Reviving Local News

Berkeley's j-school joins a new project that aims to save the industry -- but, to the dismay of some journalists, depends on students' unpaid labor.
October 7, 2009

Professional schools are in the business of teaching men (and women) to fish, letting them go fishing for a year or two, and then letting them out into the world and hoping they’ll be able to find a way to keep fishing for life.

One journalism school’s efforts involvement in a project intended to bring local news coverage to a major metropolitan area could end up enlarging the pond, assuming it doesn’t kill all the fish swimming and spawning there.

The University of California at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism announced late last month that it would team up with public broadcaster KQED and a small full-time staff funded by a $5 million donation from investor-philanthropist F. Warren Hellman to create the Bay Area News Project. When it begins next year, the venture promises to offer “high-quality, original coverage,” as its press release put it, of the region that includes San Francisco, Oakland and Silicon Valley.

Neil Henry, dean of the journalism school, says his institution -- the only graduate journalism program in the University of California system and a top ranked program nationally -- signed up because it needs “to be front and center in figuring out a way to give news to local communities at a time when the industry is losing its ability to do that kind of work.”

Involvement in the project, he adds, is a logical extension of the local work it already does. Many courses include assignments that require students to become “immersed in the local region providing journalism and engaged in a way local reporters used to be, but haven’t been able to because of cuts in the industry.” Students are involved in the production of two hyperlocal news sites, Mission Local and Oakland North, and the Bay Area News Project will offer another outlet for them to share their work.

Hellman has yet to hire the project’s full-time editorial staff, which he told Forbes might total a dozen people. KQED’s reporters will provide some content, too, but the rest of the responsibility of covering 7,000 square miles and several million residents will fall to Berkeley’s 120 journalism students.

The project, Hellman says, will “rely on the UC Berkeley journalism students” who will serve as “foot soldiers for local stories,” attending town meetings, tracking school board elections and doing all the other work that has traditionally been the domain of metro reporters. Students won’t be required to participate but, he says, “the hope is to have dozens of grad students who are eager for experience” and willing to work for free for that experience.

Henry said that because all of Berkeley’s journalism students take courses that involve local work, “it’s conceivable that every student in some form will touch on the Bay Area News Project itself” during his or her two years of work toward a master’s degree.

While the project may create a new model for the industry, it may do so at the expense of suppressing the number of full-time, paid jobs it supports.

Robert Gammon, a longtime Bay Area reporter who works at Oakland’s East Bay Express, wrote that the students’ work on the project is “slave labor” that will make it possible for the effort to survive and possibly thrive. “They’re giving themselves an unfair advantage by relying on unpaid labor,” he elaborated in a phone interview. Instead of following the model of many news organizations and hiring a few unpaid interns during the academic year and more during the summer, the project would “concentrate the unpaid work of students in one outlet that would then compete against traditional outlets.”

While this might help the nonprofit venture -- and the student workers -- in the short term, it will undermine the students and their chosen profession in the future. "[T]he new venture promises to be bad for the public over the long term," Gammon wrote. "It's true that the Bay Area likely will experience an increase in local news coverage right away, but if the new venture forces traditional news organizations to further contract, then the public will be forced to increasingly depend on inexperienced, unpaid students to inform them about what's happening in the region."

Henry doesn’t see it that way. “I believe a rising tide lifts all boats,” he says. “We hope to find new ways to collaborate, innovate and engage new audiences; to help news organizations in the region and across the country.”

One of his responsibilities as dean, he adds, is “forging careers for my students,” which includes giving them on the job training while still in school. “The project is yet another way for our students to get work experience…. They’re being put out there to create content and to be competitive.”

Henry says he considers nonprofit newsrooms like the Bay Area News Project “the best prospect on the horizon” to create jobs for laid off professionals and for recent graduates. “Very few if any of the newspapers in this region offer opportunities for our graduates. This could.”

Stephen B. Shepard, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York, says he likes the idea of staffing the project with students, who are already reporting on the same local areas for their classes and searching for venues to share their work. “The students at Berkeley are very good students, but they’re still students. They need experience and they need clips. Participating in the project is a good way to get both.”

The fact that they’re doing the work for free doesn’t bother him because “if they were not doing the work for free, I don’t think some other paid journalists would be doing it,” he said. “They are additional foot soldiers doing work at not much cost, making it possible to get this project off the ground.”

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