Can Journalism Schools Fix News Deserts?

From a post on by Kristen Hare headlined “Can J-schools fix news deserts?”:

It’s summer, and that means it’s intern season, and that means you might be lucky enough to feel a little extra hope for our industry if you’re spending any time with brand new journalists.

A case study out this summer suggests there deserves to be more than just a bit of hope, though.

That study, not yet published, is titled “Challenging Journalistic Boundaries: How Generation Z Journalists Are Taking On the U.S. News Desert Crisis,” and it shows how University of Kansas, Duquesne University and Northeastern University have built newsrooms for their communities.

It happened at The Eudora Times, which started covering Eudora, Kansas, as a class through the University of Kansas. That case study, which hasn’t yet been published, tells the stories of two more universities where the next generation of journalists are attempting to fill in the gaps.

“There’s that old saying that local doesn’t scale, and I think that’s true,” said Meg Heckman, an assistant professor at Northeastern.

But she and her fellow authors think what they’re learning about how universities can help with news coverage is applicable in other places. And those universities have the space to experiment.

“We can take risks on behalf of other local news organizations,” she said.

In that spirit, here are a few things they’ve learned:

Uncovered communities deserve regular, nuanced coverage
In Pittsburgh, part of the inspiration for the Triangle Tribune came from the work of the Pittsburgh Courier, a newspaper serving Black communities.

“So many news organizations have largely ignored the Hill District for so long and the only time that they go in and write about them is when there’s a major crime happening,“ said Pamela Walck, an assistant professor at Duquesne.

In Boston, The Scope also covers an undercovered Black neighborhood, and The Eudora Times covers a city that first lost local news in 2009.

Know the ecosystem
While Eudora didn’t have dedicated news, Pittsburgh and Boston have whole ecosystems.

“Don’t try and compete with the existing local news ecosystem,” Heckman said.

Instead, understand what’s out there, how to amplify it and what needs supplementing. That can also lead to partnership opportunities with existing publications.

Keep it simple
The Scope has found that, over time, regular, granular community coverage does best among its audiences, including bulleted coverage of city council meetings, decisions and how to find out more.

“People love that stuff,” Heckman said. “It’s quick and it’s also the same kind of stuff that is a wonderful training exercise for a young journalist.”

Structured assignments that are easily repeatable work well for new journalists and can function as class assignments while filling in news holes.

Continuity means steady funding
The Triangle Tribune launched in the spring of 2020, The Eudora Times in the spring of 2019 and The Scope in the fall of 2017.

Currently, only The Scope is publishing year-round, thanks to a partnership with the Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship, which helped the publication hire a grad student to serve as editor. During the summer, however, it publishes at a slower pace.

The Eudora Times closed for the summer due to lack of funding and plans to resume publishing in August. And The Triangle Tribune is currently on a break.

Gen Z gets why this matters
“They’re both altruistic and realistic in a way that just feels a little different from the students I was interacting with 10 to 12 years ago,” Heckman said.

“They’ve been raised digital natives, so they’ve seen a lot of stuff,” Walck added. “I think the ‘adults’ don’t always give them credit for that.”

“Gen Z has fantastic potential to solve this problem because we do not have the overhead of a ‘real’ newsroom by using college students,” said Teri Finneman, the Eudora Times publisher and a journalism professor at KU. “However, we need help. We need support to make this happen. With student debt, Gen Z is having to work 20 to 30 hours a week or more to earn money while they’re in school, making it harder for them to participate in student media.

“Yet we don’t qualify for so many of these grants out there because they want you to do some fancy project when we’re just trying to cover the meat and potatoes of city hall and school board. There has to be support for plain old community journalism.”

Kristen Hare covers the people and business of local news and is the editor of Locally at Poynter. She previously worked as a staff writer.

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