J-Schools to the Rescue?

As more journalism schools agree to supply local news outlets with free copy, critics question whether they are betraying their graduates — and the public.
March 1, 2010

Can journalism schools help save journalism?

It seems like a logical place for news organizations to turn for a lifeline. Newsrooms nationwide have seen huge cuts in recent years, and many long-running newspapers have shut down; journalism schools, on the other hand, have flourished, with applications rising last year at all the major programs. These schools have for years operated internal publications and news services, and professional news outlets often buy freelance pieces from reporters who are still in school. So why not make more explicit arrangements to have journalism students, who will work for course credit, fill the gaps left by the pros whom the news outlets could no longer afford to pay?

That is exactly what a number of institutions have done. The latest partnership, announced this week, is an alliance between New York University and the New York Times, which cut 200 newsroom jobs last year. The university, in consultation with the Times metro desk, will run a hyper-local news site covering Manhattan’s East Village. The paper will publish the site on its domain. A similar arrangement already exists between the Times and the City University of New York's new journalism graduate program, whose students coverage local issues in Brooklyn under the supervision of their professors.

The phenomenon is not limited to New York. Journalism students at Indiana University, the College of Saint Rose, and the University of California at Berkeley are already arranging to thicken the pages of their financially distressed local papers with free content, in the name of experiential learning. St. Cloud State University on Thursday announced plans to partner with a local television news station to do the same. In some cases, particularly those in New York and Berkeley, the arrangements appear to exceed the scope of traditional internships — which have long given newsrooms access to free or cheap student labor — by giving students and their academic overseers more autonomy and responsibility in covering certain areas.

Even the Web-based Huffington Post, which does not pay any of its contributors, said this week it is looking to recruit 30 new student journalists for a new college reporting team. “Reporters on campus will soon be reporters on the streets,” wrote Adam Clark Estes, editor of the site’s citizen journalism unit, in a blog post addressed to would-be applicants. “You are the future of the news."

But critics believe such sunny slogans fail to acknowledge the fact that investing in a reporting career has become much riskier as well-paying job opportunities for trained journalists have disappeared. Some believe journalism schools are exploiting students by maintaining high enrollment levels despite the contraction of the market for professional journalists — a system that guarantees a large population of out-of-work, debt-addled graduates.

Choire Sicha, an editor at The Awl, a New York-based Web site, wrote this week that the new partnership between NYU and the Times should be a great way to train journalists. Problem is, the skills they learn while providing free content to the Times will not mean much when they graduate and go looking for salaried positions that no longer exist.

“Want to get known at the New York Times, which has a hiring freeze, except where it doesn’t? Great: mortgage your future with a wildly-expensive j-school degree, which may or may likely not later provide you with a job that will not allow you to pay it back in the next two decades,” Sicha wrote. “…This kind of working for free isn’t just the situation of their school days; this is most likely how it's going to be after they graduate too.”

Peter Scheer, a lawyer and former newspaper editor, speculated in a Huffington Post piece last fall that journalism schools might be continuing to enroll students at high levels despite an anemic job market because news organizations need them to be producing young reporters who are professionally trained but cost less than their more experienced forebears. “If so, it’s fair to ask whether this is really a function that journalism schools should be providing,” Scheer wrote. “Does it make sense for them to be subsidizing the accelerated dislocation of one generation of their graduates to make room for a younger generation of their graduates? In the investment world this is called a Ponzi scheme.”

Supplementing vs. Supplanting

But journalists who work at university-based graduate programs say the schools are doing no such thing. Students are not replacing working journalists by contributing hyper-local content, they say, because news outlets do not currently pay journalists to cover neighborhoods at a granular level. They can’t afford to.

With the typical metro news editor looking at a half-empty newsroom, the question isn’t whether to cover local issues with journalism students or veteran reporters, it’s whether to cover local issues with journalism students or not at all, said Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

In other words, having journalism students report local stories for free should not affect a journalism-school graduate's chances of finding a job.

Michael Schudson, a media historian who teaches at Columbia’s journalism school and has advocated for university-newspaper partnerships, said such arrangements could allow news outlets to reclaim mundane but relevant beats that they abandoned long ago. “Several times now I have talked with reporters at online news startups covering regular, public meetings of local governments (not the city council but the planning board or zoning board or public housing authority) and they find themselves the only reporter in the room and it seems no other reporter in recent memory had been there before them,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Free labor from journalism students could play a crucial role in keeping those governing bodies accountable in a way is not currently possible given the dwindling resources of most media outlets, he said. After all, in the age of Internet advertising, bottom lines are tied to Web traffic. And the zoning board beat is hardly a cash cow.

Even so, some professional reporters feel threatened by the thought of students giving away the sort of work they do for a paycheck. Robert Gammon, a veteran reporter for the East Bay Express, questioned the notion that students could produce the same quality journalism as experienced professionals. “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,” he told Inside Higher Ed last fall, after Berkeley announced plans to supply local news outlets with student work.

Erik Wemple, editor of the Washington City Paper, where he previously served as local politics columnist, acknowledged that students might lack the sources and institutional memories that would behoove them as beat writers. “The question for a news outlet is always going to be the same: Will the content that comes from these universities be written and reported well enough that putting it up on the site won't require a huge lift on the part of the editors?” Wemple wrote in an e-mail.

Then again, outlets desperate to maintain a modicum of breadth can't be too choosy about who is givng them stories. “At this point, any way for news outlets to get more reportorial muscle on the ground is a good thing,” said Wemple.

Jack Shafer, media critic for Slate.com, cautioned against overvaluing experience — or even a journalism degree — in local news reporting. “I edited two alternative weeklies (Washington and San Francisco),” Shafer wrote in an e-mail, “and I’m here to tell you that some bright young things just out of college with no journalism education or experience can report and write great copy if an editor yells at them loud enough.”

In partnering with the New York Times to help boost hyper-local coverage, NYU does not presume to have devised a plan to save the ailing industry, said Jay Rosen, chair of the university’s journalism institute. “If you're asking me if we have solved the economic crisis in journalism that no one else has solved, the answer is no,” he wrote in an e-mail.

“Not everyone is going to be thrilled that NYU is doing this with the New York Times,” Rosen noted in a blog post following the last week's announcement. “We’ll have to take those problems on, not as classroom abstractions but civil transactions with the people who live and work here. You know what? It’s going to be messy and hard, which is to say real.”


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