Carnival of Journalism – Universities: Modules v. local community engagement

This addendum branches off from my blog post addressing universities’ role as potential hubs of journalistic activities. To see what other carnies thought about universities as journalistic hubs and their role in media literacy, check out Dave Cohn’s roundup at the Carnival of Journalism

Most universities, especially bigger research ones, work on projects that are outward facing, and it seems like currently, they fall under two categories:

  1. Creating modules and components that various news outlets can utilize (All Our Ideas, Mobile Journalism Tools)
  2. Engaging the communities that are around them (MyMissourian, The Local – East Village)

A nod to fellow carny Christopher Wink: “Big universities have a long history of lacking support from the communities that surround them, despite being important jobs creators, covering surrounding neighborhoods can go a long way to sure up its connections with local leaders and residents.”

First ingredient: An ongoing champion. The danger of crunched timelines is hasty work, and sometimes not enough time to conduct a thorough community assessment, create a structure and platform, build momentum and community and execute a plan. Not only that, but having now lived in a state where at least one city is (perhaps unfairly) described as post-apocalyptic, I’ve learned that some institutions actually restrict student contact with local communities, and that could be an insurmountable hurdle if it piles on more legwork to get to the point of experimentation.

In smaller towns or with underserved populations, it’s an easy mistake to determine communities’ news needs for them. Often times, it’s not that underserved communities don’t have a clue about what they’re missing within their communities; they still have a sense of what they want to consume. When institutions do things in the name of underserved communities, I can’t stress how important it is to involve those communities in the process or you’re risking the perception of having co-opted their needs.

One of my favorite write-ups is from Daniela Gerson of USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. She helped launch Alhambra Source, a multilingual site for the 90,000 residents of media-starved Alhambra.

  • “Although it would, at times, be easier for me to just report and write the stories myself, another focus was making this a community project, and using digital tools as much as possible to encourage participation.”
  • “Despite great effort on all sides, it took us a year to complete our multilingual site, the Alhambra Source. For me this has been a major source of frustration, but as we approached launch date I realized that perhaps it might have been to our advantage. We needed time to create a team of collaborators of both community members and students from a high school program that could inform site development and feel a real sense of ownership. A significant component of the communication research, as well, needed that time to come together.”

Well said. In other words, who are you serving?


The Carnival of Journalism is a loose network of journalistic bloggers plumbing the current state and future of journalism on a monthly basis.

Denise is the citizen journalism coordinator for The Rapidian, a participatory news project powered by the Grand Rapids community. You can read more of her musings on technology and storytelling/journalism on her blog and at The Rapidian’s dev blog.


Filed under: Internet, Journalism, Technology, , , , ,

6 Responses

  1. Erica Zucco says:

    Definitely agree with what you’re saying….a couple additional thoughts from an “overserved” perspective:

    I graduated from the University of Missouri in Columbia, Mo. this past May, and Columbia is a perfect example of media OVERsaturation. With 3 network TV affiliates, public access, multiple radio stations, 3 newspapers, countless online outlets and hyperlocal news sites, it was a running joke that by the time you were 10 you’d’ve been interviewed at least 3 times by hungry journalism students.

    The thing is, people throughout the community with no relationship to the J school continued to create their own newsletters, public access shows and news networks. Somehow- even with all of this high-quality, innovative news media available- they felt under-served. I think the biggest part of the problem was that as J school students- many of us transplants with no intention to stay in the community after graduation- didn’t REALLY understand the needs, wants or direction of Columbia.

    We could talk forever about citizen journalism, community engagement, etc, but I’m curious to hear your thoughts: do you think it would be more effective for journalism schools to create some type of running panel of citizens for input, guidance and education of students on what communities are interested in….. to involve more of the community in actual creation of media by U-driven news outlets…..or something else entirely? How can we help university students who are serving as journalists, some for the first time in their lives, to better understand a community and its needs?

    (Really interesting post, so I’d love to hear more of your thoughts!!)

    • dennetmint says:

      Sometimes, there is no gap to fill or it’s better to collaborate with existing groups to expand their capacity. Being imaginative doesn’t need to mean starting from scratch.

      I agree that if the university’s goal is to serve communities outside of the campus, then it could be a good thing to retain some sort of advisory committee of involved citizens. The key would be to make sure that if a proposal focuses on one subcommunity over another, that there are a sufficient number of those subcommunity members taking part. They should also be consulted at the very beginning, not after the decision has been made to do something.

      I do believe that the most effective path to media literacy is in media creation. Why restrict this to only students? And I’m sure you’ve had the experience to back up that playing editor to others also strengthens your own skills.

      A tangent, but insofar as people speaking for other people, there’s been a debate in GR that sort of encapsulates this for me. Vandalism on Christmas of businesses straddling mostly white and black neighborhoods has brought up a gentrification v. revitalization debate. One outlet provoked discussion, and although there are diverse opinions, even self-appointed defenders of the downtrodden are speaking for them, not inviting them or creating a comfortable environment to join the conversation.

  2. […] on this same thought Denise Cheng, who has a smile to light up the room, asks “who are you serving” when it comes to larger universities. Not be outdone her SECOND post focuses on the role of […]

  3. […] on this same thought Denise Cheng, who has a smile to light up the room, asks “who are you serving” when it comes to larger universities. Not be outdone her SECOND post focuses on the role of […]

  4. […] on this same thought Denise Cheng, who has a smile to light up the room, asks “who are you serving” when it comes to larger universities. Not be outdone her SECOND post focuses on the role of […]

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