“Journalism is a field in the process of reinventing itself, and where and how people learn to become journalists is being reinvented. The real question is whether journalism and education will be able to reinvent themselves together.”
Joichi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, made this remark in the Knight Foundation’s 2015 report Above & Beyond: Looking at the Future of Journalism Education. Though it’s three years old, the report was prescient in explaining the challenges we currently see in journalism education around the world. It focused on journalism schools and organisations offering accredited courses, which remain the primary avenues for learning the journalism trade.
But, these training paths have limits. Andrea Faye Hart, community engagement director at Chicago’s City Bureau, said “there is not an accessible pipeline for being a journalist. It's so expensive, which is counterintuitive if it's supposed to be a public good and contribute to a healthy democracy.”
With this in mind, I set out to investigate the potential promise in a number of media organisations doing the teaching themselves. Usually free and open to the public, sometimes with applications for admittance, I found that instances of newsroom-led education are currently limited around the world. But interest is increasing, and I was struck by the early practitioners’ principled and strategic commitment to involving audience members in their work. In the context of growing media deserts, dwindling newsroom numbers, expanding fake news stories, and distrust of the media, the aim of these organisations is to broaden the scope of the public service they provide.
My interest in this comes from being a journalist and co-founder of the Bristol Cable, the first citywide media cooperative in the UK. It’s evident to me that journalism training is essential for shaping local media that genuinely reflects the issues and perspectives of the communities we serve. Creating new sustainable media models means democratic ownership. In practice, this also means drawing on the financial support and journalistic contributions of members and the wider public.
Today, a variety of initiatives shape the educational landscape set up by media organisations for the public: collaborative research and editorial processes, intensive courses, ad hoc workshops, and events about journalistic endeavours. These are designed to democratise and diversify who accesses learning about the production of information (and ultimately knowledge).
To explore this emerging strand of media-led public journalism education, I reviewed the work of eight organisations based in Brazil, the UK, and the US. Most of them were set up within the past five years and have some form of a membership model.
Shifting the angle & critiquing the media
A recurrent theme from the people I spoke to over the past two months was a shared aspiration to foster community members who can be critical of news and media structures.
“The media can act as gatekeepers of news,” said Alastair Brian, a journalist who leads the Fact-checking Service of The Ferret, a nationwide media cooperative in Scotland focusing on investigative journalism and education. “If we teach skills we have to the general public, this breaks down barriers between sources of news and consumers, and enhances their ability to scrutinise the news better.”
For Ajit Niranjan, graduate of the Bristol Cable’s first Media Lab, a five-month course facilitated by journalists and media experts, “The big thing was to learn how to actually read a newspaper, look at and listen to the news; see it both from the sides of someone who consumes and produces news. It’s really hard to be a citizen journalist if you’re not actually critical of the media itself,” Ajit said.
In Brazil, Midia Ninja was borne out of June 2013 protests against rising transportation costs and police brutality. It started as the publishing arm of the cultural reporting collective Fora de Eixo (Out of Access), but is now an independent network operating in multiple cities across the country. One of Midia Ninja’s goals is to make channels for communicating information more accessible and challenge traditional media narratives. Its popularity soared with its savvy dissemination on social media of raw visuals depicting the atmosphere and political messages at the heart of demonstrations.
A tweet showing Midia Ninja’s coverage of recent protests in Rio de Janeiro calling for justice following the murder of Marielle Franco, a rising political star and human rights activist, in March.
Driade Aguiar, Midia Ninja’s head of social media and editor on feminism and blackness, spoke of their media education work as “the most important thing ever.” Their training is designed for their audience members and ranges from months-long courses to ad hoc workshops and one-to-one sessions on the phone or Skype. “We live in a society that is much more concerned about the product than the process. I can totally teach you skills, but what is more interesting and important to us is to teach the philosophy and political ideas behind this,” Driade said.
Anyone vetted by the Midia Ninja collective can become a facilitator if they demonstrate a good grasp of the purpose and technical aspects of the media. "If [it] is not teachable and understandable to indigenous people in the same way that it is for people living in urban areas, then we have a problem," Driade said.
