Author’s Pretext: My most “disruptive” challenge in teaching has been building an innovation-collaboration-publication lab inside the journalism curriculum of the Department of Communication & Journalism at the University of New Mexico. This lab, New Mexico News Port, publishes student reporting -- including the work of students in my capstone course, CJ-475 Advanced Multimedia Reporting. This week, I’m posting about this experience as part of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism’s “Disruptive Educator” program, for which I was named a 2017 Fellow. I welcome your questions and comments.
I figure the big J-programs like Cronkite, Missou and the like are light years ahead in the Teaching-Hospital-Model of journalism They’ve grown the culture and have the resources to launch working newsrooms that produce real-world journalism from inside their schools. But what about the rest of us? What about smaller programs like ours at the University of New Mexico? What does it take to emulate the big programs and put together a credible and sustainable publishing enterprise inside a rather constrained curriculum?
I hope my experience at UNM might be instructive. I’ll try to sum it up in two posts. This post focuses on the mission and structure of our publishing lab, The New Mexico News Port. The other comes from the perspective of the classroom instructor who funnels student reporting into the publishing lab. Together, you should get a pretty good idea of what we’ve built, how it works, and what successes and challenges you may face if you do something similar.
The News Port: From Theory to Reality
Let me take you back, briefly, to 2013. I had just arrived in Albuquerque, following my wife’s career move here, and was lucky to be invited into a journalism program that wanted to hire its first professor of practice. Right place, right time, I came aboard to help the school shift into a higher professional gear with greater emphasis on digital/multimedia skills and enhanced opportunities for hands-on student publishing.
Our breakthrough was thanks to the Online News Association and its grant program, The Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education (#HacktheCurriculum). I organized one of the first 12 winning applications and voila! we were on the map and had $35K to play with.
When a national organization gives you their blessing and money, you get a strong wind in your sails.
We beat out 100+ other schools. What I learned from the funders behind ONA (Democracy Fund, Knight Foundation, McCormick, Scripps Howard, EEJF and Rita Allen) was that
- they liked our plan to launch not a short-term project but a long-term one,
- that their money would go a long way in our small but ambitious school in a predominantly poor state, and
- we are well-positioned to launch Latino students into the news profession (as UNM is a federally-recognized HSI -- Hispanic Serving Institution).
I believe we could have started the New Mexico News Port without the grant, but it probably wouldn’t have happened so quickly.
When a national organization gives you their blessing and money, you get a strong wind in your sails. We quickly hired part-time editor Kate Cunningham (an extraordinary journalist-turned-instructor who is well known in these disruptive educator circles), commandeered an underused computer lab, spawned a URL and WordPress site, and laid out a whole workflow system that would edit and publish student stories from Kate’s and my 200, 300 and 400 level reporting classes. (Other instructors were invited to join too, but opted out.)
The News Port mission had four main elements:
- It teaches students how to do quality journalism by publishing quality journalism;
- It links UNM to journalism partners to promote collaboration;
- It gives students, faculty and partners a digital test-kitchen for experimentation;
- And, it results in actual public service journalism for the benefit of New Mexicans.
This mission borrows from many emerging theories calling for college journalism programs to play a stabilizing and contributive role in the disrupted, post-internet news ecosystem.
In action, the mission is still evolving.
Probably the least developed aspect is the test-kitchen for digital experimentation. Unlike some journalism programs that have leaned strongly toward entrepreneurism, or product design, or hacking new code, we’re thin on faculty, resources and venues for that piece… though we tout experimentation where we can and have made some incremental steps, such as Kate’s mobile reporting course and my recent media entrepreneurism course.
The collaboration aspect is further along but still a work in progress. Each semester, so far, News Port has involved different partners to varying degrees. (This past year we completed a collaboration with the Asian-American Journalists Association and Investigative Reporters and Editors in a year-long look at criminal justice issues in New Mexico.)
The main plank in the mission that we’ve demonstrated successfully is the publishing – the essential “learn by doing” aspect. Mostly, this article and the next one will focus on how that works. When you consider that most of our students had their very first publishing experience via News Port, you realize this is no small feat for the school and potentially transformative for them.
News Port’s Work to Date
In terms of journalistic content, Kate and I decided that News Port could have more impact and more distinction if it put a spotlight on a specific subject area each semester. We saw no reason to duplicate the general news coverage that our local media can do faster and better. Nor, did we see News Port as a campus news outlet. For that, we have the independent, student-run Daily Lobo. Moreover, we didn't want to tie News Port down to one topic in perpetuity; we'd allow ourselves to change topics depending on where we saw an opportunity. Over time, what's emerged are multiple content verticals on the site.
In our inaugural semester, we plunged into the 2014 elections under the banner Political New Mexico, processing over 100 stories. (Here’s a MediaShift article laying out the lab’s initial strategy.) Live election night coverage involved more than 50 students from six C&J classes working in real-time collaboration with News Port and its partners.
Our reporters used the 2015 spring semester developing an audience-centric approach to reporting, a project called Curious New Mexico, where the public poses questions to be curated, researched and reported. The database captured some 250 questions resulting in about 40 stories.
We pivoted again for the 2015-2016 school year, concentrating on Creative New Mexico, an in-depth focus on our region’s creative economy -- profiling interesting entrepreneurs, visiting business experts and sitting in on pitches from innovators. The project produced over 120 stories and was captured in this MediaShift article.
In fall 2016, we returned to Political New Mexico to focus on elections and policy issues.
