J-schools step up investigative reporting instruction with News21

Raise your hand if you remember the following assignments from journalism school: The obit. The neighborhood piece. The ten-week investigation into the Department of Homeland Security’s budget.

No? Last one wasn’t on your syllabus? For 44 student fellows in a journalism education project called News 21, it’s exactly the type of investigative journalism they’re working on this summer.

News 21 — short for News for the 21st Century — is a partnership among five universities (Columbia, Harvard, Northwestern, the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Southern California [publisher of OJR]) that’s sending its fellows across the country and the world to do investigate reporting on a series of complicated topics and long-term issues.

Funded by the Carnegie Corporation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the three-year project began this spring and recently sent fellows to Korea to report on the U.S. military, to Mexico and Arizona to report on immigration concerns, and to the offices and anterooms of Washington D.C. to investigate the Department of Homeland Security’s finances.

While the project’s short term goal is to publish fellows’ work in mainstream news outlets, News 21’s organizers hope that, long term, the project will do nothing less than revitalize the nation’s top journalism schools.

“In a world where large news organizations are shrinking and are certain to shrink further, in-depth stories like what we’re doing aren’t being done,” said Merrill Brown, former editor-in-chief of MSNBC.com and the project’s editorial director. “And they won’t get done in our view without new institutions jumping in and figuring out how to do them. That’s where News 21 comes in.”

Taking over where newsrooms leave off?

The project has four newsrooms on four campuses. (Harvard, which doesn’t have a graduate journalism program, does not have a newsroom, but contributes fellows to each of the campuses.) Each newsroom is led by a coordinator who has several years of reporting experience.

Students apply to News 21 during the school year, and chosen fellows attend a semester-long seminar on the topic they will be covering during the ensuing ten-week summer program. Each university focuses on a different topic: Columbia fellows cover the Department of Homeland Security; USC fellows cover the immigration debate; Berkeley students cover the U.S. military abroad; and Northwestern students cover privacy and national security.

“They’re not just diving into these things cold, they’re actually experts,” said Brown, referring to the seminar. “The point of that is to try and encourage universities to make the link between topics and coverage so that journalism school isn’t simply about the craft but about preparing people to do great reporting about complicated subjects.”

Those complicated subjects are exactly the ones getting passed over in newsrooms today, according to Brant Houston, director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. Houston said that every year, investigative reporting continues a downturn in prominence.

“Investigative reporting relies almost exclusively on the individuals putting in lots and lots of time and effort for which they’re usually not compensated, except to have the story done,” he said. “Any program that that promotes investigative reporting especially during this time of increased government secrecy is a good thing.”

Some of the fellows are determined to uncover those secrets.

Jeff Delviscio, who graduated from Columbia’s graduate journalism school in May, said that, in his experience, employers are looking for specialists. News 21 helps him to develop contacts in his topic area — how the Department of Homeland Security protects chemicals from tampering — and the time to do good work.

Vanessa Gregory, currently in South Korea investigating U.S. military conduct, said she joined News 21 because it gives her more experience with a subject on which she’s wanted to report for a while, and which she wouldn’t have been able to report otherwise.

Some fellows are already publishing their work in mainstream outlets. Fellows at USC recently completed a television package about how two cities are dealing with immigration issues. That package, called “A Tale of Two Cities: San Bernadino and Maywood” will be the first News 21 piece to publish, and will appear on July 21st on Los Angeles public television station KCET.

“Our charge at USC was to serve local TV mainly,” said Judy Muller, USC’s coordinator for the project. “And we consider KCET to be local television, even though it will be seen all over the state. We’re also working on getting some stories on ABC. We’ve got a cover story for LA Weekly coming up.”

Coordinators said that the initial focus was for each campus to publish to a specific medium. However, the unpredictable nature of working with the press has caused the coordinators to concentrate on online publishing as well.

“Everybody kind of realized that the partners who may match up with the schools, that’s a real variable,” said Adam Glenn, multimedia coordinator for the Columbia campus. “But the one thing we do own is the Web. Our website is something that all the projects can control. There’s been an evolving focus on how we can deliver this to our website.”

News 21 fellows have already taken their first steps online. A few of the fellows entered the project with experience reporting or working online, and each reporting team posts to a blog.

In May the students and coordinators gathered at Berkeley, where Berkeley multimedia coordinator Jane Ellen Stevens demonstrated several ways to produce reporting for an online audience. Stevens explained how they can combine still images, video, and non-linear storytelling methods to produce stories that are “contextually rich.”

Some fellows are learning how to use their video camera as a reporter’s notebook, Stevens said. Eventually, they may be able to use parts of that video for a podcast, or spin off copy for a print project.

Fellows are using other non-traditional reporting tools as well. Columbia fellow Kody Akhavi, who had some experience with Flash before the project, is studying how to use Flash’s scripting abilities to publish maps and timelines to complement online stories.

“Flash is just a vehicle for me to tell stories,” said Kody, who started experimenting with the animation tool to create a website for his former band. “There’s still a question whether investigative journalism is best expressed in new media. You can’t do it with everything, but the opportunity is there.”

Of course, a large project such as News 21 is bound to face some obstacles.

“I think the fellows get it,” Stevens said, when asked whether the educators were enthusiastic about the online media component.

But some coordinators, while enthusiastic about the project as a whole, expressed frustration with project’s online plans. And a few fellows are hesitant to fully endorse how the universities approach online media.

Rich Gordon, multimedia coordinator at the Medill School at Northwestern, said the universities were late to address the online component of the project.

“Carnegie has two goals for the program, though I’m not sure they’re equal,” he said. “One is to get stories delivered through traditional media. Two is experiment with innovative ways to do these stories. Each school is focusing first on the story problem. Only with the second it’s been like, uh-oh, we better figure out how to deliver this online.”

Hiring the multimedia coordinators and other support staff was one solution to that problem, Gordon said. All four of the multimedia coordinators have significant experience with producing work for the Web, or with converting non-Web pieces to work online.

The coordinators have to be mindful of what the students want to concentrate on as well. The fellows are enthusiastic about the possibilities of online journalism, though many say they’re mostly interested in reporting regardless of medium.

The program hopes to announce this month several partners in the press who will be publishing the fellows’ work.

“We want to demonstrate that a brand new institution with some resources can create something with meaning without necessarily having to have distribution capability of the New York Times or CBS news,” said Brown.

“I think it’s an exciting opportunity for the students and the faculty. It’s a process of all of us learning and teaching one another.”

[This version was corrected from the original to distinguish between coordinators and multimedia coordinators for each of the participating schools.]

About Steve Bryant

Steve is a writer and editor living in New York City. He runs the publishing news site publish.com and writes about online media on his blog, Intermedia (http://blog.eweek.com/blogs/intermedia/).


  1. Douglas Starr says:

    More J-schools ought to do the same. I require my students to cover three City Council meetings, in addition to other assignments.