual stories and thereby the community influences what is covered. This the kind of thinking that lead to millennials at a project called PolicyMic to flip the idea of when stories should be put out into the community.

A lab doesn’t have to be a place, it can be an open, experimental, entrepreneurial state of mind. When I was an editor back in the Stone Age before the World Wide Web, we published stories as soon as we could, whenever they were ready. Most of us considered community interests in a general sense. But PolicyMic looks to see exactly what the community is talking about (especially things that match up with its millennial-to-millennial brand of serious content.) PolicyMic uses behavior analytics, studies what’s going viral. They think about ways to connect their content to the serious millennial synapses lighting up in the news flow. That way of thinking seems fundamentally different, seems like the sort of ideas that should come up in labs.

Labs are not as common as the clinics, but they do exist in the United States. At Reese News Lab at the University of North Carolina, the students there call their work “crazy,” “innovative,” a “hobbit hole,” and they call the place “where you just do things,” “where you can experiment,” and “where you can do anything.” They consider the creative destruction of our current news systems to be a challenge. “Journalism will not get better,” say the students at Reese News, “until we stop reliving the past.” The projects that they do can be very practical, like a word searchable audio archive of the state assembly or a commercial e-book helping students optimize content for mobile devices.

A big lab is The Center for Civic Media at the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT defines “civic media” as anything that “strengthens the social bonds within a community or creates a strong sense of civic engagement among its residents.”  So their work encompasses not just traditional journalism but media work as well. At MIT, engineering and computer science students every day are creating the technologies all of us will be using tomorrow. The Knight Lab at Northwestern University has produced dozens of prototypes as part of its lab work, including the popular Timeline JS, which is an open-source tool that enables visually rich timelines. It’s used widely by news organizations. It’s in 40 languages. That’s what you want to see: a lab with journalism and computer science students at a university developing a new tool or technology that then goes into wide use in the journalism profession, just in the way that burn treatment would spread from a teaching hospital into a technique used widely by physicians.

Like clinics, labs are essential to journalism education. It’s not a question of whether we can’t do one without the other. We should do both. Just as classes can be clinics, classes can be labs. If the right teachers and professors are on boards, again the cost is zero. We must care about the future of news and information. Labs do that. We simply can’t proceed as though the current news system will survive beyond the lives of the people who support it now. Because it won’t.

Digital natives, the people who will be alive when my generation is no longer alive, will lead journalism. They’ve grown up along with new forms of media, social and mobile media, the media that have grown up with them. They’ll dominate it and shape its future. They already are. Newspaper traffic in the United States is rapidly becoming mobile traffic. The journalists who can learn mobile and social, who can learn code and data, who can master the latest technology, will be able to crawl inside of it and ride it into the future. They will help us produce the algorithms, the applications and the software that will carry journalism values through the rest of this century. The educational value of these labs is manifold.

As I said, the labs don’t have to be big, well-funded physical spaces. They can be a mindset. When San Diego State professor Amy Schmitz Weiss shows how news organizations could be doing more with geo-location, she is acting as a one-woman lab, testing something, publishing her research. As with the clinics, where there is more activity than we can track, the labs too are starting to produce a challenging amount to absorb. Websites like Nieman Lab, Journalist’s Resource, PBS Media Shift or the Poynter Institute cover a lot, but not everything that’s going on. That said, more about lab activity needs to make its way into academic journals, papers on the lab projects as well as the larger issues they raise.

Putting it together

If you want a teaching hospital, start by trying to combine the three categories of activity. Take First Aid, clinics and labs, all three together, and put them in the same place – bearing in mind that a place might be a building or a project or a class or a professor’s brain.

The challenge is in combining the journalism expertise with the technological expertise, and combining the entrepreneurial spirit and the community service. Our goal should be for the teaching hospital to provide better news than the commercial news stream does. The goal should be to provide greater community engagement and service. Somewhere within the hospital, clinical trials should test new techniques and technologies, with results made widely known. The ultimate teaching hospital can be the engine of change for journalism education and for journalism. No longer would journalism programs be a training caboose driven around by the industry.

Being in a teaching hospital also means working with other parts of the university to import subject matter knowledge, including marketing, business and technological expertise. New revenue streams and business or nonprofit models should be tested. I would argue that attempts to complete this type of aspirational teaching hospital, on whatever scale, should have a good case for some federal funding. I think the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funds traditional public broadcasting in the United States, should consider funding at least the technology for these experiments in teaching hospital-style journalism. We should ask tech companies and their foundations to consider it, too.

Professionals and professors can work together when they really want to. Journalism education can meet the challenge that some of our most knowledgeable educators have talked about in a recent report called “Educating Journalists,” which was released at Columbia University. It called for both advancing  skills and applied research at the graduate level in schools of journalism. Research: it’s the coin of the realm at universities. Spreading applied research throughout the teaching hospital would be a key to its acceptance in the rest of the university.

