October 9, 2013

What’s happening in journalism education sounds eerily like what’s happened to the newspaper industry over the last decade-and-a-half: While the talk in academia is of adjuncts and buyouts instead of freelancers and layoffs, professors are hearing more and more that commentators predict serious trouble for the journalism degree.

Meanwhile, every year for the last seven years, a small paper in Anniston, Ala., has been able to afford to devote six to eight reporters to yearlong, multimedia enterprise stories. And the University of Alabama boasts a job-placement rate above 90 percent for its community-journalism students.

How have these young Alabama reporters bucked grim trends in journalism? By following a model of education patterned after teaching hospitals.

The Alabama model

This fall, seven students began their master’s coursework in Alabama’s community-journalism program. They’ll graduate in July after completing two semesters of coursework, a yearlong group enterprise story, a yearlong multimedia feature project, writing countless local news stories and completing a three-month, full-time newsroom internship.

At first glance, the program doesn’t look all that different from what you’d expect from a journalism masters program.

“We know we have to teach communication theory, ethics, media law, and we do,” said Jennifer Greer, the chair of the University of Alabama’s journalism department, in a phone interview. But she added that Alabama’s journalism program always has an eye on its mission of improving community journalism: “We might think about agenda-setting as ‘What does it mean to set the agenda in your community?’ ”

What is unusual about this one-year journalism masters program is that it combines on-campus coursework with a full-time residency in a newsroom. 2012 graduate Ana Rodriguez said the Alabama program shows that a master’s in journalism doesn’t have to neglect hands-on journalism or theory but can combine both elements.

“That helped me and my class get just as comfortable writing a story as we were sharing it on social media,” Rodriguez said in a phone interview. “We had that same desire to use all the social-media things we are taught, and get out in the community, using traditional journalism skills.”

Community-journalism students complete in-depth, multimedia stories on an array of topics important to various communities they belong to or are interested in. They work on individual projects and contribute to a group project under the supervision of their professors and staff at The Anniston Star.

Rodriguez, now a reporter for AL.com, chose to do her masters project on HB 56, the immigration law Alabama passed in 2011, which opponents called the nation’s toughest.

“I didn’t want to get into the nitty-gritty of ‘This is what this law does,’ ” she said. “I wanted to go out and tell the stories of the people who were going to be affected. And I went out to try my best to tell the story through writing, through photography.”

While she was working on “They Are Us,” Rodriguez said, her professors encouraged her to immerse herself in the community. She attended a Spanish-language Catholic mass and met people who introduced her to friends, family and neighbors who had stories of trying to fit into American culture, dealing with domestic violence, and coping with fear in their own communities.

A number of student projects have attracted attention, Greer said. “Air War,” a group project in which students worked with Anniston Star reporters to collect and analyze documents from Birmingham, Ala., television stations during campaign season, won first place in investigative reporting in the 2012 Alabama Associated Press Managing Editor awards, Greer noted — the third straight year the award went to work done by community-journalism students at the Star.

Sara Falligant’s work on “Piper Place,” a collection of multimedia stories about a community mental-health facility, got an honorable mention in the Society for News Design’s 25th annual College News Design Contest. Falligant, a 2013 graduate, now works for the Opelika-Auburn News‎. A history major, she had no prior journalism experience before starting the program, which she said she chose because she knew she needed practical skills and experience in the field right away.

Reached via phone, Falligant said the step-by-step learning process of the program’s first nine months prepared her for the “faster-paced” environment of the Star, where the graduate students “got in pretty deep, pretty quickly” once assigned their beats.

Newspaper mentors

In Alabama’s model, the students are more like fellows or residents than interns, said Tim Lockette, The Anniston Star’s capital and state correspondent and an Alabama adjunct instructor. Editors and staff at the Star mentor the students, but few need much handholding.

“You give people tools to get the job done, you send them out to do it, ideally they rise to the occasion,” Lockette said in a phone interview.

Lockette and Star Editor Bob Davis have embraced the teaching-hospital model of journalism education.

“In a teaching hospital, there’s two big missions,” Davis said in a phone interview. “Like any hospital, you treat sick people. Secondary mission: You take students and teach them how to treat sick people.”

This is the program’s eighth year, and its structure has changed somewhat since the beginning, Greer said. At the outset, the program had students part-time in the Star newsroom and part-time at the university.

