The promise and peril of teaching hospitals

Law students file briefs, medical students treat patients, so why can’t journalism students report for the public? That’s the question considered by “The Classroom as Newsroom,” which covers the promise and peril of the “teaching hospital” model of journalism education.

cloudThe promise: employable students, faculty with fresh professional experience, universities providing a public service, researchers studying and informing new techniques and technologies, and communities gaining the news they need.

When students do actual journalism for a real community, their digital skills and understanding must be up-to-date. In a teaching newsroom, students learn much more about community engagement and story impact than they do by turning papers over to a professor in a classroom. They are working in a living laboratory, in a news ecosystem.

The peril: students must be protected legally. The pace of high-pressure, year-round news production can be draining. University support, while essential, may not be there. Faculty debates over the details, including a too-literal view of the “teaching hospital” metaphor, can be an excuse to resist improvement.

We see both the promise and the peril every day. Most of the experiments cited in the “Classroom as Newsroom” have been funded by Knight Foundation. Co-authors Tim Francisco and Alyssa Lenhoff are co-directors of The News Outlet, a Knight-supported “teaching hospital” journalism experiment at Youngstown State University. Columbia University sociologist and media scholar Michael Schudson is the third co-author.

Schudson, Lenhoff, and Francisco note that the number of schools trying to do actual journalism is increasing. Still, we do not have exact numbers. Statistics kept by groups like the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication are outdated. Those need to be revamped. That said, the authors have captured meaningful vignettes.

For example, schools offering students this “clinical” form of education end up placing more of them into the communications job market than the national average.

cloudThis is simply common sense. Those who learn to shoot with live ammunition develop better aim than people only pretending to shoot. Research done by Lee Becker at the University of Georgia confirmed what professionals already knew: what employers most look for in applicants are work experience and professional work samples. If the research were done today, at the top of the list would be digital skills.

Faculty who are pure scholars without professional experience would have a tough time running such real-world laboratories. If teachers with high-level professional experience cannot be hired, or if “hybrid” PhDs (scholars with past professional experience) cannot be found, then trying to launch such an enterprise may not be wise. A teaching newsroom can be dangerous legally without libel insurance and the guidance of a top professional. This could prove even more troublesome in states whose shield laws don’t cover student journalists. The pressure and rigor of providing news on tight deadlines can be great for people who have never done it. Coping with adverse community reaction and controversy requires thick skin.

These are roadblocks. Perhaps funders should revive programs that give scholars daily experience, but this time around, locate them in the best digital-first, social/mobile newsrooms.

Parsing the metaphor

As with the phrase “civic journalism,” we tend to label things to try to better describe them. Unfortunately, giving something a name can also can ruin a perfectly good idea. Some critics, for example, have picked at the “teaching hospital” metaphor, pointing out the literal differences between medicine, which requires a professional degree, and journalism and communications, which have no professional doctorate, nor any licensing. Others argue that only large, well-funded schools can have a full “teaching hospital” model, that they simply can’t do a year-round community news project.

cloudSo let’s edit the metaphor. Schools with few resources might have “teaching clinics,” or even “teaching first-aid stations.” You don’t have to run a full-fledged news site to engage a community in discussion around a particular story or issue. One size does not fit all. The Youngstown experience proves that you don’t have to be a huge campus to have a teaching newsroom.

Then there’s the question of revenue. Practical journalism schools, like the one at San Francisco State University, have, for years and with no resources, offered local reporting classes yielding good student work published in local newspapers. While that doesn’t offer the community engagement and research options we want, it’s at least a start. Other examples: The University of Alabama’s “teaching newspaper” program is entirely tuition supported. The New England Center for Investigative Reporting has a variety of revenue streams, including a profitable high school journalism training program.

I’m convinced teaching newsrooms will never be able to run on revenue from the news organizations they partner with. Even News21’s investigations do not receive any revenue from news organizations. In the end, the question is not whether a program is expensive or no-cost, but whether it is the right size for your campus.

Many debate whether student journalists should be paid. That frame may miss the point. My youngest son plays French horn for the college orchestra, as well as the basketball team’s pep band. He gets credit for one and money for the other. My oldest son freelances as a graphic artist for pay. He works for a tech startup for equity. When he was in school, he created art for credit only. The form of compensation isn’t the point; what matters is there is compensation with real value. When you learn amazing new things, that’s value.

In “The Classroom as Newsroom,” the authors provide useful advice about balancing classroom and newsroom to be sure academic value is there. I think that’s the main thing: pay should not be a surrogate for educational value. Perhaps the kind of formal evaluation the authors call for can be directed toward this question from the student point of view. I’d also look at what knowledge these projects are providing to the field of journalism. If student journalism serves only to replace the work of laid-off local journalists, an opportunity to improve journalism and journalism education will have been wasted.

The most encouraging aspect of Lenhoff and Francisco’s work is their community engagement effort. Too many student news services are one-way, assembly line news factories that spit out stories. That is (as the students say), so 20th century. Today, engagement is crucial. When hundreds of millions of people each carry a powerful mass media device in their pocket, local producers of news must know not only how to reach them, but how to interact with them. Giving students real news experience also gives them real community experience. The relationship between engagement with the news and the impact of the news is a vast new area for formal study. Scholarship may well prove what my colleague Michael Maness, former Knight vice president of journalism and media innovation, says: Human-centered design of news products and projects is a key to engagement.

The most important factor in the success or failure of the teaching newsroom model may well be the support of a university’s president. If the president is behind the idea, money flows and doors open. That said, success can’t happen without the right faculty, people willing to keep costs down by tightly integrating the journalism with the teaching.

cloudThe digital age heralds a time of continuous change. New forms of communication are being created faster than PhDs can be minted. Who has a doctorate in the social implications of 4G smart phone? What schools have integrated mobile media into most or all of their classes? Getting a doctorate or getting a new class through the bureaucracy (which some call a “blood sport”) can take years. We need more flexible systems: Classes in “the new thing,” and that new thing can always change. Doctorates that look at technologies being invented on the other side of campus, not what’s already here.

Extraordinary professionals, those meeting high intellectual standards, can help journalism and communication schools develop greater clinical expertise. Professionals co-exist with scholars in law and medicine. They co-exist in art and music and business schools. They could do so in journalism as well. When they do, students and professors might be helping invent the future of news.

This article was part of an online package posted by the International Journal of Communications.

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