5 Strategies for Successful News Organization-University Partnerships

The New York Times, The Bay Citizen and Next Door Media have recently partnered with universities in hopes that students can help them expand their hyperlocal coverage, engage new audiences and experiment with different business models.

Editors and professors say the partnerships are a step toward re-envisioning the relationship that news organizations and universities often share. Traditionally, news orgs have turned to universities when they’ve needed interns to produce and edit content. Now, they’re starting to realize that students and the universities they attend can help them do much more.

“When the crisis came and all of a sudden there was this need for innovation and new practices and new business models and new technology, the industry didn’t have a journalism school to rely on because it never asked for it,” said NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, who helped create the partnership between NYU’s Arthur J. Carter Journalism Institute and The New York Times. “l see these partnerships as correcting a misalignment between journalism schools and the news business.”

Below, I’ve listed some steps that news organizations and universities can take to create successful partnerships.

Find someone with a common link between the newsroom and the university

When creating partnerships, it helps to identify a “hinge” — someone who has had a foot in both the classroom and the newsroom. TBD, the Allbritton Communications metro D.C. news site expected to launch this month, just announced a partnership with American University. The hinge is Jim Brady, who graduated from AU and is Allbritton’s president of digital strategy.

In the case of the NYU/New York Times partnership, it’s Richard Jones, a former New York Times metro reporter who is now on NYU’s faculty. Jones will edit “The Local: East Village,” the hyperlocal news site at the crux of the partnership. Set to launch this fall, the site will be produced at NYU and featured on nytimes.com.

“You have to have an elegant hinge so that the problems of coordinating two institutions don’t overwhelm you,” Rosen said in a phone interview. “The Times can be confident that this site will be done to Times’ standards, and we can be confident that we have an editor on hand right here.”

Jones will collaborate with Mary Ann Giordano, a deputy Metropolitan editor at the Times who is in charge of The Local — the Times’ hyperlocal news destination. Because he worked with her at The New York Times, Jones understands the type of content the Times wants and can help shape the “The Local: East Village” accordingly.

Visit the classroom to identify needs & explain what your news org wants out of the partnership

Giordano visited students in Rosen’s Studio 20 class last semester when they were working out the details of the partnership, and did the same as part of the Times’ partnership with the City University of New York’s graduate school of journalism.

“I think visiting the classroom,” she said, “is the most direct and simplest way to make sure everyone’s on the same page.”

When visiting NYU students, she explained that she wanted them to help the Times figure out how to sustain its hyperlocal journalism.

“Ultimately our business side of The New York Times decided it was not going to devote resources to this part of the experiment. From the earliest days of us running these hyperlocal sites we’ve been more focused on the journalism than on the business side,” Giordano said by phone. “At CUNY and NYU, they’re testing out different things for us and looking at ways that they can create a business model that’s sustainable and allows working journalists to make a living running hyperlocal blogs.”

Near the end of last semester, Giordano invited Studio 20 students to the Times building to present what they learned while preparing for the partnership. Visiting the classroom and inviting students to the newsroom, she said, helped her build a relationship not just with the students but with faculty members who can add a sense of continuity.

“I think news organizations have to realize that there’s a learning curve, and what makes that all the more serious of a hurdle is the students come and go,” Giordano said. “They learn and the semester’s over, so you constantly have this turn of students. The key is to get someone to run the site day to day so there’s continuity and to keep the faculty involved so they can contribute.”

Involve students in your site’s advertising efforts so you can generate revenue together

Cory Bergman, co-founder of Next Door Media (and a member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board), helped initiate two partnerships with the University of Washington — one with an entrepreneurial journalism class in the university’s department of communication and another with the university’s student newspaper, The Daily.

Next Door Media, a network of 10 hyperlocal sites, launched UDistrictDaily.com with a reporter from The Daily as editor. Doug Alder, Next Door Media’s editor-in-chief, provides guidance and helps fill in coverage gaps, and the two sites link to each other whenever one runs content that’s relevant to the U District.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the partnership with The Daily, Bergman said, is that the students are helping Next Door Media generate advertising revenue. 

“The problem to be solved isn’t coverage, but economic sustainability,” Bergman said via e-mail. “The newspaper’s ad team already calls on neighborhood advertisers who are interested in reaching students in the paper and online. So through our partnership, The Daily can now offer those advertisers the ability to reach residents in the neighborhood blog as well, all in one integrated package.”

Next Door Media runs ads from regional businesses in North Seattle on UDistrictDaily.com, while The Daily is responsible for selling the site’s local neighborhood ads.

Encourage experimentation in the newsroom & classroom

As part of its partnership with the University of California at Berkeley, The Bay Citizen is working with the university’s Haas School of Business and its School of Information Management and Systems to develop a “test kitchen” for innovation and experimentation in journalism.

“It’s certainly our goal to be working with the Berkeley J school and — through the J school — other parts of the university to develop innovative strategies around our journalism,” Steve Fainaru, Bay Citizen’s managing editor for news, said via e-mail. The Bay Citizen is also running content from the School of Journalism’s three hyperlocal sites and has two interns from the school working for the site.

Experimentation is also at the center of Next Door Media’s partnership with the University of Washington.

“Our goal is to give students a more holistic look at the realities of today’s journalism away from the constructs of a traditional news organization,” Bergman said. “We’re very fortunate to have a forward-thinking university right in our backyard that believes that traditional journalism has changed forever. We may not know the answers, but we’re both out there experimenting as fast as we can.”

Tap into the expertise of various departments in a university

Rosen’s Studio 20 class collaborated with two students from the university’s Stern School of Business to brainstorm business models for sustaining local journalism. What they learn could ultimately help the Times answer some of the questions it has about the business side of hyperlocal journalism.

Students also collaborated with an Information Technology Projects class to create an open-source assignment desk system that’s being built as a WordPress plugin. The assignment desk lets contributors from NYU and the community pitch story ideas. The ideas, if approved by an editor, then appear on a list of available assignments to cover. After the site launches, students plan to report back to The New York Times about how the tool can be used to organize and generate story ideas.

This sharing of knowledge, Rosen said, is part of the partnership’s goal “to create a journalism space at New York University that is New York Times quality and a learning space for The New York Times that is university quality.”

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Giordano agreed that there’s value in looking outside the newsroom to address the challenges media outlets are facing.

“I think this is a new phase in journalism that will strengthen us,” she said of the partnerships between news orgs and universities. “Right now we’re in a very rocky place. We’re figuring it all out and we need to get to the other side of it. I’m hoping with everything we’re doing here, we will at least figure out some pieces of the puzzle that will help lead us to the other side.”

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