A new platform for quality journalism? A study of four U.S. nonprofit university centers and their attempt to save professional reporting through using classrooms as newsrooms
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This is a study of four university-based U.S. nonprofits, and their attempt of saving professional reporting through 1) the production of quality investigative journalism and 2) educating the next generation of investigative reporters. Using the theory of professions as the key theoretical framework the main research question is “what potential do nonprofit university centers have as alternative, professional platforms for quality journalism?” Background With the journalism crisis leading to fewer journalists reporting less news in fewer pages, many have asked if professional, resource-demanding journalism is going to survive. As a response to this concern, numerous nonprofit newsrooms aiming at saving quality reporting were established during or after the financial crisis of 2008/2009. The four university nonprofits examined in this study are part of a subgroup of this “professional movement”. As hybrids between newsrooms and classrooms, they pair students from their mother-university with experienced reporters from established newsrooms, having them work together on real investigative stories. The arrangement has been presented as a win-win situation: While economically pressured newsrooms get extra labor through the students, the students learn investigative reporting from some of the best reporters in the field. This dissertation examines the validity of these claimed benefits. Research design In order to examine the professional potential of university nonprofits in general, four of the most prominent and renowned centers in the U.S. – the IRP Berkeley (UC Berkeley), the Stabile Center (Columbia University), the Workshop (American University), and the New England CIR (Boston University) – were selected for a multiple case study. The empirical data material consists of 69 in-depth interviews with students, faculty, staff and reporters from external newsrooms connected to the centers, approximately 90 days of observation, and a content analysis of 40 center stories. Findings The main research question of the study (what potential do nonprofit university centers have as alternative, professional platforms for quality journalism?) is answered through focusing on the questions’ three key concepts: “alternative”, “professional platforms”, and “quality journalism”. First, the centers can be seen as an alternative to the traditional news industry, as they represent a new way of organizing newsrooms where professional ideals and norms are central. Through only cooperating with external newsrooms, foundations, and universities sharing the notion of an informed public as an indispensable societal good, the centers have managed to unite accomplices from various fields in their striving towards saving quality reporting. At the same time, the four centers – representing the largest university nonprofits in the world – are small and fragile. Not having endowments to rely upon, the Workshop and the New England CIR in particular are engaged in an everyday struggle to survive – using much of their total time negotiating partnerships, earning revenue, fundraising and highlighting their impact. Hence, university nonprofits do not appear to be a solid alternative to the news industry. Second, the centers’ combined newsroom and classroom role give them high potential as professional platforms. Advocating a “public trustee” view on professionalism, emphasizing core values like truth and democratic effect, the centers’ staff and associates effectively portray journalism as a public good deserving of its position and privileges. In addition, all four centers provide reporting in line with the principles of the journalism profession – counteracting the growing gap between realities and ideals. Holding a complex, practice-oriented knowledge view focusing on “learning by doing”, the centers’ classroom role consists of teaching new practitioners the necessary mindsets and “know-how” of the profession, and advancing the knowledge of the practice field. Despite of their small size, the centers can thus be described as important cornerstones in the journalistic belief system, strengthening the journalism profession’s jurisdiction over news. The third key concept of the main research question is quality journalism. Defined according to the dominant professional logic of the journalistic field as “responsible and engaging community journalism, testing the liability of the powerful”, quality journalism is more than investigative reporting. It also includes journalism of lower symbolic value, like the local reporter covering municipal councils and court hearings on a daily basis. Due to their small size, university nonprofits cannot substitute the full range of everyday “middle class” quality reporting traditionally provided by the commercial news industry. Instead, they focus on producing investigative reporting, known as the prototype of quality journalism. This makes their production a supplement – not a replacement. Conclusion Nonprofit university centers do not seem to have much potential as alternative, professional platforms for quality journalism. They do however appear to be important ideology builders. From this perspective, the centers can be of great importance to a profession struggling with ongoing challenges and change. Not being the solution to the journalism crisis, nonprofit university centers can thus be part of the solution – keeping the core values of journalism alive. Relevance As one of few in-depth studies of university nonprofits, this dissertation contribute to a fuller understanding of a relatively new phenomenon. For journalism schools and newsrooms wanting to start similar cooperations, the study can be of direct practical use. Moreover, the exploration of different practice-oriented teaching methods should be of interest to most journalism educators, while the discussion on core values and innovation, legitimation and ideals, bring new aspects to how the journalism profession reacts to change. Last, but not least, the instrumentalization of the terms “professional” and “quality journalism” can be of inspiration to both practitioners and scholars attempting to better unite the practical and scholarly world of journalism.