Universities need to be in the news business
I like to think we’re helping to build journalism’s equivalent of the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams.
Granted, those of us at Great Lakes Echo have nowhere near the $550 million designated for that project by our Michigan State University colleagues.
But here’s where we’re alike:
The physicists and engineers at FRIB – pronounced ef-rib – are building a university tool to explore the sub-atomic frontier. At Echo we’re building a university tool – an environmental news community – to explore journalism’s frontier.
It’s an appropriate project for a land grant institution that prides itself on education, outreach and research. Experimentation that advances knowledge in the public interest is what research institutions should do.
It is also consistent with the recent call by journalism funders that universities adopt a teaching hospital approach to journalism education. Some critics of that call imply that the funders are more interested in teaching and doing journalism than in researching it.
I wouldn’t presume to speak for the funders, but I’ll note that the first paragraph of their letter references research.
And there’s no better place to marry experiential/clinical learning with relevant research than at the many emerging university-based news sites.
They are great teaching tools. They are an important response to the loss of traditional news organizations. In most cases they’re covering news no one else does.
And they prompt real-time questions in need of research.
You can’t beat them as laboratories. Even the smallest offer a larger and more diverse sample than a study of how a random group of freshmen consume news. These sites are tremendous resources in the hearts of communities of researchers with the training to test and improve them.
As part of a J-Lab panel at the recent meeting of the Association for Educators in Journalism and Mass Communication, I noted that I was much less interested in daily unique page views than I am in Echo’s ability to engage its community.
That left me wide open for a follow-up question: “Do you have any metrics for measuring engagement?”
Truth be told, we’ve run interesting experiments in engagement that have resulted in great reader reaction. There is a place for this kind of experimentation – throwing things against the wall to see what sticks.
But there is also a need for the formal systematic research – the kind that shows how much something works, whether it’s worth replicating and how to guide improvements.
We’ve supported a little of that. Yet Echo and its counterparts need to partner with researchers to more fully engage their potential. A few research questions off the top of my head:
- When a climate change news story explains the difference between weather and climate, is a metaphor within the text less effective than a 50-second animated explanation? Or does clicking to produce the animation distract the reader from the story?
- We define our news community by its relationship to a natural resource instead of by political borders. That’s unusual. Is it effective?
- Let’s create different URLs for the same story, market them differently and track how each travels across social media – sort of like how biologists track radio-collared bears through the wilderness. Now, how do we use that data to determine the most effective social media strategy for different environmental topics? Can such a study establish principles useful to the news efforts of others?
- We guess that readers who respond to a news story – voting, commenting, suggesting or otherwise contributing – engage critical thinking that improves understanding. Are we right?
- How can readers of controversial news stories be encouraged to constructively engage instead of scream past each other?
As an educator with a professional background, my strengths are teaching, trying new ideas, doing journalism. Frankly, it’s all I can do to keep Echo afloat and stories going out the door while offering students and others an opportunity to learn and experiment with methods of explaining complex environmental issues.
Yet as a journalist, I’ve got questions. Lots of them. I welcome help finding the answers to guide our journalism.
I can’t imagine a better time for journalism professionals and researchers to partner. Where better than at a university dedicated to the public interest should journalism be advanced, practiced, taught, protected?
Now especially is when we need to be rowing the same academic boat in the same direction. That’s good longterm.
But there is also an immediate need for such collaboration. Research diversifies support for quality journalism.
We’ll never generate the kind of overhead that the folks at the FRIB do. Still, research funding can help support the production of university-based journalism.
After all, you can’t research what does not exist.