Plugging the Local News Gap
Aspirations and Challenges Facing J-School Journalism Projects at Three Texas Universities
A report from the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin by Regina G. Lawrence, Caitlin Meredith, and Tara Haelle
On June 20, the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University hosted a meeting of the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education. The meeting brought together deans and faculty from 12 journalism and mass communication schools to respond to the recent FCC report, The Information Needs of Communities.
The day’s discussion addressed the challenges and opportunities for meeting community information needs in a rapidly changing media environment. Among the specific ideas discussed, many participants urged journalism schools to play a bigger role in providing news to their communities.
Such “J-school journalism” could contribute to filling the growing gap in local news—particularly “accountability news” that acts as a “watchdog” on government and other centers of power.
The University of Texas report addressed that issue by closely examining three such efforts at journalism schools in Texas, including Reporting Texas at UT-Austin, the Daily Campus at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and Borderzine, an online news outlet produced at the University of Texas – El Paso.
The report finds that journalism students are gaining valuable hands-on experience at these outlets that they might not otherwise get before entering the job market. It also finds many challenges and constraints to university-produced news, including uncertain funding streams, faculty who must juggle editing student work with their other responsibilities, and trying to maintain a steady flow of fresh content on an academic calendar. Read more here [link].
To fill the gap in local news coverage and to renovate journalism education to meet the demands of the new information landscape, journalism programs throughout the country are creating online outlets for student journalism that allow faculty to teach reporting in realistic newsroom settings. According to advocates, these initiatives—which are sometimes called “university-produced journalism” and which we call J-School Journalism—can improve both journalism education and the information environment by engaging students directly in producing news of interest to local communities.
This report focuses on three efforts recently undertaken in Texas at one private and two public universities. Each is a unique attempt to address the needs of journalism students at each particular institution. Comparing these three programs highlights an array of models, possibilities, and potential obstacles to the growth and success of J-school journalism, and helps illuminate what is happening beyond those programs (primarily at elite East- and West-Coast universities) that have received most attention so far.
Our three case studies focus on the conditions needed for producing quality accountability journalism, which takes time, resources, and experienced reporters—three attributes that journalism school projects often lack. Each program studied here has grappled not only with limited financial resources, but with the unique constraints of operating a real news outlet in a university setting, such as faculty who must juggle editing and overseeing the newsroom with other academic responsibilities, students whose attentions are similarly divided, and an academic calendar that includes spring and summer breaks. Our case studies also show that how each entity perceives its mission is central to understanding the kind of news it is producing, the nature of the learning opportunities offered to students, and the kinds of impact the outlet is likely to have on its local news environment.
Our three case studies do not offer one single model for success. Rather, each shows different approaches, constraints, and outcomes. While it is too early to predict which approach is most sustainable and could have the most impact, the experiences of each offer lessons, both encouraging and cautionary, for other J-school journalism efforts.