This past weekend, I was priviledged to be included in a two-day conversation about how universities are producing news sites. This blog post does a really great job summing up a number of the sites represented and discussed at the meeting.

These university-sponsored news sites feature interactives, videos, photo slideshows and social media journalism; but need improvements in web writing and photography.

This post analyzes 12 news sites which are sponsored by or affiliated with universities or journalism schools, and mostly feature student works. These sites are collected from a conference on university news sites, which was attended by representatives of these sites. This conference, organized by J-Lab in June 2012, focused on trends and practices of the emerging university news sites. The conference organizers wrote an article about key issues found with such news sites.

via J-Lab university news sites #jnewslab.

The sites all face similar and unique challenges in educating students via a practicum and experiential learning process.

The idea that students paying tuition can meet information needs of communities – defined either by geography or interest – outside of the university community is something that is kicking around. That this would be in some kind of business structure is bundled in, because that is our conception of what the news media looks like. A big part of the discussion is how appropriate that expectation is, and how fair is it to the student to semantically shift in other, external priorities.

Universities are communities in and of themselves, they are gathered around knowledge, they serve and service knowledge, seek it, create it, discover it, share it, disseminate it. Universities have existed, with their own structures of governance and society and culture, in a rather continuous form since the medieval period… through the rise of nations, through changing religions, through all revolutions of technology and politics. There’s something there that works.

The product of journalism is information, which is part of knowledge. There is something potentially here. Eric Newton of the Knight Foundation has described what he considers a clinical approach, drawing inspiration from teaching hospitals.

The primary product of a teaching hospital is also knowledge, evidence by the fact that many, if not most, teaching hospitals draw major funding from grants to do clinical trials and research. There are patients served at university hospitals, but that is not their whole purpose. Student novices do not operate and learn how to operate by working on live patients in need as a common practice, and for very, very good reasons.

To pick up a local news operation and move it into a university would be more like an extension service. Land grant universities have extensive offerings that are practical hybrids of some kind of possible model, but that model would only be a starting point for exploring how to strike a balance. The point is that the student interaction in extension services is pitched where the staff of the service is needed to make it work at a scale for the students to get some kind of minimal benefit via work study positions and other association that is not really a classroom for credit kind of experience.

In fact, just to return briefly to the teaching hospital as a service entity for scale and context: Georgetown University Hospital, a modest teaching facility, has around 1500 faculty members to serve about 750 student doctors – and the size of the support staff is orders of magnitude higher.

Let’s think about bringing an ad-driven 24-hour local news television station into a university and play with those numbers. Is the thinking that the university offers a cost buffer to the business? Are professional journalists at this operation expected to act as research fellows? Do granting institutions pay for clinical trials and research at the tv station – knowledge that informs a large purpose on a scale of developing a drug to cure a disease? Is daily or even investigative journalism on that kind of scale of knowledge? Do news stories implement a scientific model of experiment, methodology, results, and analysis and work with new theories and paradigms? Is the information unique and does it have potential application in a larger process, such a finding the benefits of a sodium flouride with tooth decay or mapping a genome for genetic engineering?

That many universities have public broadcasting licenses, which they have not primarily used as a contact experiential teaching zone but largely operate as community services as part of the larger public broadcasting network is telling. American University owns the license for WAMU, one of the largest NPR stations in the country. And our students work there and derive some benefit from being associated with it, but they are not in the station all day every day as  a living laboratory of teaching journalism and broadcasting.  Something there doesn’t really work the same.

Would it be a good fit if American University developed a close model with our neighbors, WRC NBC 4, and began operating a 24-hour news operation that would be a working service for the larger community while still serving the students who pay a premium tution? That’s certainly food for thought.



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