Journalism 24/7: What we studied, Fall 2011

At the end of each semester, I like to reflect on what I learned from teaching Journalism 24/7, my course on the changing news industry. The material changes so fast that the world looks different every time I teach the class. This time – my 10th – at the request of journalism major Evan Livingston, I’m compiling an annotated list of the websites we examined. For any journalism program contemplating such a course – and all programs should be preparing their students to understand the business side of journalism along with its history, ethics and skills – this list offers a framework on which to build.

Given the wildly overpriced textbook market, it’s gratifying that this is such a low-cost course. I require only one book, “The News About the News: American Journalism in Peril,” by Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert G. Kaiser, a widely available trade paperback that costs less than $15. Though published in 2003, much of it is essential background reading. The only truly outdated chapter is the one on network television news, so we skip that. Everything else we read is available for free online – appropriately, for a class in which a major theme is the loss of revenue in the movement of news to the web.

The annual State of the News Media report published by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism is essential reading for instructors. This exhaustive compilation covers newspapers; magazines; online; local, national and cable television; audio journalism; and ethnic and alternative news media. For each sector, the authors analyze audience, economics, newsroom investment, ownership and digital trends. The 2011 report includes special sections on mobile platforms and community news. A report on the previous year is issued each spring. Sections of the report could be assigned in small doses, or for graduate students, but the whole is overwhelming. I assign the section on local television, which is where many of our students hope to find jobs. The material has proved invaluable in class discussions.

Another core text is the 2011 report by Bill Grueskin, Ana Seave and Lucas Graves of the Columbia University School of Journalism, “The Story So Far: What We Know About the Business of Digital Journalism.” Each of the 10 chapters – on journalism economics, audience, niche and local journalism, mobile and video, paywalls, aggregation, costs, revenue, managing and a conclusion – makes an excellent assignment in preparation for individual class sessions.

I require that the students read the business section of The New York Times on Mondays, when the focus is on media; David Carr’s “Media Equation” column is essential and much discussed. I also require that each student subscribe to two daily newsfeeds on the business of journalism, choosing among Mediabistro, I Want Media, the American Press Institute and freepress.net. The first three aggregate coverage on a broad range of topics and tend to overlap. Free Press’ Media Reform Daily News has, not surprisingly, a reformist slant, but it is the best place to keep abreast of policy issues that directly or tangentially affect the news business, including coverage of the Federal Communications Commission, net neutrality legislation, proposed mergers in the media sector and the “digital divide,” or the gap between technology haves and have-nots. It does an excellent job of aggregating from tech blogs.

Teaching about public companies, industry analysts and corporate strategy is an important part of Journalism 24/7. Few undergrads know much about the business world, so I begin with a glossary of business terms assembled from online business dictionaries that I use to walk the class through the growth of the fictional Selvin, Inc. from one-person operation to IPO to bankruptcy filing. We spend a couple of weeks exploring how companies work, particularly publicly traded companies, as investors’ short-term demands have furthered the decline of many news organizations, and these companies still dominate the industry. I use Yahoo! Finance to show students where to find material for an assigned research paper on the business history of major news organizations. A side benefit of this part of the course is the students’ exposure to financial statements. It’s a chance to incorporate numeracy, something we journalism instructors honor more in the breach than in the observance.

I describe how newspaper companies stood by while Monster.com, craigslist and eBay destroyed their dominance of the market for classified advertising, and how a handful eventually fought back by forming CareerBuilder.com. For coverage of the decline of television news revenue, staffing and coverage, we use the Downie and Kaiser book and the State of the News Media report, described above.

Once we’ve finished examining how badly the big companies screwed up, and I’ve thoroughly frightened the class about the future of the industry the students hope to work in, we turn to the hopeful part of the course: all the exciting ventures that are creating opportunities for them to build a new news industry for the digital age. Inevitably, we’ve already discussed the impact of Twitter and Facebook on news consumption. Now we look at new trends in more detail.

Hyperlocal and community journalism: Some good background sources include the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute, J-Lab and Block by Block. Terrific community news sites include the ones represented at September’s Block by Block Summit; a list of participants is here. Among the sites I discuss in detail are the New Haven Independent and Long Island’s own Riverhead Local.

Niche sites: Kaiser Health News and Politico cover health policy and Washington politics, respectively. Crowdsourcing and crowdfunding: spot.us, the Bay Area site that allows journalists to post story ideas and solicit donations to pay for their reporting time, was just acquired by Public Insight Network, which has an innovative approach to gathering regular-folks sources into its database and using their particular expertise as needed.

Investigative reporting sites: The loss of newspaper investigative teams has been a blow to public accountability journalism. These nonprofits have tried to keep the flame alive: the Center for Investigative Reporting; Pro Publica, which has pioneered the practice of partnering with other news organizations to localize its investigations and leverage its work; the Center for Public Integrity; and regional investigative sites such as INewsNetwork in Colorado.

Other nonprofits: Nonprofit news organizations include such venerable names as the member-owned Associated Press, the online-only Christian Science Monitor and National Public Radio, which we spend some time exploring because – this is shocking to me – about two-thirds of the class has never listened to it. To understand the possibilities of audio journalism, there is no substitute. In addition to the investigative groups listed above, we look at MinnPost, which covers everything Minnesota and more, as an example of a nonprofit site that is beginning to show positive financial results in addition to excellence in reporting.

In a class by itself is Global Post, a for-profit company with a tripartite business model that attempts to fill the gaping holes in coverage left by the abdication of foreign news coverage by the major newspapers and television networks (with the exception of CNN).

I hate putting in a good word for CNN at the moment because just weeks ago, it laid off 50 reporters and editors, saying it would rely more heavily on amateur contributors to its iReport section instead. User-generated content has its place, but when the class heard about this pathetic move, the students saw right through the pretense. It’s about the bottom line, not the journalism.

These are the sites I have been sharing with my class for the past several semesters, the sites that make up the core of the course. But there are always others that we touch on along the way, sites I find that I think the students should know about, and sites they find and share. Democracy Now came up this term, as did The Guardian, the British newspaper and website that is experimenting with newsroom transparency, and of course Huffington Post and the Washington Post make regular appearances. There’s no end to the exciting journalism available online. But the question the class was created to explore remains: In an age of information abundance, with digital dimes replacing print dollars and so much available for free, can quality journalism find a way to pay for itself?

  1. RE: CNN – I was just talking about this to my class in the last few classes. I think a recent example from the Standard-Examiner highlights why it’s such a bad move. Oh, and you might enjoy the Colbert clip about “Me Reporters” too. I wrote about it here:

    http://www.journographica.com/2011/12/20/why-photojournalists-matter/

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