Then, in 2017, we collaborated with the Asian-American Journalists Association, launching Justice New Mexico – a year-long focus on one of the top issues in our state: crime and the justice system. Students, working in parallel with AAJA’s professional team, produced 88 multimedia stories, some of which were featured on the AAJA Criminal Justice Project site.
To date, we can boast we've published some 425 stories by some 120 students. The site has attracted 84,000 users in 97,000 sessions consuming 172,000 page views. The vast majority of viewers are from the southwest U.S. And for some reason we drew over 2000 online sessions from Russia.
Now, as we begin our 8th semester of News Port, we’ve decided to let instructors and students keep feeding any of the existing content areas, but we’re also about to take a plunge into two new areas – child well-being and community-based issues. The child well-being vertical will be called Raising New Mexico and is being propelled by a new partnership with a start-up investigative news service called Searchlight New Mexico. Meanwhile, a new community vertical will be called New Mexico Voices and will be a stab at community listening and community engagement leading to news stories about particular local communities – their people, hopes and challenges. It’s fair to say we’re still making this up as we go along, but that's part of flexible approach.
How the New Mexico News Port Lab is Structured, Funded and Staffed
In a nutshell, the News Port lab is run by a small team under my (often indirect) watch. Their main job is to take in student stories and publish them to the News Port website. Given the many students involved (20-60 per semester, depending on instructor buy-in) and the multiple assignments involved (2-4 per student), this process is tricky and vital. Essentially the main editing is done by the classroom instructor who then approves stories for hand off to the News Port editor. That editor reviews the copy, provides some fact-checking, perhaps calls for further style changes or supporting documentation, and then uploads and publishes the piece to the website. This is often followed by some social media promotion.
Occasionally this lab team gets to do some original reporting, but they stay pretty busy on edits and web production (cropping photos, tweaking video or getting data graphics to display correctly). They need to know AP Style, WordPress publishing and the basics of managing social media accounts.
But I can’t talk about News Port staffing without talking about News Port funding. The more funding, the more staffing, and vice-versa.
Our current staffing is quite thin – the thinnest it’s ever been – with two interns holding down the fort. Well, and there’s me, as their supervisor. And Kate still helps on a volunteer basis when we have technical issues. Fortunately, we’ve built up our work flow systems, so we can function reasonably well with only two interns, but it isn’t ideal. I’ll explain why in a moment.
Fortunately, we’ve built up our work flow systems, so we can function reasonably well with only two interns, but it isn’t ideal.
Remember, we launched with an initial grant of $35K, allowing us to hire Kate as editor (who was that and much more – designer, web master, coach). In addition to Kate, our initial staffing included a half-time work study student loaned to the project by one of our founding partners, public radio station KUNM-FM.
Year two was great. We were fortunate to receive $50K from EEJF, Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. This budgeting allowed us to add hours for Kate, add two paid interns and beef up the lab computers and afford other niceties. Plus, we had our KUNM work study student. It was a robust staff of four, not counting me as supervisor.
When the EEJF money expired in year three -- despite winning ONA's second place grand prize of $10K -- we had to downsize. Kate’s position went unfilled and I was now managing two interns and one work study student.
That brings us to the year we just finished. The 2017 partnership with AAJA came with a gift of $10K that allowed us to keep paying for two interns per semester ($1500 each). Unfortunately, KUNM decided to take back their work study position, but AAJA was kind enough to help us hire a third intern to keep the student staffing at three for the fall term. One of these served in a lead editor role to give the staff extra structure.
I provide this detail on staffing to show how each semester can vary when the funding varies. It also shows well-functioning systems can bring efficiencies, and help reduce the need for staffing. But let me round off this section with what we envision as our preferred ongoing structure and staffing.
Ideally, we would have a bit more stability and a bit more leadership in the lab. This is going to take some forward planning for funding. My wish list is to have the following:
- A permanent part-time staff position as editor, who trains and manages interns, leads the editorial planning of the lab, and gives us continuity from semester to semester.
- A part-time production specialist to help News Port expand its ability to collaborate with other media agencies, by bringing professional production skills to work with students to meet the standards of the partners.
- A post-graduate fellowship as editor/journalist in residence to augment data reporting and investigative reporting through News Port (while providing a career stepping-stone to an outstanding minority journalist).
- Finally, we need to fill our second and third Professor of Practice positions on the faculty. I could use their help driving cultural/systemic change in the program, while helping oversee aspects of the News Port operation and expanding the lab to serve more of the educational imperatives of the department.
A final word about sustainability. I don’t know what other school’s do to afford what I’m describing above. I’m sure there are many models, and I'm open to entrepreneurial solutions. I figure grants are a good way to start off, but then the department needs to find a more long-term solution. Fees? Sustaining gift program? Licensing content? One small step we’ve taken, because of our eligibility via our ACEJMC membership, we have begun entering our published work in the Hearst Journalism Awards and diverting the Hearst incentive payments back into the News Port account. At least that is recurring revenue and covers some of the interns.
Mike Marcotte is a public media news veteran and a 2011 Stanford Knight Fellow now serving as the first professor of practice in journalism at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. He teaches advanced multimedia journalism, intermediate reporting and has created courses in media entrepreneurship and covering criminal justice. Mike also consults for Democracy Fund, PRNDI and various public media organizations. Mike was hired at UNM to help the Communication & Journalism department become more responsive to professional trends. In his 4 years there, he won an ONA Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education grant, launched the award-winning New Mexico News Port lab and has grown partnerships with public radio, TV and other media professionals. Last year, his program was host to an AAJA/IRE collaborative reporting project.