Center for Collaborative Journalism at Mercer University pioneers, refines true student/professional partnership
Before collaboration was a hot practice in journalism, the Center for Collaborative Journalism at Mercer University was already doing it.
Since 2011, the Georgia-based center has run one of the most effective student/professional journalism partnerships in the country. Its “teaching hospital” model brings together four partners to do collaborative work: Mercer University, Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB), The Telegraph, and 13WMAZ.
“Our classrooms are actually adjacent to The Telegraph’s newsroom and right across the parking lot from GPB,” said Debbie Blankenship, director of the Center for Collaborative Journalism. “The idea was that students would be in the classroom learning the basics and then they would literally walk down the hall and put the skills to use in the newsroom.”
Here’s how the Center works: Students at Mercer University who are interested in journalism and media studies first take a Journalism and Media Bootcamp class their freshman year that covers topics like “writing, audio, video, digital publishing, ethics law,” Blankenship said.
After that, the students are assigned to work in different newsrooms as part of the practicum for a minimum of three semesters. Students can do rotations and work in all three newsrooms, too.
The program’s small size, with about 80 students total, allows them to get personalized feedback and training, Blankenship said.
The students are treated like colleagues, said Josephine Bennett, director of news and partnerships for Georgia Public Broadcasting.
“The kids come to us, we teach them once a week for an hour and the bulk of their work is done outside of the classroom,” Bennett said. “Then when they come back in here for editing assistance and may voice these minute-forty hyperlocal news, kind of extended news spots, that air on Thursdays. … They also produce a version for our main website that is out of our Atlanta office because we’re a satellite office of GPB.”
That setup allows college students to work in a newsroom setting as early as their freshman year, unlike other schools where they might need to finish their general education courses first, said Bennett. “This one is unique based on how early the kids get to start and that they do have opportunities for television, newspaper, and public radio and all with actual working professionals,” she said.
The partners also collaborate annually on a community engagement project that is carried out differently every year, said Blankenship. “We’ve done everything from starting with focus groups and getting feedback from people and using that to shape the project and the reporting that we’re going to do. Or we’ve, you know, done reporting and then sort of put it back out there to the community and gotten their input, or we’ve even started one project where the whole project ended up being what the community told us about a whole bunch of different issues,” she said.
In the Fall of 2019, one collaborative project launched by the four newsrooms was “Peacing Together,” which reported on solutions to youth violence. It included four live events as part of the larger initiative “On the Table,” where groups of people gathered to discuss the issue over a meal.
In 2017, the project (Dis) Integration, was focused on race and school segregation in the local area.
Over the years, Blankenship and Bennett said the Center has picked up a lot of ideas and lessons about how to run effective collaborative efforts. Among those:
You have to be flexible.
This lesson, per Bennett, applies not only to an organization like GPB but also to funding organizations like the Knight Foundation. Bennett said that through the Knight grant, “we were able to do things and then figure out hey, that’s not working, how can we readjust and go in a different direction? So we had the freedom to do that because we’ve been allowed to do that. … It’s a constant process of tweaking.”
Set realistic expectations.
There are a lot of moving parts in collaborations, and sometimes things don’t go as planned. This is where setting realistic expectations comes in, and the fact that this collaboration includes students is important for all of the partners to consider. “Our biggest challenge throughout the entire partnership has been matching the availability of students with the need of the newsrooms,” Blankenship said. Some students may have jobs or classes they need to focus on in addition to their newsroom work.
“I think letting the partners know upfront, they may not be able to hit the ground running, do everything that a normal intern would do, or that a cub reporter would do, they may need some additional mentoring and feedback,” Blankenship said.
Make sure that the expectations placed on all participants are achievable.
Get involved with the community.
Community impact is a key driver of many collaborative journalism projects. Both Blankenship and Bennett talked about the importance for students to get to know the community that they’re reporting on.
“A big focus of our program is you need to get to know the community,” Blankenship said. “As a mid-size city, some of their coursework involves actually getting to know the community and … that helps them become better storytellers because they have to learn to think on their feet very quickly, have to sort of learn to figure things out for themselves, and they also get a lot of interaction with people in the community who have stories that want to be told.”
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Mariela Santos-Muñiz is a freelance journalist. She graduated from Boston University with an M.A. in International Relations and International Communications, in addition to a B.A. from the Universidad del Turabo in Humanities in Puerto Rico. She is completely bilingual in Spanish and English. Find her on Twitter at @mellamomariela.
About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. The Center is supported with funding from Montclair State University, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, the New Jersey Local News Lab (a partnership of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, and Community Foundation of New Jersey), and the Abrams Foundation. For more information, visit CenterforCooperativeMedia.org.