Verified curation: Using student radio as our teaching hospital
NOTE: This post is another in a series considering the future of journalism and media education for my 2018 Disruptive Journalism Education Fellowship from the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY. This post focuses on verified curation, one of six curricular threads I outlined in an initial essay about journalism in our distracted age.
Over the past decade, our journalism curriculum at Drury University edged away from writing.
Responding to changes in the industry, we offered an integrated media major, blending video and Web competencies with traditional journalism skills to develop multimedia multitaskers. Employers appreciated the mix of abilities as well as our graduates’ willingness to experiment and embrace technology.
But then came 2016. And it made me question whether we had veered too far in our program from the foundational elements of journalism, especially verification.
Journalism off the rails
Horse-race journalism, driven by clicks and immediacy, had consumed the election conversation. Former CBS Executive Chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves admitted in February 2016 that the volatile campaign with Trump in the mix was bringing in ad dollars.
“It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” Moonves said at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom Conference in San Francisco, according to The Hollywood Reporter. “… Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? … The money’s rolling in and this is fun. I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
Many ad-driven news organizations, struggling to survive in the age of social media, embraced the sensational, the clickable, and had tiptoed away from investigations and deep reporting.
In our local market, our television stations doubled down on crime, wrecks, fires, and the latest provocation from the election trail. Springfield’s newspaper, decimated by layoffs and trims mandated by a corporate parent, struggled to keep up as its newsroom continued to shrink and fade. Our local NPR affiliate has limited resources, and the commercial radio news station in town focuses its team on weather, crime, and traffic.
As this brew percolated, I was asked to serve as facilitator for the Community Focus Report, a biennial project that reviews our community’s strengths (blue ribbons) and challenges (red flags). Eleven committees of community leaders compile information on a variety of topics, including public safety, education, and citizen participation. Since coming to Drury, I had used the report to guide my nascent community-journalism efforts. Now, I had a chance to participate deeply in the process.
I had also seen a growing interest among community groups wanting to discuss “fake news.” Among the questions I heard in these public sessions: How do we deal with the spread of misinformation through social media? How do we have civil conversations across partisan divisions? How do we find trustworthy sources when so much information coming to us is incomplete, inaccurate, or misleading?
It led the Community Focus Report’s steering committee to add a new section to the report, compiled by the Springfield-Greene County Library District, that would help citizens find useful, accurate information about the community.
Extending beyond campus
In our curriculum overhaul, we have been looking to the “teaching hospital” model that Eric Newton and others have been describing over the past few years. Decades ago, I cut my teeth at the Columbia Missourian at my alma mater, the University of Missouri, and it proved an invaluable professional experience to start my journalism career.
We’ve also looked to other schools including Arizona State University’s News 21, which regularly digs into issues of import in its community and state. The only hitch: We are much, much smaller. The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication has almost as many undergraduate students in as we do in all of Drury. And we have only three professors spread across multiple disciplines for our major.
Still, we’ve done some community-based journalism in our individual classes at Drury. Our multimedia professor regularly sends his video students to work with community groups, and my investigative-reporting students dig into community-based topics for a semester. Our efforts, however, have been sporadic and inconsistent.
Our hope with the curricular redesign is to provide a more deliberate, consistent approach to community journalism, driven by the Community Focus Report.
Community radio as a curricular hub
In 2016, we received final approval for our low-power FM license, the end of an arduous three-year journey through the FCC application process. (Lesson learned: I should have just paid a communications lawyer to do it.) Though we were a low-power station, our high-quality stereo signal covers almost all of the Springfield city limits. With KDRU 98.1 FM, we now had a platform to reach people through a medium that was not losing audience.
As part of this process, we plan to develop community-listening skills in our students. Over the past year, I have visited several news organizations, including WBEZ in Chicago and St. Louis Public Radio, that use the Hearken platform to ask questions of its audience.
Whatever form our teaching hospital takes, we will include elements of social journalism for identifying underrepresented and underserved segments of our community. But we aren’t waiting for the complete overhaul to test these concepts. This semester, my Entrepreneurial Journalism class is developing journalism products to help reach some of those untapped corners of the community.
I am also working with students to develop a weekly interview program/podcast based upon the Community Focus Report as well as a monthly radio documentary. Whatever the outcome of these experiments, we plan on complementing the existing journalistic resources in our community.
The time has come for our students to step beyond the campus and deeper into the community with their journalism on more consistent basis. We are not competing with local media; we are collaborating with them. And they welcome the help.
What are you doing for your communities with your curricula? Are you embracing the teaching-hospital model, or have you found other effective ways to connect your students’ journalism with the community?
At #ONA18 in Austin, I will be presenting these ideas at 3:30 p.m. Thursday, September 13, as part of Tow-Knight’s #disruptive educators forum. Join us for the conversation!