Moving the Classroom Into the Newsroom  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   February/March 2009

Moving the Classroom Into the Newsroom   

The Anniston Star’s creative model for partnership between news outlets and educational institutions

By Chris Roush
     


The Anniston Star's creative model for partnership between news outlets and educational institutions

An unusual experiment in community journalism and journalism education resides in an Alabama town of 24,000 that CBS' "60 Minutes" once named among the most toxic in the country. Drive past the Super Kmart and the Dad's Bar-B-Que north of downtown Anniston and you'll find the country's first formal "Teaching Newspaper," as the sign outside the Anniston Star proudly proclaims.

In the past three years, a total of 14 master's students from the University of Alabama have reported for the paper as Knight Community Journalism Fellows, and 10 more will arrive in May. The program gives the students on-the-job training in community coverage and in the latest multimedia methods of newsgathering and delivery. Chris Waddle, former Star executive editor, oversees the Anniston part of the program, often dispensing advice to the students about issues such as whether to allow a source to retroactively put a conversation off-the-record. In return, the eager young reporters provide coverage to supplement the work of the 25,000-circulation Star's staff.

The program helps students think about the interaction between a newspaper and the community it serves, says Jeremy Cox, a 2008 graduate who is a business writer at Jacksonville's Florida Times-Union.

"In my first five or so years in journalism before joining the program, I didn't spend very much time examining what I was doing," says Cox, who was a city government and environmental reporter at the Naples Daily News in Florida before being accepted into the program. Through the community journalism program, he says, his "whole perception was transformed. It sounds obvious, but I never really thought about a newspaper's or Web site's role in the community, how people use it to make decisions, to inform their over-the-fence conversations and to shape the community's value structure. Newspapers, especially community newspapers, can be that change agent."

For decades, Chairman and Publisher H. Brandt Ayers ran his paper as a for-profit venture. But he made plans to shift ownership of the paper to a foundation because he believes that for the good of the local community, and to preserve an independent voice, profits from newspapers and other media outlets should be funneled into training new journalists and finding new ideas for delivering news.

If the Star succeeds, Ayers envisions other newspapers following in its footsteps to team up with journalism schools in this manner. And other publishers are watching. Walter E. Hussman, who owns dailies in Little Rock and Chattanooga, calls the Star's strategy "a creative idea." He adds, "They certainly have good intentions. Whether it enhances or perpetuates journalism, it's going to do something good for society, so I think that's very good."

To be sure, dozens of newspapers across the country collaborate with local journalism schools, providing training for budding journalists while using the content they produce. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, students in instructor Jock Lauterer's Community Journalism class produce an online newspaper called the Carrboro Commons, and some of the stories have appeared in the Carrboro Citizen, a local paper. Some journalism schools, including the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism, run their own wire services that provide copy to client newspapers. The Marajen Stevick Foundation, which owns the News-Gazette in Champaign, Illinois, gives grants for projects at the University of Illinois, which in turn sends a handful of students to work in the newsroom on a class-by-class basis. The Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and the Palm Beach Post are joining forces with Florida International University to create the student-produced South Florida News Service (see "Share and Share Alike," page 28).

None of these partnerships, however, has so far taken its educational initiatives to Anniston's level of involvement with an educational institution.

Named one of the country's best small newspapers by Time magazine in 1997, the Star has a history of fostering young talent. It's produced writers such as Jim Yardley and Rick Bragg, who went on to win Pulitzer Prizes for the New York Times. It has been a strong voice in the state, advocating school desegregation in the 1960s in opposition to Gov. George Wallace. Ayers has worked at the paper since 1963 and has been its publisher since 1969.

In recent years, the paper has produced strong stories about local issues, including those related to the Monsanto Co.'s pollution in the area and the military's destruction of chemicals at Anniston Army Depot. "In many respects, they are the epitome of a community newspaper," says Al Cross, a University of Kentucky journalism professor and director of the university's Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. "It is the Star's responsibility to be an authoritative source for information. Many of their readers don't subscribe to the Birmingham News or the Atlanta Journal-Constitution."

In collaboration with the University of Alabama and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Waddle developed the idea for the Star to become the first newspaper to house a degree-offering master's program in its newsroom. "That was a long overdue recognition that it is more difficult to do good journalism in small markets than metropolitan areas because you have fewer resources to draw on," says Cross, a member of the teaching newspaper advisory board. "Very few journalism programs put an emphasis on community journalism, which is the form of journalism practiced by most news outlets in the country."