Editors at East Lansing Info, a local independent news outlet in Michigan, have provided training to many of their 110 contributors during the course of their editorial process. Publisher and reporter Alice Dreger said this leads them to “become ambassadors of journalism, but also of transparent and accountable government.” Audience members also receive education through a “post about why a story was reported on and the process behind it. These explanatory editorials seem to really help people and they make more demands from other media as a result of this,” Alice said.
Opening participation & wider civic engagement
During many of my interviews I heard that participation in public journalism education has a virtuous ripple effect on civic engagement. Compared to the impact journalism has in changing the course of decisions or making people in power fall, learning about journalism leads participants to grapple with everyday societal concerns and political discourse. So how do these organisations ensure diverse communities are mobilised?
Bettina Chang, City Bureau co-founder and editorial director, often says “we're training the future audiences of journalism, because we get people so involved in the process.” City Bureau’s reporting fellowship program is a quarterly project offering participants training, mentorship in reporting, and, crucially, the opportunity to be paid for developing their skills. Publishing happens in collaboration with other media outlets in the city. Meanwhile, every week their Public Newsroom gatherings offer space for journalists and community members to learn and hear from one another through discussion and interactive activities. (The Membership Puzzle Project took part in one of City Bureau’s weekly events last year to co-design the organisation’s membership program with its supporters). The intention is that participants benefit from hearing about lived experiences that can prompt tips and story ideas.
City Bureau simultaneously launched a program called Documenters focused on training civic actors to report on local council meetings. Over 300 applicants from 75% of Chicago’s community areas between ages 16 and 74 are getting trained and paid to report on public meetings. Without wanting to form journalists, the aim is to create a living archive of discussions about issues that people of different backgrounds and generations are interested in.
In California, Oakland-based Youth Radio has been providing free media courses to people aged between 14 and 24 for the past 25 years. They developed an environment that fosters “peer teaching” whereby students benefit from the mentoring of previous programme graduates and professional journalists. Along with music and multimedia, journalism is one of the educational strands young people can pursue with the prospect of getting paid for their published work.
Ellin O’Leary, Youth Radio founder and chief content editor, said, "Through the experiences of journalism [young people] start to feel how change works…and invest in each others' projects as they might see how they share some of the same issues.” Stories from their newsroom have been picked up by national media and they’ve long served as National Public Radio’s youth affiliate. An example of how they give young voices precedence is their recent coverage of the Parkland shooting aftermath, when the organisation sought out and worked with Marjory Stoneman Douglas sophomore Gabe Glassman to report live.
Ellin said that occupying a physical hub in the centre of Oakland is a key factor in consistently enabling people from various communities and backgrounds to come together in the midst of urban transformations.
Andrea of City Bureau also spoke “from an unapologetically place-based perspective. If we report on Chicago, the newsroom should look like Chicago.” She said that addressing systemic issues such as diversity in the newsroom is imperative for tackling issues with the quality of local coverage and trust in the media.
Back in Scotland, The Ferret has organised women-only sessions in partnership with Women in Journalism Scotland after identifying a lack of gender diversity among participants in its Freedom of Information workshops. Following up on this, they launched their Story Lab in April, a three month incubation programme to broaden participation of underrepresented communities in journalism. To increase transparency they also plan to organise open meetings for story presentation and crowdsource input from community members.
The Ferret’s Story Lab educational objectives and tweet showing participants attending a Freedom of Information workshop during the first day of the course.
Not about the money, but complementary to fundraising
So...who pays for this work? None of the organisations I talked to for this research mentioned revenue generation as a principal objective of their educational work. Unless commissioned externally, organisations asking for participation fees said they keep admission at a minimum to pay facilitators for their vital work and to cover space rental. Most organisations fund their programmes with member generated revenue or grants mostly from national foundations who support their missions to offer journalism training. (We are not suggesting that journalists should work for free and are eager to see them compensated for their important work.)
Alice from East Lansing Info found that being transparent about paying community members for their involvement in the production of journalism made people appreciate the resources needed to keep local news producers alive. This anecdotally led some people to start paying subscriptions for local and national news outlets.
Alice Dreger tweets about lessons learned from publishing East Lansing Info. “Local news militias…[are] not only not a threat to professional armies of journalists; they help people understand in their guts why they should pay up to support professional journalists.”
