On Tuesday, June 16, Steven Waldman, former senior advisor to the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, released a report at the Engage Local conference at Montclair State University calling for a national media corps of journalists to help fill the news and information needs of communities. It is a model that I have championed over the years as one way to remedy the increasing disparities in local news coverage across the country.
The paper, called “Report for America: A new model for saving local journalism, borrowing from national and community service programs,” suggests a youth corps similar to other federal programs that bring resources to underserved communities.
Over the past four years, I’ve developed The Media Deserts Project, a model that uses geographic information system technologies and other methodologies to map the changing media ecosystem down to the ZIP code level to identify communities that may lack access to fresh news and information. Now housed at Ohio University, the project will help media corps and other local news initiatives in directing federal and local resources — both people and money — to places that need it most.
However, the current plan being promoted by Waldman lacks a defined role for programs of journalism and mass communication across the country. Many of these institutions have experimented with broadening campus media to local community issues or creating hyperlocal online news experiments that have attempted to serve communities in their geographic vicinity.
Higher education institutions have a key role to play in educating and training young journalists. These institutions can take an immediate step today to build the capacity of underserved communities by recruiting aspiring journalists from communities most in need. Most colleges and universities have scholarships and other programs directed to increase the recruitment of low-income and diverse student populations to their journalism and mass communications programs. Why not redirect these scholarships by “geotagging” them for several years, recruiting potential students from their home communities — those communities that lack local news and information? Just like other Corps models, in exchange for reduced tuition or a tuition-free college education, the student must return back to their hometown for a period of time to support local news and information needs.
Ask any reporter who has moved to a new town to cover news and information. It takes time to build the relationships and understand the complexities of geographies and organizations, to be able to write with more than a surface gloss. If we are actually growing local talent that is in and of the communities on which they will be reporting, I believe the results may be more authentic and representative of the communities they cover. What I like about this model is the homegrown, authentic aspect of building the capacity of a community by investing in one or two of their own. This is not someone parachuting into a new community, an embedded journalists-type model. This different approach would truly change the complexion of coverage at the local level.
Many of the communities that lack access to fresh, local news and information are those that house residents that are of low incomes, limited education or rural communities. These communities have struggled to retain a commercial model of journalism that relies on a marketplace of goods and services and advertising, to support local journalism. Let’s start these media corps members in familiar surroundings, allowing them to train and grow in place.
This type of town-gown partnership would also go a long way to making higher education accessible and meaningful for those corps members and for their peers who will be able to watch their friends in action making a difference.
Dr. Michelle Ferrier is the associate dean for innovation in the Scripps College of Communication at Ohio University and the principal investigator for The Media Deserts Project. She is also vice president of Journalism That Matters, a nonprofit organization that has engaged community stakeholders in re-imagining the emerging media ecosystem.
Media Corps and Other Related Media Solutions
Ferrier, Michelle. Journalism That Matters Media Corps: http://journalismthatmatters.org/conversations/2013/04/16/media-deserts-condition-indicators/
Ferrier, Michelle. “Media Innovations for Individual, Community and Higher Education,” SlideShare (May 14, 2014): http://www.slideshare.net/locallygrownnews/media-innovations-for-individual-community-and-higher-education
Ferrier, Michelle. “The case for government-funded journalism,” April 20, 2013: http://www.thetimesnews.com/opinion/guest-columns/the-case-for-government-funded-journalism-1.130022
Ferrier, Michelle. “The Case for Government Investment in Journalism, A Manifesto,” (April 16, 2013): https://michelleferrier.wordpress.com/tag/public-notices/
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Why embed at all? With the number of journalists who have been displaced by the downturn in the industry, how hard would it be to connect them with nearby communities they already know? And while developing younger journalists is always a great idea, mentoring them into ommunity roles will probably be more expensive in the long run than hiring an already experienced journalist.
You would be surprised to find that all communities do not have journalists. Especially in rural communities where there has never been a daily or even community weekly presence, you might be hard pressed to find someone who lives there with journalistic chops. I think “embedding” is problematic and not authentic. While it might take longer to “grow your own” journalist, the young people’s knowledge of community and connections (and lack of other barriers of a more mature journalists with roots elsewhere) make this a more sustainable solution over the long haul.