Listening to Serve Emerging Journalists, Innovating to Redesign Journalism

In August 2013, I was studying abroad in Kenya when some high school students asked me how to start a newspaper at their school. Here I am giving my under-qualified advice one month before joining the founding partners of Muckgers.

As I complete my M.A. in Social Journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, I’m looking back on what I’ve done to quantify and qualify my work.

Before I begin, allow me to give a quick recap on what exactly the social journalism program is.

Under the direction of Carrie Brown, the social journalism graduate students pick a community to serve with their journalism over the course of three semesters. The spring semester was focused on studying and practicing design thinking as well as gaining a foundation of relevant knowledge to build upon including reporting, community engagement, social media strategy, and measuring impact. The summer semester developed skills like front-end web development, data cleaning and analysis, multimedia storytelling, and media ethics. The fall semester — the one that just came to a close—saw my classmates and I put into practice the skills we learned and knowledge we gained in service to our community. Now, let’s begin.

Serving Emerging Journalists

The re-discovery of the picture at the top of this post happened last week. It shows me speaking with Kenyan high school students who had asked me about how to start a newspaper at their school when I was studying abroad. One month later, I came back to New Brunswick, N.J. to co-found my own news website. Finding that picture at the end the social journalism program was serendipitous. It turns out that the community I chose to serve in this program was one I had been serving for years.

Ultimately, my choice to work with emerging journalists for my capstone was spurred by the realization that they are facing the brunt of the disruption in the industry.

Nearly one in two newsroom leaders and staffers said that journalism schools are failing to prepare undergraduates for careers in the industry, according to a Poynter Institute report from 2013.

A 2015 American Press Institute survey of 10,000 communication and journalism graduates found that the proportion of journalism graduates who say they are “very comfortable” with graphic design skills has risen from 14 percent to 15 percent since 1981. Those “very comfortable” with using databases has dropped by 2 percent since 2005. Of graduates from 2006–2015, just 11 percent said they were “very comfortable” with HTML — a one percent increase from the group graduating in 1980 or earlier.

Further, a report from the University of Georgia’s James M. Cox Jr. Center for International Mass Communication Training and Research found that 40 percent of new journalism graduates said they were not prepared for the market and nearly one third said they did not have the skills required to succeed in their positions.

How is that a real statistic?!

But what does that mean for my community? In order to find out, I gave my community geographic and demographic boundaries: undergraduate student journalists in New Jersey.

Taking the Pulse of My Community

From June through September of this year, I wrote and rewrote grant proposals and memos seeking to secure $18,000 and a fiscal sponsor for — first — paid fellowships for student journalists in New Jersey and — then — social journalism workshops at Montclair State University and Rutgers University–New Brunswick. Eventually, I succeeded in finding an organization willing to facilitate my grant and a foundation willing to consider my proposal but then I realized that I was missing the point of social journalism: I was acting before listening.

So, I said no to the grant and paused to take the pulse of my community.

I wanted to know what issues and pressures they were facing that prevented them from telling stories, making an impact, and serving their communities. In order to do so, I needed to understand the state of student media and undergraduate journalism education in New Jersey. So, I produced content for a college news site, conducted interviews with stakeholders, launched a survey, and did some community development.

Media Making

A portion of the work I did this year was with Muckgers, a publication I co-founded in 2013 as an undergraduate at Rutgers University–New Brunswick. As it is still a university-community facing publication, working with it gave me some more practical experience as to what media making means to emerging journalists.

I managed Muckgers through a distributed content transition, where we moved from a WordPress CMS to a Medium publication. I partnered with Joe Amditis, a social journalism classmate and associate director at the Center for Cooperative Media, to examine how local digital publishers might publish with Facebook Instant Articles.

I wrote articles for the site, produced Facebook Live videos, and experimented with how social media sharing could drive our impact goals.

The articles I wrote this year were read for a total of 9,500 minutes. Muckgers’s Facebook videos had 11,000 views. Our highest Facebook Live reach was 25,000 users.

Some of this year’s impact included:

  • last livestream standing of Bernie Sanders’s New Jersey rally after the official livestream was taken over by trolls
  • drove 30 percent of one week’s signatures to petition supporting student voting rights on Rutgers governing board
  • release of a committee report on Rutgers University’s history with slavery that was seeded in a 2014 Muckgers article

Stakeholder Interviews and Community Survey

I interviewed 20 stakeholders from the variety of groups shown in this stakeholder map.