The Star's "Teaching Newspaper" partnership with the university is funded by a $1.5 million, five-year grant from the Knight Foundation. The University of Alabama – Ayers' alma mater – agreed to waive tuition, providing $100,000 total in cash and in-kind contributions to the program each year. The Ayers Institute put up a total of $150,000 cash and in-kind contributions, with the Star agreeing to provide the space and to make its reporters, editors and managers available to the students. Students receive a $1,250 monthly stipend during their yearlong stint in the program and up to $1,500 to conduct a job search and relocate when they finish. The partnership, which has doubled the number of journalism master's students at the University of Alabama, debuted in 2006.

Waddle hopes the program can serve as a model for other newsrooms. "It's a very conservative industry, and innovation comes hard," he says. Still, "I think it's going to occur to other people that this would be something to consider. I don't think this concept has to be limited to privately owned papers. I don't see why Gannett couldn't create such a relationship at some of its papers."

When Ayers announced he was turning the Star into a classroom, reporters and editors privately raised concerns, says Troy Turner, then the paper's executive editor. "They wanted a training model like a Navy hospital ship," he says. "But we worked like a battleship, with all guns blazing. We wanted to continue doing the solid journalism that the Anniston Star had long been known for doing."

However, Turner – who left before the first class began to start his second stint as editor of New Mexico's Farmington Daily Times – concedes that he likes what the Star has done since. "If the Star can keep the role of good editors working with these students, it's going to succeed as a solid newspaper and succeed as an academic experiment," he says. "Is it a smart business move? Yes, probably that as well."

Like other papers, the Star has been affected by the economic downturn and the contraction of the news industry. The newsroom has eliminated five reporting positions through attrition since 2006, says Managing Editor Anthony Cook.

The students pitch and report stories for class, some of which the paper uses to supplement its staff coverage. (The editors don't assign the students stories or beats.) "It's not things we have missed or not covered," says Cook, who has spent all but four of his 15 years in journalism at the Star. "But it's revisiting or taking a deeper look. With the extra help, you can go deeper."

The first six students in the program produced a May 2007 special report on the difficulties Alabama National Guard members experienced when they returned from serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"It was a months-long project that opened some eyes and allowed people to see what was going on with these people in their community," Cook says. The students benefitted, too. "Nothing teaches like experience."

Others have been impressed with the program's journalism as well. The students have "helped the Star continue its reputation as a community newspaper that tackled big issues," Kentucky's Cross says.

Waddle, in consultation with Star Editor Bob Davis, helped pick the first students. The university's admissions committee, of which Waddle was a member, chose a mix of students, some with professional experience and some who lacked it but showed promise. Six students were selected for the first group, and they arrived at the Star in late summer 2006.

Cassandra Mickens, who graduated from the program in 2008 and is now a staff writer at Alabama's Shelby County Reporter, says she learned cutting-edge skills through the program that pay off in her professional work.

"I had zero multimedia experience when I entered the program," Mickens says. "Learning to shoot and edit video was mandatory, and I'm grateful it was. Being able to write and then produce a video or audio sound slide for the Web is gold these days. We must now tell the community's stories with the written word and the moving image. I'm fortunate to work at a community newspaper that values multimedia. At the Reporter, each news staffer is encouraged to produce one video a week. I'm definitely using the skills I learned in the program, and I'm not losing my multimedia edge, which is fantastic."

The program has been tweaked since it began. Some Alabama professors chafed at the two-hour drive between the paper and the main campus in Tuscaloosa to teach classes, since they also needed to stay on top of their on-campus courses, Waddle says. And the students often wanted to work on stories at the newspaper when they had class work to complete. "It was a strain, to be honest with you," he admits.

Jennifer Greer, chair of the University of Alabama's journalism department, thinks the issue was more cultural than geographic. "It is hard to merge a newsroom culture with an academic culture," she says. "There are differences in timetables and expectations, particularly of the students." She did the drive for two semesters, "and honestly it didn't bother me. It wasn't the driving, it was more of the distance between the students, that there were almost like two groups of master's students – one on campus and another at Anniston – that never interacted."

In response to these concerns, the program changed the arrangement, beginning with the crop of 11 students who started in fall 2008. For the first two semesters, they attend courses on the Tuscaloosa campus. Previously, all classes were held at the Star.

Other changes were made, too. Eric Newton, the Knight Foundation's vice president of journalism programs, preferred that the program begin selecting students with no full-time professional journalism experience.

"Professional experience is fine, but if a student already had a career established, and then they went to this program, then it would not be possible to figure out whether or not the program helped them establish their career," Newton says. "So it is far better for the purposes of this program to have students who have not already established their careers."

Cross is concerned that this could affect the quality of what the students produce. "What I am afraid is going to happen in the new arrangement with the students not having professional experience, only previous internships, is that the quality of work is not going to be as good."

Waddle doesn't share this fear. "It's more important to admit even the unskilled if it means recruiting minorities and new voices to the profession," he says. "Practiced professionals might not even stay in community journalism longer than to occupy a steppingstone."

