THE EXPERIMENT - Higher Education


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THE EXPERIMENT

by MARIA EUGENIA MIRANDA

In an age in which free Craigslist online classifi eds, self-reported news blogs and a plethora of Web news sources are sapping advertising revenue from print media, many news organizations are searching for new, more viable business models.

Officials at The New York Times and the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism think they are on to something with a new partnership focused on Web-based hyperlocal journalism that may inform how traditional news sources and journalism schools move forward.

CUNY is not only providing interactive media instruction to budding professional journalists, but some of its students are helping train citizen journalists to contribute content to two New York Times Web sites dubbed The Local.

Launched in March, one news/blog site covers the Fort Greene and Clinton Hill neighborhoods in Brooklyn, N.Y., and another site reports on Maplewood, Millburn and South Orange in New Jersey with the street corner insight of a longtime resident. Staffed by Times Deputy Metro Editor Mary Ann Giordano, two Times reporters, student interns from CUNY and other schools, and a host of citizen journalists, the project is taking community journalism to a new level for the newspaper.

“The Times’ goal, like ours,” said Jeff Jarvis, who oversees the interactive media program at CUNY, “is to create a scalable platform (not just in terms of technology but in terms of support) to help these communities organize their own news and knowledge.”

“The Times needs this to be scalable; it can’t afford to — no metro paper can or has ever been able to afford to — pay for staff in every neighborhood and town,” Jarvis, author of What Would Google Do?, wrote in his blog buzzmachine.com upon announcing the CUNY-Times partnership.

Building a Community

Although capitalizing on hyperlocal news coverage is by no means a novel business practice, says Adam Clayton Powell III, vice provost for globalization at the University of Southern California, creating a partnership with a university may be a win-win situation for The Times because it reduces incremental staffing costs.

In 2008, newspaper stock declined 83 percent, and 10 percent of newspaper positions disappeared, according to Powell’s book Reinventing Local News: Connecting Communities Through New Technologies, which was published in 2006 and is set to come out in an updated form this fall.

“You have to be ruthless with your costs, because you’re not going to get the type of advertising or sales revenue that is anything close to what you would get from a metropolitan-wide daily,” Powell says.

Overall, according to Reinventing Local News, traffic to newspaper Web sites went up 16 percent and page views went up 25 percent from 2007 to 2008. The Times’ Giordano explains that, although the residents of these neighborhoods already had a habit of connecting to certain community news sites, The Local gives them a better option.

“Our goal is to make this community blog a place where people can come to share news,” she says, emphasizing that her team is not drawing upon the existing vast readership of The Times but cultivating its own readership in these communities of 50,000 people.

After months of working on presidential election and inauguration coverage, Giordano says she went into the hyperlocal project open-minded but slightly skeptical about whether citizens can do what a trained journalist does.

“I think they can’t do everything, but they can do a good part of it and are willing to do a good part of it. They sometimes write and report things quite wonderfully. We have some really fine writers that contribute regularly to the sites.”

According to Reinventing Local News, data show that citizen journalist sites are becoming newsier with 56 percent of their content now made up of news (as opposed to opinion or feature pieces) and that they are also closing in on “professional legacy sites.”

This summer, four CUNY graduate students are spending time not just writing and reporting stories in a multimedia fashion, but also training middle- and high-school students through workshops in Brooklyn and New Jersey on photography and much more.

“We made a conscious effort to start with kids, because kids tie together communities — it comes back to covering school board meetings,” says Jere Hester, the director of CUNY’s City News Service, who is serving as a liaison for the project. He adds that it is also a way of building not just an audience of news consumers but a generation of news generators.

A two-year $300,000 grant from the Carnegie Corporation has helped jump-start CUNY’s efforts. Specifically, the funds are being used for students to report stories in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn and conduct citizen journalism training sessions.

Interns from Boston University, Columbia University, The George Washington University, Johns Hopkins University, Long Island University, Montclair State University, New York University, Queens College, the University of Georgia and Washington State University are also working on The Local. The CUNY students, however, have been focusing on a specific mission of building a relationship with the community — an element that Jarvis said is often missing in interactive journalism.

Giordano notes of the CUNY students participating in the project this summer, “They completely get this idea of citizen journalism.”

A Natural Fit

The New York Times’ new headquarters building on Eighth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan is only a few doors away from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, but proximity isn’t the only reason for the partnership. The partnership was a natural fit since the graduate school, which opened its doors in 2005, was designed with the future of the journalism trade in mind.

“Because we started from scratch, we were able to do this more quickly than others. We didn’t have to undo anything. We designed the facility that way, recruited faculty in that way,” says CUNY Graduate School of Journalism Dean Stephen Shepard.

The school’s incoming class for the fall is projected at 90 students, nearly a 100 percent jump from its first graduating class of 50 students.

“I think we’re going to have more and more influence as we graduate more classes. We’re trying to imbue students with that spirit of innovation,” says Hester.

Interest is also up at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, but Powell says many journalism programs have been slow to adapt to changes because, he explains, “It’s very difficult to change what you’re doing when you’ve been successful.”

Developing new ad revenue streams for the ailing news industry is also in the works at CUNY as one of its other campuses, Baruch College, will “lend business expertise, working with The Times’ business people,” to serve and sell to local advertisers, Jarvis noted on buzzmachine.com. Despite this, Times executives have yet to tap into the potential ad revenue of The Local and collaborate with Baruch students on their business models. Although, they are watching The Local’s progress very closely, says Giordano.

“I think this is as much an experiment for the industry as it is for The Times. What we’d love to do is create a local package — if you will — that provides a platform, a business model … ,” says Giordano.

Between 2004 and 2009, more than 800 community-based news sites have been started, according to Jan Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab, the Institute for Interactive Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.

In Ann Arbor, Mich., The Ann Arbor News, the city’s daily since 1835, closed in July, while a hyperlocal news site run by a husband-and-wife team continues to be profitable there. Staffers of the Seattle Post Intelligencer and Denver’s Rocky Mountain News did not accept defeat earlier this year when the newspapers’ print editions closed. They have since started their own online versions of the publications.

“There are a lot of experiments going on with foundations and media organizations,” Giordano says. “Hopefully, we can contribute something to the conversation.”

Visit www.nytimes.com/marketing/ thelocal to see the work Giordano and her staff are producing.

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