‘Medical school model’ brings newspaper, radio station and university together

A newspaper, public radio station and university in Macon, Ga., are moving in together and sharing content, in a unique partnership aimed at strengthening local news reporting, thanks to a grant from the Knight Foundation being announced today.

The news staffs of The (Macon) Telegraph and Georgia Public Broadcasting will move in with the journalism faculty and students at a new Center for Collaborative Journalism at Mercer University.

Each group retains its own editorial products and independence, but they will be working in one newsroom, teaching each other and sharing content.

They’re calling it “the medical school model,” with benefits for all — students train in an environment structured for both learning and doing; professionals improve and benefit from students’ work; and the community gets a better service.

In addition to the day-to-day content sharing, the joint newsroom also will produce a couple of annual community engagement projects, chosen by Macon residents, that involve reporting and problem solving on local issues.

“We want to create a new model of journalism education … but also to benefit the people of Macon so they can be informed and engaged and take the necessary steps to create a vibrant future for this place,” said Beverly Blake, Macon program director for Knight Foundation.

The foundation is giving Mercer University $3.74 million to build the center, and giving another $854,000 to Georgia Public Broadcasting to expand its news staff and create richer local programming for central Georgia. Mercer also will double the size of its journalism program from about 50 students to about 100, Blake said. It’s a five-year grant program, aiming for self-sustainability beyond that.

Neat idea, you might say, but why Macon, Ga., of all places?

“It’s where the idea came from… Just because we’re small, doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot of smart people here,” Blake said. “We have a newspaper publisher who understands that the future of news has to include digital. We have a statewide public broadcasting head who understands that local is critical. And we have a university that already is a strong, strong leader in this community.”

The idea emerged a couple years ago, just as the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy was issuing its report with recommendations including:

  • Increase support for public service media.
  • Increase the role of higher education, community and nonprofit institutions as hubs of journalistic activity.
  • Engage young people in developing the digital information and communication capacities of local communities.

“The timing was absolutely perfect,” Blake said, because Knight’s recommendations aligned with the type of partnership Telegraph Publisher George McCanless and GPB Executive Director Teya Ryan were beginning to ponder with Mercer University.

Knight hopes this “aspirational experiment” will create a model other communities can adapt, Blake said.

“We don’t know if it will work. But the bigger risk is that we do nothing,” Blake said. “We have to do something to create a 21st century ecosystem for news and information in communities.”

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