Universities should host the newsrooms of their neighborhoods

Universities should host the newsrooms of their neighborhoods, towns and counties. If a university has a journalism department, college media and audience, this seems like a foregone conclusion.

Picture Temple University. It is a big, diverse, robust, public research university with a clutch of respected professional schools and an expansive undergraduate population that has been slowly and controversially expanding into at least four different, distinct, overwhelmingly black neighborhoods around it.

When you drive south on I-95 east of Philadelphia at night, look off to your right while only the tallest skyscrapers are yet in view a few miles in the distance, the blur of bright lights made of a dozen square blocks and a cluster of high-rise buildings among a swath of stout two story row homes is the university’s main campus.

Halfway between those stadium lights and Philadelphia’s iconic City Hall is another beacon of light, that old White Lady, 400 North Broad Street, the legendary location of the Philadelphia Inquirer and its sister paper the Daily News.

Mood lighting isn’t the only lesson Temple should take from the investigators of the Inquirer.

Every few months, Spot.Us founder David Cohn revives the Carnival of Journalism, in which a handful of media makers and molders opine a subject of his choosing. This session, the question focuses on the role that universities should play in covering our communities.

As Cohn put it:

One of the Knight Commission‘s recommendations is to “Increase the role of higher education…..as hubs of journalistic activity.” Another is to “integrate digital and media literacy as critical elements for education at all levels through collaboration among federal, state, and local education officials.” Okay – great recommendations. But how do we actually make it happen? What does this look like? What University programs are doing it right? What can be improved and what would be your ideal scenario?

I can’t imagine there is a better example of how and why this situation should work than with Temple and North Philadelphia. Namely, there is an underserved collection of neighborhoods, which have a deep connection (in some ways bad – gentrification – and in some ways good – jobs) to Temple, and an entire crew of student journalists, professors and other smart people.

Why universities generally should give a hoot about covering its community:

  • Relationships: 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.
  • Communication: With faltering college newspapers, shrinking region-wide media coverage and in some colleges neighborhoods and towns (like for Temple), coverage is not being answered by the market. Universities want their stories told though, and, with journalistic oversight, they can be.
  • Student Development: You want to get your students the best real-life experience you can? Don’t ship them down to a newspaper, walk them into a vibrant, hybrid journalism experimentation lab on your campus.
  • Faculty Development: Keep them in the game by giving them resources to stay involved in the evolving conversation by consulting, working, reporting, editing or otherwise overseeing your initiative.
  • Mission: Connecting with its community, educating and informing and all that good stuff surely fits a university’s mission.
  • Funding: Between public affairs grants, foundation support, private philanthropy and everything that can come with incubating journalism, news and journalism can make money.

What the Temple situation might look like:

  • As I’ve written before: It’s a bottom line-focused nonprofit that houses, supports and promotes for-profit ventures in news and information, in addition to public affairs-oriented nonprofit journalism. It has branding and a major landing page focused on data warehousing and partnerships.
  • Though fiscally housed at a Temple institute, great pains would need to be made to differentiate and protect it from administration oversight.
  • North Philadelphia newsroom: In addition to housing and bolstering news from throughout the region, Temple would host an editor and a paid reporter or two focusing on its part of the city, North Philadelphia, among Philadelphia’s poorest and blackest. While talking about incubating news and growing community coverage, I always thought Temple would be the tool to grow news-making in a commercial-poor (and therefore revenue short) section of an urban environment.
  • Cross-departmental institute: This year, a journalism department-housed, cross-discipline institute will be funded by the William Penn Foundation to consolidate valuable resources, incubate other news programs and host educational and training events. That institute would fit house its North Philly newsroom.
  • Hyperlocal reporting: Right now, Temple’s noted Philadelphia Neighborhoods program puts its students throughout the city. I’d propose two options for these students: work with existing niche or hyperlocal news sites or join the university’s robust North Philadelphia reporting team for a semester, before making it a year-long program to keep the students on for a bit longer to get to know the neighborhoods.
  • College Newspaper as Vehicle: Like every newspaper should, Temple would sit down with The Temple News and have some real talk. When I was there, I talked about our paper having five audiences: (a) students, (b) faculty (c) staff (d) alumni and (e) community members. I wanted our paper to read more like a community newspaper, covering a part of the city. As TTN and other print college newspapers fight with the reality, its resources should be used as a mechanism to reach non-web-literate communities. Some sort of distribution model would be made, in which the university’s North Philadelphia newsroom content would run in the existing college newspaper.