In the third semester, which begins in May, the students will arrive in Anniston and produce a project as well as work in the newsroom. They are scheduled to graduate in August.

Three graduates from the program's first year – Deirdre Long, Nick Cenegy and Assistant Metro Editor and Business Editor Mary Jo Shafer – are now working for the paper. A fourth, Markeshia Ricks, became the Star's capital correspondent in Montgomery after graduating from the program. She has since moved to the Gannett-owned Montgomery Advertiser in hopes of one day managing a community newspaper for the company.

On the first Monday after Christmas, when I visited the Star, Shafer and Cenegy each had front-page stories. Shafer's piece was about a historic train depot destroyed by fire, while Cenegy, who also covers nearby Jacksonville, wrote about a local councilman who wants to increase the town's green space.

The Star hired the students because they excelled during the program. "Professional staff said it was like a college coach looking over the practice field fence at a high school team working out next door," Waddle says. "The up-close observation spotted players they'd love to recruit."

To Waddle's regret, the Knight Foundation objected to the hires. "It made it impossible that year to measure the national impact of the grant or the national value of the degree, and those were important elements," Newton says. When the paper was asked to implement a policy of not hiring the program's graduates, it readily agreed.

Since then, alumni have taken jobs at other papers, including the Florida Times-Union, New Mexico's La Voz de Nuevo Mexico and Nebraska's Nemaha County Herald.

Christina Smith graduated in 2008 before taking a job as assistant editor at the Nemaha County Herald. "I really enjoy working for the smaller newspaper in Nebraska," she says. Smith covered local governments and schools at the Des Moines Register before attending the University of Alabama program. "While I enjoyed being in Des Moines and working for one of the nation's top papers, I am finding it to be more rewarding working for a weekly publication with a circulation of about 2,000."

Newton says the partners have learned some obvious lessons. "It is better to do this with newspapers and universities that are relatively close together," he says. "You need to build in some kind of hiring cap, so the local paper doesn't hire up the whole class. And in addition to getting agreement from the leadership, future experiments should be sure the affected newsroom staff and faculty members also are in agreement. Leaders might move on, but the rank-and-file remains."

It's possible that the program will be expanded to include television. The University of Alabama's television station is strengthening its signal, and operating a bureau for the eastern part of the state out of the Star newsroom is one option Waddle mentions. In March, the Star plans to launch a videocast to cover breaking news. "I feel very strongly that it can be sustained," the University of Alabama's Greer says. "It may not be at the level of funding that it currently has. We're moving toward partial pay [from students] and partial support [from contributors and foundations]."

Knight sent the last installment of its grant in November. "Our promise was to help launch the original program," Newton says. "Our hope was that it would prove its own worth and not have problems attracting paying students."

Waddle agrees, stating, "I think it's even desirable to increase our value in the minds of students by asking them to bear part of the expense." If students start paying, the program could actually move toward a self-sustaining model and not have to depend on donations or grants.

The university is working on a plan to fund the program after the Knight grant runs out. Waddle says the university's development officers will help find new sources of funding from the school's sizable alumni base, press associations and other foundations.

Some believe collaborations between newspapers and educational institutions can be expanded further to include ownership. Ohio University journalism professor Bill Reader notes that the Alabama state retirement system is an investor in Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., which owns more than 90 daily newspapers. He believes university endowments could make similar investments. "If they ran them, that could be a revenue generator for the endowments, not to mention an incredible educational tool and an important public service," he says.

Reader concedes that the community might be wary of a university's influence on a paper's content, particularly one that is located in or covers the school's hometown. But he says that ownership model could work if the papers were some distance away.

Other issues that such partnerships might face include the perception that newspapers might be taking advantage of the cheap labor students provide. The Star's editors emphasize that the master's students cover stories that are outside of their reporters' regular beats. And then there's the question of whether the student-produced content gets the same play as the professional journalists'. Says Rich Martin, a University of Illinois professor whose students work in the Champaign newsroom: "I've got a lot of clear responsibility and authority over what the students are doing. But it's the News-Gazette's call over what they publish."

Whatever the plan, the Star will need help to make it work in the future. "We are not making enough money to sustain it by ourselves," says Ayers, noting the paper has not made a profit in the past three years. "Where I see us heading is demonstrating, if we can, that this is the way all of the big shadows in the country can be filled with something useful and vital."

Despite the challenges, others seem convinced that its model – with an emphasis on education – is the wave of the future.

"It is a marvelous idea," Cross says. "It's that immersion in the day-to-day production of a newspaper and the interaction with the people in the newsroom and the community that are the best teachers of the fundamentals of community journalism."

Chris Roush (croush@email.unc.edu) is the Walter E. Hussman Sr. Distinguished Scholar in business journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He wrote about prescient but ignored business reporting in AJR's December/January issue.

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