Alastair from The Ferret said: “Teaching is the return in itself. We don’t want [trainings] to be expensive and exclusive when it is interesting and useful to people.” Rachel Hamada, head of engagement and innovation for The Ferret, usefully distinguishes three categories of training recipients: journalists, civil society groups, and the wider public. As such, the “purpose is not just to make journalists,” Alastair explained. However, Rachel highlighted the value of teaching civil society groups composed of “non-practicing journalists with a commitment to holding power to account who can also bring leads to journalists.”
Aiming for quality, killing the story
At the Bristol Cable we frequently noted that in journalism, community is often a stand in word for crap. There is widespread concern within the industry and conventional teaching environments that journalism will be of poor quality if produced by non-professionals. Tom Sanderson, project manager at the journalism education charity the Centre for Investigative Journalism (CIJ), agrees there is a “danger of devaluing the skills, methods and craft of public interest journalism if we say community journalists, who might not have the experience or training, are better placed than professional journalists.”
However, this research and our experience at the Bristol Cable has shown me that maintaining the rigour of editorial processes alongside journalism education is as important as civic engagement to the media organisations who run these programmes.
Tom said the solution to the quality concern is to “ensure that activists working in this sector have real journalistic skills.” This year, the CIJ is supporting educational programmes for four UK media outlets, including the Bristol Cable and The Ferret, by putting forward trainers within their network.
Alastair from The Ferret made the counterpoint that the profession itself “has not always held quality up to such high standards...More people learning can only be beneficial to the profession. No one should be scared of people learning to do good practice journalism.”
Susan Mernit is the founder of Oakland Local, which started in 2009 and closed in 2015. The organisation never transitioned to a membership-supported model following her departure and the void she left. But during her time in post, she noted that involving community members has the potential to add significant value to journalism. The authenticity of the connection with the subject and sources can generate the most valuable part of the story.
Susan believes that this form of collaborative journalism shouldn’t be to the detriment of standards and internal resources. At Oakland Local, coaching and editorial processes were set up between managing editors and community contributors, but she was clear that “if you couldn’t get to a certain level of competency as a journalist through the editing and support we offered, you wouldn't be able to do more of the news and issue reporting we assigned, and would do more of the opinion and community pieces.”
Similarly, news organisations I spoke to insisted they retain the right kill a story written by a community member if the quality remains too low after several rounds of their inclusive editorial process. Just like they would do with a staff writer whose story was insufficient.
The challenge of evaluating success and impact
All of this is fine and well. But what is the impact of media-led journalism education, and how can we measure its success?
Andrea from City Bureau said “we're still figuring [metrics of success] out, especially if we so intentionally drive towards rethinking what journalism looks like.” Rachel from The Ferret said their educational initiatives are “still very much in start up stage, trying different things… Further down the line we’ll figure out what we want to focus on.” But she has already begun asking key questions for member-supported organisations: “How well can educational programs enhance a two-way relationship with members? How much can be expected from people, investment of energy, and interest?”
For Tom from the CIJ, who coordinated a programme of community journalism training in 2017, evaluating the impact was always going to be difficult. “Receiving training doesn't mean that people are necessarily going to uncover corruption or wrongdoing,” he said. However, “this doesn't mean that it's inefficient either. Not finding scandals in local authority governance, doesn't mean accountability can’t have increased.”
As testimony to the public’s interest in producing journalism, in 2017 the Bristol Cable received 175 applications for its Media Lab course. One of our expectations was to train people who could contribute to the Bristol Cable’s journalism. Whilst the structure of the 2018 course was improved, delivery and mentoring aspects were carried over from 2017 as we were impressed that all 15 selected participants completed the five month programme. More than half went on to publish stories with the Bristol Cable online and in print, and a quarter continue to have contact with the cooperative as content contributors or active members.
Across the world, media organisations are using training to shore up public participation and trust. Whether to increase reporting capacities, diversify who produces journalism, or attract more members and revenue, this work improves the chances that we’ll all be able to enjoy high quality journalism in the future. How to balance this with current resource considerations is tricky. But for educational initiatives to demonstrate success, our organisations will have to be upfront about our objectives and identify which metrics most prove their value in creating sustainable media.
David van Zeggeren, Jessica Best, Emily Goligoski, and Leon Postma contributed to this post.