WORLD NEWS Real solutions from News Desert U - Editor and...

Real solutions from News Desert U – Editor and Publisher

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Teri Finneman, Meg Heckman, Amanda Bright and Pamela E. Walck | for Editor & Publisher

Solving the news desert crisis will require dismantling the silos between academia and industry and creating a working group immediately dedicated to creating real solutions, a team of journalism professors recently concluded. 

A working group that has branded itself as News Desert U is spearheaded by journalism professors Teri Finneman at the University of Kansas, Meg Heckman at Northeastern University, Amanda Bright at the University of Georgia, and Pamela Walck at Duquesne University.

The News Desert U working group is led by (top row: l to r) Teri Finneman, journalism professor at the University of Kansas, and Meg Heckman, journalism professor at Northeastern University, and (bottom row: l to r) Amanda Bright, journalism professor at the University of Georgia, and Pamela Walck, journalism professor at Duquesne University.

The team recently offered an online “News Desert U2: Solutions” conference that brought together local news experts from around the world in October to brainstorm practical solutions for what academia can do to help the news desert crisis.

“The time for PowerPoints and keynotes is over,” Finneman said. “It is 15 years past time for academia to step up and help the industry find real, practical solutions for its problems.”

During the conference, participants divided into teams for Teaching, Research and Service — the main components of a professor’s job — to address the following questions:

  • How can we better teach students about news deserts and how to solve them?
  • How can we better help the industry with practical research and getting our research to them?
  • How can we better partner with the industry to provide training for reporters/communities?

Below is a breakdown of key ideas that came out of the conference. The full report is available here. 

Research

Plenty of journalism professors want to help solve the news desert crisis, but they face challenges on many fronts. Their institutions and some of their colleagues may not view local news sustainability as a subject worthy of scholarly inquiry. Funding is scarce. And it’s hard to build authentic, responsible connections with all segments of the communities they aim to support.

Despite these hurdles, participants in the research session offered several ideas for advancing solutions-focused research into local news sustainability. 

The first was building infrastructure for stronger, more multifaceted collaborations across institutions and with community partners. This includes starting a LinkedIn group where academics and industry professionals can mingle and creating a public bibliography of work related to local news sustainability. This bibliography will be useful to researchers, of course, but it might also help local news leaders make informed decisions. Participants also believe these measures will help them work across international borders to share best practices related to news desert mapping and community engagement.

To solve the problem of getting around expensive academic paywalls, there was discussion about creating columns for state newspaper association newsletters summarizing significant findings in news desert research that would benefit working journalists.

Another suggestion was for universities to get involved in improving public policy related to local news. (For more on this, see this policy menu from Rebuild Local News.) 

Obtaining funding from the large organizations that typically sponsor academic research will remain a challenge until there are more program administrators and proposal reviewers with expertise in local news. 

Teaching

The teaching session proposed solutions centered around building a local/news desert culture, creating curricular flexibility, engaging with communities and fostering collaborations.

Amethyst Davis, the founder of the Harvey World-Herald, said young journalists want to do this work but in a different way than legacy organizations — from digital products to working conditions. Part of the next step in engaging student journalists with news deserts is to rethink norms like pay, culture and innovation.

More collaboration with other majors (like PR, data science, medical schools and natural science) and building strong connections with local high school programs were also discussed.

Participants shared ideas like short-term externships for students to do intensive news desert work over breaks or a curricular model that allows students to work their way through a partnership with a news desert over more than one semester — like Reporting III and IV with increasing difficulty levels. Another possibility is an asynchronous, online module to prepare students for the beat or community expertise before joining a news desert course.

Creating a position within a journalism department as a steady presence with a news desert community to maintain institutional memory was a popular idea among faculty.

Community listening, tours, meet and greets and surveying were discussed to generate specific topics students should report on to serve news deserts. In other words, students serving a news desert as a class could focus on a specific beat, like health or education, instead of spreading their still-blossoming expertise too thin.

“We know curricular change happens at a glacial pace, but these pedagogical solutions showed a nimbleness we want from the classroom in responding to the problem of news deserts,” Bright said.

Service

It’s hard to convince new college graduates to live in small, often rural communities. Therefore, cultural changes are needed to convince students why community journalism is worth it.

“I feel like kids and school administrations push this agenda of NOT going to small town papers, so there is this big disconnect between industry expectations and what the industry wants,” said Kansas newspaper publisher Joey Young.  

An easy way to normalize working at a small paper is by asking community journalists to serve as guest speakers in college classes rather than relying so heavily on speakers from major publications like The New York Times or The Washington Post.

Journalism programs and professors need to identify smaller community papers as equally significant and important places to work throughout their curriculum.

With rural areas also struggling to attract new doctors and other workers, journalism departments should consider starting conversations with medical schools and business schools on creating incentives for new graduates to move to small towns.

More costly solutions could include signing bonuses and student loan forgiveness for recent graduates willing to commit to two- or three-year contracts at publications in small towns and paying students to travel for such work.

Going forward

This is just the beginning of what will become ongoing work to help address the news desert crisis. News Desert U offered funding opportunities to conference attendees interested in tackling a news desert initiative and hopes to see at least four projects implemented in 2024. The working group plans to meet quarterly, with its next meeting in January, to continue working on solutions.

Teri Finneman is a journalism professor at University of Kansas and can be reached at teri.finneman@ku.edu. Meg Heckman is a journalism professor at Northeastern University and can be reached at m.heckman@northeastern.edu. Amanda Bright is a journalism professor at the University of Georgia and can be reached at Amanda.bright@uga.edu. Pamela Walck is a journalism professor at Duquesne University and can be reached at walckp@duq.edu.

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