A key element of social journalism is creating space in which you can listen to your community: digitally or in-person. I did this through interviews with people that have a stake in my community and a survey of journalism educators and students, the two stakeholder groups most relevant to improving the preparation of emerging journalists for their careers.

Foundations support publishers and journalism educators, who, in turn, allow the foundations to meet their goals. Journalism educators and publishers prepare and develop emerging journalists through which they engage the public. Among the roles of the journalism educator is to prepare journalism students to be viable candidates for gainful employment in the market. (The other —and no less important — is to give them the skills to be thoughtful, critical thinkers and good citizens.)

Initial Observations

This project is not complete and I look forward to reaching more corners of the state to hear from journalism educators and student media makers I have not yet had the opportunity to listen to. (You can still fill out the survey. Those who complete it are eligible to win prizes!) Despite this, I have some initial observations that I can begin sharing.

Here are some of the questions and suggestions I have received from journalism educators so far:

  • How do other universities teach and run student media?
  • How can students connect with local publishers and non-profits?
  • Make journalism school more skills-based and less conceptual.

Here are comments and suggestions I have so far received from student media makers:

  • What do curriculums and student papers look like elsewhere?
  • How can students journalists thrive after they graduate?
  • Include more media-based learning.

These initial directions from members of my community are remarkable because while journalism educators and students are using different language, they indicate similar desires.

Both groups are looking for opportunities to learn from others in the community, connect with professional networks to thrive after graduation, and learn the skills required to succeed in their careers.

Community Building

One of the pieces of feedback I received was from an educator was the wish that there was a space to connect and ask questions about what others in the community were doing. So, I created a Facebook page, NJ Student Media Stakeholders, to create a digital space for New Jersey’s student media community to connect, share, and learn from one another.

In order to serve this community, I also needed to be able to understand its breadth and depth. To do so, I have begun a directory of college and university-based student media in New Jersey.

The NJ Student Media Directory is a work in progress. Contributions welcome!

It includes each organization’s name, university, location, contact information, website, and social media platforms, among other information. It currently lists the student news media at public and private colleges and universities in New Jersey and will include county colleges in the near future.

It is certainly a work in progress, so there is some information that may be missing or not wholly accurate. I’m happy to accept corrections and contributions. Feel free to reach me on Twitter or email me at to help out!

Here are some findings* from my initial census:

  • There are 67 student news organizations serving the 192,000 students attending the state’s 26 college campuses.
  • Of the 15 radio stations, 10 broadcast from public schools and one, Princeton University’s, is the only for-profit station.
  • 31 print publications serve college and university communities in the state, with most publishing weekly.
  • Only two newspapers are printed daily: Rutgers University–New Brunswick’s The Daily Targum and Princeton University’s The Daily Princetonian.
  • In addition to the websites associated with print publications, there are at least 13 more digital student news providers, ranging from independent websites to Medium publications to digital video production outlets.
  • Rutgers University–New Brunswick has the highest amount of student media organizations with at least 14.
  • The vast majority of the total student media organizations have a presence on social media. (They do not necessarily use it effectively or at all.)

*This research is not exhaustive and may contain inaccuracies. In particular, my exposure to the Rutgers University–New Brunswick student media ecosystem may have influenced my comparatively high student media organization census on that campus.

These findings are preliminary and I look forward to completing this catalogue in the near the future. Coupled with the survey and continued conversations with stakeholders, I hope to identify more specific actions I could take to support New Jersey’s emerging journalists.

Practicing Innovation To Redesign Journalism

Working with the undergraduate student journalism community in New Jersey has not been my only role this year. For the last few months I have also been working at ProPublica and on Community Information Districts, a project to redesign local news and information ecosystems.


At ProPublica I had the pleasure of interning with Celeste LeCompte, the business development and partnerships director. What inspired me to approach Celeste was a presentation at The Center for Cooperative Media’s Northern New Jersey Digital Publishers Summit in August of 2016.

Here is Celeste’s presentation, “Finding Your Trampoline,” at the more recent Center for Cooperative Media’s Sustain Local journalism sustainability conference.

That presentation, titled “Finding Your Trampoline,” told the true story of a go-kart manufacturing facility that repurposed the equipment and raw materials already being used to build go-karts to also build trampolines. After all, go-karts and trampolines are both just metal pipes bent into shape, painted, and accessorised with the relevant components from other manufacturers.

So, what I have learned from Celeste since then is mainly this: how to examine the DNA of existing products or services and resynthesize it into an additional product or service that could add value to communities or the organization.

Being at ProPublica also gave the me opportunity to be a part of the relaunch of their Data Store and the fortuity to support the editorial team the night of the 2016 presidential election by updating the Electionland liveblog.

Community Information Districts

In addition to working at ProPublica, the aforementioned Joe Amditis and I launched Community Information Districts, a.k.a. Info Districts.

Info Districts is a project to establish special service districts that meet the news and information needs of local communities. Special service districts are independent, special-purpose units that operate separately from the local government and exist for the sole purpose of performing a specific function. Communities come together to form SSDs whenever there is a need for a particular public service. Individuals within a given geographic area pay a small fee to support that service. There are currently more than 30,000 SSDs in the United States, but none of them are used to meet the public information needs of local communities.

Info Districts seeks to test the viability of a SSD providing funding for community information projects ranging from local news services to improving communication between citizens and their local government to modernizing the technological infrastructure of communities.

This project launched at the Online News Association’s 2016 Unconference and has also been introduced to Free Press as they seek to secure investment from the Federal Communication Commission’s public broadcasting spectrum auction, which will free up more bandwidth for mobile data by selling off a portion of the airwaves.

I’m also pursuing a fellowship with Stanford University’s JSK Fellowships to further develop the idea and examine its potential to redesign local news and information ecosystems. You can read more about Info Districts at

But what do journalism education, nonprofit newsrooms, and local journalism business models have to do with each other?

Social Journalism As Capacity Building

Here is my final takeaway: social journalism provides a set of tools that let its practitioners be capacity builders.

Capacity building involves establishing the conditions through which communities can identify and/or address their needs. It can create freedom of opportunity — a freedom to do and be what one wishes.

My social journalism colleagues exemplify that:

Katelyn Gillum’s organization, Wire the Wise, gives senior citizens the technical skills to live fuller lives.

Allen Arthur is preparing a publication written and illustrated by the formerly incarcerated to give the currently incarcerated information that helps them plan for successful reentry.

Ashley Smalls is building a chatbot that lets people of color document instances of discrimination in the workplace and offers resources for what to do next.

Noa Radosh (NR Sverdlin) is building Forus Sefir Kilometer with a colleague from the occupied West Bank to connect Palestinians living there with remote freelancing opportunities.

The freedom of opportunity to act on one’s free will is a concept from political philosophy known as positive liberty. It’s paired against negative liberty, or freedom from interference.

While journalists in the United States are generally free from interference in their reporting on things like poverty, torture, mass incarceration, and police brutality, that does not mean they always can report on them. How so?

Because the conditions that give journalists the freedom to report on society’s disorders and serve its news and information needs are too few. This is where my social journalism practice has sought to build capacity.

By improving journalism education, we can give emerging journalists better skills and knowledge to tell stories, make an impact, and serve their communities. By studying ProPublica, a newsroom that puts journalism before profit, we can learn to cultivate public interest journalism elsewhere. By redesigning local news ecosystems, we can empower local journalists to prioritize the news and information needs of their communities.

This is the direction I plan to move in having completed my M.A. in Social Journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. I look forward to being a part of the movement to bring journalism back to its roots of public service and supporting civic life.

While I’m at it, I’d like to give a special thanks to the following people yet unmentioned and in alphabetical order: Andrew Haeg, Cole Goins, eleanor cippel, Fiona Morgan, Jan Schaffer, Jeff Jarvis, Jennifer Brandel, Jeremy Caplan, Jessica Estepa, Josh Stearns, Kate Lurie, Meredith Bennett Smith, Michael Boone, Miguel Paz, Mike Rispoli, Molly de Aguiar, Sandeep Junnarkar, Sarah Bartlett, Stefanie Murray, TC McCarthy, Terry Parris Jr., Thomas Page McBee, Todd Wolfson, and wendy weyen wallace.

Of course there are countless others who have been foundational to my success. I hope they can forgive me for not listing their name here. (This piece is already long enough.)