That meant the students were always “pulled in two different directions” between coursework and reporting, Greer said, a problem exacerbated by the two-hour drive between Anniston and Tuscaloosa. Now, instead of commuting, the students spend three months embedded in the newsroom and nine months taking graduate courses and working piece by piece on longer, in-depth projects.

The program was initially funded by a grant from the Knight Foundation but is now self-sustaining, Greer said. Students work as teaching assistants and receive stipends during the school year and get paychecks from the Star during their time at the newspaper.

Alabama’s graduate experiment hasn’t come at the expense of its undergraduates. The new Digital Media Center at Bryant-Denny Stadium will open its doors in 2014, housing the university’s WVUA-TV, Crimson Tide Productions and the Center for Public Television and Radio. The center will give undergraduates hands-on experience similar to what their graduate student counterparts get in Anniston.

“Departments are working on plans to move classes over into the real-world newsrooms,” Greer said.

The teaching-hospital model and a focus on community journalism aren’t the only ways to shake up journalism education, but the Alabama graduates are passionate about the program’s promise.

“I hope that other journalism programs and papers realize that the only way we can sustain journalism is to make ourselves the experts in our community,” Rodriguez said. Journalists, she added, should be “people that people can talk to, that they want to talk to.”

Advice from Alabama

Here are 10 pieces of advice for journalism educators that Alabama’s university and newsroom mentors have accumulated over nearly a decade of working with the teaching-hospital model:

  • Find the right people. Not all professors are going to want to be in the newsroom, so find the ones who will love the role, Greer said.
  • Like the newsroom, the academy has its turf wars. You can get buy-in for a project by pitching it the right way, Greer said, such as emphasizing that resources for one project are good for the entire department. At the Star, Davis recalled the need to “prepare everyone in your newsroom for what might be a different model.” When the program began, Davis said, some in the newsroom worried it would jeopardize their jobs. “It took a long time to just say, ‘No, that’s not what’s going to happen.’ ”
  • Plan for the student’s whole career. At Alabama, graduate students work on small pieces of a larger project over multiple semesters, picking up skills that help them in the newsroom. Greer sees that as more effective and integrated than “cramming it all into one class,” adding that this model has led to some of the most impactful investigative stories and “showpieces” produced.
  • Be open to changing what you teach, even while teaching the same courses. Students “look through scholarly stuff and theory” and study how that relates to community, Lockette said, adding that “they use that in the way they build their website — how news media actually works in their community.”
  • Be open to changing who teaches in your program. Many tenured professors have worked in newsrooms, Greer said, and the department makes an effort to bring professional voices into the classroom through in-person and Skype visits from prominent journalists across the world.
  • Be open to changing how you teach. Alabama’s undergraduate program has two fully online classes, but relies mostly on what Greer calls a “hybrid delivery model.” But, she said, the university knows more online efforts will come, “because that’s the way the world is going.” Also, Greer said, the program has moved away from trying to teach skills in one or two classes and towards building a skill-set through smaller projects that students incorporate into their masters projects.
  • Be clear about your expectations. “Ours is a complex program,” said graduate program director Wilson Lowrey in a phone interview, adding that it’s important to have an “explanation for the students, have sufficient material that explains things to them, effective orientations, one-on-one conversations.”
  • Don’t get caught up in the latest tech tools for storytelling – technology is changing so quickly that it can feel impossible to keep up. Instead, Lowrey said, “you have to teach them to fish rather than give them fish. … We want [students] to come up with their own solutions, innovate, and critically assess what they’re doing.”
  • Be open to collaborations with other departments. The community-journalism students work with students in the computer-based honors program, Lowrey said, and this collaboration has meant higher-quality work than the community-journalism students could produce on their own.
  • Reporters and editors should remember to be inspirational as well as instructional. “I think of journalism as a calling – you’re spreading the good word,” Davis said, adding: “Be prepared to tell them why you do what you do and why it’s important. We all are in a process of learning about this profession.”

Related: Journalism schools need to adapt or risk becoming irrelevant | Rebooting journalism education means constant state of change | Knight report on training shows journalists want technology, multimedia, data skills

Related training: Six Things Educators Can Do Right Now To Go Digital (NewsU)

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