Carnival of Journalism: Universities for information in communities

The Carnival of Journalism is up and running again, thanks to David Cohn.  The carnival is basically a bunch of journalism-obsessed geeks huddling around our virtual roundtable once a month to talk about topics that matter to us. This month's topic is based on a few recommendations from the Knight Commission that focus on how higher education contributes to journalistic activity, as evidenced in these two recommendations:

Recommendation 3 -- “Increase the role of higher education…..as hubs of journalistic activity.”

Recommendation 6 -- Integrate digital and media literacy as critical elements for education at all levels through collaboration among federal, state and local education officials.

So why is it a university's role to provide info to community?

Universities are hubs for information and sources of knowledge within our neighborhoods, cities and states. They tend to reflect the intersection of demographics -- young and old, rich and poor, black and white, and everything in between.  Because universities are the place where experimentation can happen in a controlled environment (i.e., if they fail, consequences aren't as severe) they need to be the place we look to for the new standard.

But why now? What has changed? Universities have always been hubs for knowledge, so why is it now that the Knight Foundation recommends that knowledge be shared with the community?

Academia is somewhat of a contradiction. On one hand, it's ahead of the curb in new ways of thinking. On the other -- as is the case for any large, long-established institution -- it's slow in new ways of doing (execution of those big ideas they're so good at churning up).

Traditionally, information got from Universities to communities in the following fashions:

  1. Information gathered about a community or niche
  2. Information shared with others in academia, other universities and research departments
  3. Information released in form of studies, published in journals
  4. Traditional media takes info from studies that is most universally-relevant, publishes dumbed-down versions for mass audience

What happens in this chain of command is that the information gets distilled down and the community in which the information was originally gathered doesn't necessarily become informed.  But because of the tools we have at our dispense today, the middleman can be cut out. Much like many corporations and businesses are turning directly into publishers of niche content -- "going direct," if you will -- universities can do the same. It all fits into the changing role of media.

So the new chain of command looks like this:

  1. Information gathered about a community
  2. Information shared with a community

Simple, right?

What kinds of information should universities provide?

The Knight Foundation recommendations aren't directed specifically at journalism schools. This is about all facets of a university -- be it the undergrad business department or the engineering master's program -- have something valuable to share, and not only in terms of publishing information.

Recommendation 7: "Fund and support public libraries and other community institutions as centers of digital and media training, especially for adults."

A university is a community institution. Computer science departments can train children and adults on how to use digital tools. Agriculture departments can hold workshops on planting your own herbs, while business departments can help people file taxes. Everyone can find a way to give back to the community in more ways than just publishing information.

Before we can get to the actual "publishing" of information to benefit the community, we have to draw connections in the community face-to-face.  The fact that people are consuming more information than ever is not breaking news. And the fact that publishing takes place through many more mediums than newspapers and radio isn't anything new either. After the supplies and demand for information are discovered, the true collaboration can begin.

The Big Challenge

The big challenge comes in getting universities to change the way they've always shared information. There needs to be incentivization.

Take a look again at Recommendation 6: Integrate digital and media literacy as critical elements for education at all levels through collaboration among federal, state and local education officials.

This is where journalism schools, school newspapers, communications departments, etc. are actually relevant. As universities transition to a state where they are providing information directly to a community, it is the role of the journalists in those universities to provide a medium for that to happen -- because I can bet it's not going to happen natively, at least not to start with.

If I was the head of a journalism school or editor of a college newspaper, here's what I'd do today:

  • Reach out to heads of all departments/schools within the university and find out how they're sharing information with the community already, if at all
  • Reach out to the community to find out what kinds of information they care about
  • Connect the dots between the two to align what's already there with what the community craves
  • Establish relationships with the existing modes of information sharing within the university (blogs? email newsletters?)

For those parts of the university that aren't publishing (and I'll bet that's a large chunk), set them up to do so. Start simple. First, just a few departments -- the ones that you know can be shining success stories. Get them set up with blogs that you cross-publish in print or link to on your main website. Set them up with an email newsletter that you can send to community organizations who might be interested. Hold in-person meetings with the two groups (academia and community) to get to know each other and learn about how they can help each other.

Does this all sound familiar? It's like a blog network of the academia breed. If it really takes off and becomes successful, monetize the university blogs and do a rev-share, in which you can start to pay some of those people within the university who continue to provide unique content, which brings in more readers, which brings in more money, etc.

Through this virtuous cycle, you create incentivization via public recognition and a little bit of money. The community benefits, the university benefits, journalism schools benefit, and we create a foundation for an info-savvy generation of digital publishers. Ok, so it might not be that easy, but it's a good place to start.

Other Carnival posts about this topic are published at carnivalofjournalism.com and at: