Revitalizing Community Journalism

As I talk to editors in our troubled industry, I find that they are looking for evidence of credibility, authority and ability in their new hires. No one wants to take a chance. Stakes are too high on thin staffs under budget scrutiny.

That’s where The Teaching Newspaper comes in. A collaborative initiative of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Anniston (Ala.) Star and the University of Alabama, the program give students an edge that no other journalism school can. That’s because no other school, as far as we know, offers its instruction in the context of a community news operation.

As the old models for professional journalism and its Internet platforms come under question, the reliability of a newspaper relationship with its own town endures. Metro papers in Philadelphia and Los Angeles and elsewhere talk of returning to local ownership as a survival technique.

Innovative instruction becomes a critical element of this survival. When the governor of Alabama showed up at The Anniston Star, the teaching newspaper in question, last fall, the Knight Fellows in Community Journalism sat with the editor, the publisher and the rest of the editorial board of the Star. The board had to decide whether to endorse the incumbent for re-election.

Editors benefit from hearing the questions that the younger, multicultural fellows generate. And the University of Alabama journalism grad students inside the paper will learn from the live-action events that wrap real experience and classroom experience all in one.

So look out, political candidates! Are you in for an experience!

And so is the whole profession of journalism and its corollary — journalism education.

The Teaching Newspaper, I believe, is a program that’s bound to catch on as a model for raising new professionals in the challenged news business.

Here’s why: Once upon a time, all of our moms and dads sat us down at our kitchen table. Their birds-and-bees talk was factual, clinical and appropriately uncomfortable. We all came away sort of understanding what they were talking about.

But everything we really learned deeply and meaningfully and wonderfully about sex education was due to that other “classroom” — the real one. For me it was the back seat of my 1957 Buick.

The Teaching Newspaper is just such a glorious automobile for really understanding community journalism.

Everyone benefits. Especially readers, Web site users and podcast listeners. All will encounter the work of fellows alongside the work of full-time Star journalists.

The Alabama governor’s conversation figured in editorials the fellows wrote for their editorial leadership course, taught by a professor who is also an editor. Their commentaries appear in the Star‘s editorial column as the paper’s opinion without any special notice that they’re authored by grad students.
Fellows are experiencing the stuff of community journalism we all know will persist on whatever platform technology evolves. But persist it will, because people and their need for such storytellers will. The fellows’ news production class also immersed them in Friday-night football as an archetype of community culture. The newspaper’s editors and photographers collaborated on the team-reporting project for a typical marriage of the University teaching and the newspaper readership and production goals.

The rest of the fall-semester course load was divided between a journalism history and First Amendment class, and a required mass-communication research theory class. A one-credit course of Grand Rounds in Community Journalism is the hallmark of the program, conceived like a teaching hospital. The Star becomes the textbook for touring the departments that showcase the opportunities and frustrations of business, editorial, production and administration in the changing media climate.

Because community journalism is the most stable platform for sales, circulation and relationships with subscribers, The Teaching Newspaper expects to salt the industry with its M.A. graduates who are trained for success, not fearful for the future of journalism.

The fellows are selected for evidence of that aptitude. All have spent time in news operations — usually as staff reporters or photographers or editors, but at least as interns with a convincing statement of purpose, an essay required of each applicant. Editors or other journalists, as well as teachers, must recommend them.

This is not academic journalism-as-usual. Students produce a master’s project rather than a thesis and expect to publish it in print or on the Web.

There’s no tuition. The fellows receive support at a rate better than an intern might expect. Graduation after one year brings a stipend for a job search, followed by a relocation stipend to the new job in community journalism.

So the transition from journalism to The Teaching Newspaper and back to the news business is seamless. Except for the weekly experiences of politician meetings, civic encounters and cultural immersion in community journalism.

Fellows interview union members on picket lines, learn about volunteer firefighters, investigate payday loans, write on the threat to close inner-city recreation centers vital to disadvantaged youth, pop up in churches, attend rallies, propose initiatives such as a park for dogs and their owners, write appreciations of country and classical music, rhapsodize about autumn in southern Appalachia, ponder the fairness of public funds for a Confederate monument but none for a Civil Rights memorial, jump to the beat of breaking news but feel the steady rhythm of normal, everyday community life.

Do that at a kitchen table with mom and dad lecturing!

Fellows are experiencing the stuff of community journalism we all know will persist on whatever platform technology evolves. But persist it will, because people and their need for such storytellers will.

The Teaching Newspaper is verisimilitude, a live-fire exercise, a daily reality. The ethics and reporting problems and writing difficulties are not abstract and theoretical. They are real, there, now, confrontational.

They are the object, goal, mission, raison d’etre, raw material, product, purpose in life of this program — these storytelling fellows.

The news industry widely misunderstood when the Knight Fellowship in Community Journalism first broke into print. It was naturally a story, because the Star is on so many lists of renowned newspapers of all sizes. H. Brandt Ayers, the publisher, did not give the newspaper away to the university as generally supposed.

An Ayers family-initiated foundation will receive corporate stock as it is bequeathed over the years with the passing of family members. The income will then accrue to the support of the grad-school program inside the paper and also will sustain the Star as a local, independent voice instead of suffering the fate of other family-owned papers by being sold to an outside corporation.

The fellows do not replace regular newspaper staff. They are too busy in courses for the August-to-August curriculum to serve as free labor. Their published work benefits their academically required portfolio but only augments newspaper content rather than substituting for the local staff.

The in-house graduate school program of The University of Alabama would be too pricey for the 25,000-circulation paper without grants from the Knight Foundation.

Viable editorial independence in partnership with other purposeful institutions is the first lesson of The Teaching Newspaper.

We can’t foresee a last lesson as long as journalism lives.

I give frequent recruiting talks around the country. At one, I watched students’ eyes light up at the comparison between learning the craft inside a newsroom versus a classroom — the Buick instead of the kitchen table. I’ve seen that light before.

Four years of undergraduate education expose students to as many classrooms as they ever want to see again. The Teaching Newspaper is verisimilitude, a live-fire exercise, a daily reality. The ethics and reporting problems and writing difficulties are not abstract and theoretical. They are real, there, now, confrontational.

In more than four decades as a journalist — more than half that time as a newsroom manager — I would have salivated at the thought of hiring journalists who combined scholarship with experience.

Community journalism thrives. That’s why The Teaching Newspaper vibrates with life every single day.


The original version of this article was published on The Teaching Newspaper site.  April 15, 2007, is the next application deadline for the program.

Related Posts

No related posts.

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.