All manner of near-hospitals exist in journalism education. At Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, a commercial newsroom, a public broadcasting unit, and students and faculty share the same physical newsroom and work together. They do special community engagement projects. But they’re not quite there. For one thing, they need more applied academic research. We’re hoping that the folks who have almost all the elements will look around and see what they don’t have and add it. Constant iteration can lead to transformation.

Digital natives who want to tell stories

One thing to think about: the soul of the teaching hospital, the energy that drives it, is the student energy. Digital natives who want to tell stories are the greatest asset a journalism school has, Knight President Alberto Ibargüen has observed, an asset some media companies would kill for. Digital natives who want to tell stories. If you can figure out how to unleash that energy, you’ve really got something. Louisiana State University is trying that. They’re going to have a special competition. The dean is going to look for student-led or student-fed projects that use social and mobile media for news experiments. We’ll see what kinds of things come out of that. Social media is becoming a fountain for breaking news and the watery doorway through which a generation has come to news. Asking digital natives for help is the right thing to do.

A professor who has all the answers to news and information today in the year 2013 in the middle of the biggest transition in communication history is a professor who can’t possibly be right. No one has all the answers. We all are in a search for answers. For the first time in media history in the United States, the people who run the largest media organizations in the country say they don’t know. In five years will The New York Times be in print? The publisher says, “I don’t know.” So the right answer to what are things going to be in the future is, “I don’t know. What do you think?” And the question should be posed at someone from the millennial generation.

So how do you know you are making progress with your teaching hospital model? The better your school is at creating a culture of continuous change, the closer you are. The better you can connect your First Aid, clinics and labs, the closer you are. The more “empty space” you can create in the curriculum, unprogrammed space, the closer you are. Have you ever been to a conference where every single thing was programmed and you didn’t have a chance to talk to anyone? You need to get empty space into the curriculum for the thing or idea to be invented that year or that week, or the new trends that are surfacing. The new developments are coming faster and faster. They’re not incremental. They’re fundamentally changing how we’re doing things.

Rather than specialize in print or broadcast, you can develop new ways for students to specialize in journalism and computer science, journalism and entrepreneurism, journalism and business. We need to do some creating of the kind of owner-proprietors we had a century ago who invented the news systems we’re all so proud of today. Those were not invented by corporations. Those were invented by individuals, renaissance people who could do more than one thing. All the specialization came after the corporatization and capitalization of what these individuals created. The schools of today can create those new individuals, but only by opening up.

Meeting the challenge

Every generation grows up with a new form of media in ascendance. Everyone knows about the baby-boomers and television, the Gen-Xers and computers and video games, the millennials and mobile and social media. But a culture of continuous change means you’re ready for whatever comes next. Who will design the news bots of the future? Who’s going to deal with 3-D media? Who’s going to deal with wearable media, drones, sensor-driven media and artificial intelligence? It is all coming. We can decide we don’t want to think about it, but that’s not going to stop it. It’s going to show up just like all the other generations of  new media have shown up. In American history, that’s 12 generations. (We don’t have as much history as you do.) That’s 12 generations of new forms of media growing up with new generations of Americans. The question for journalism education is: Does it want to be involved in its future, or does it want to become a history program?

This might sound daunting. But I think a university can combine the elements of clinics and labs without building an entire teaching hospital. Last month at the Online News Association in America we announced $1 million fund to give universities $35,000 micro-grants when they could take the elements of a teaching hospital and put them together in a live news experiment. Look at how news is being done now within a particular news organization and its community; come up with an idea, a hypothesis of what your new tool and technique would do; deploy the innovation and see what happens. We hope to encourage between 15 and 25 projects. There were four funders involved in that.

At that same conference, I launched an interactive digital book and teaching tool that explains the long version of all the arguments you’re hearing this morning. It’s called Searchlights and Sunglasses. And we did it – you can look it up at I have to say that. It has 1,000 lessons and links and resources. We did it as an experiment in the teaching hospital model. I did it on my summer vacation with undergraduate students, graduate students, and a group of people from the University of Missouri. And we hope you look and find it helpful.

If I still have time, I’d like to close with a passage from the book:

“Thinking digitally could save us. Yet two decades after the dawn of this new age, most journalists and journalism educators still resist it. Too many people, processes, policies and products are creatures of the past. In a way this is to be expected. ‘There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things,’ wrote the Renaissance philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli. The innovator ‘has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions.’ But every day someone pays the price for journalism’s persistent inertia. Once rock-solid companies are crumbling. Old-school students and professionals can’t find work. Our public policies and professional ethics are based on historical fantasies instead of embracing new realities and new possibilities.”

That said, not everything is new. The one thing that isn’t changing is the why of journalism, why free people need independent thinkers, people who will engage on behalf of us all in the fair, accurate, contextual search for truth. We assume the people here already believe that an understanding of current events is essential if free people are to run their lives and their communities. But whether you’re a student, a teacher, or a citizen or a journalist, we hope your starting point is that you believe in journalism. The challenge is to find our place as both chroniclers and curators of a new world, to add today’s digital skills and ideas to the mix and get on with it, because much more is on the way. And if the truth be told, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Thank you.

Patricia Kabick contributed research to this speech.