By Eric Newton on Nieman Lab, Oct. 13, 2011
Everyone knows the news about the news. A once-in-a-generation media policy report for the Federal Communications Commission — The Information Needs of Communities, released this summer — made things abundantly clear. It detailed the decline of “local accountability journalism.” The evidence: 15,000 journalism jobs lost in the past few years, the lion’s share at daily newspapers. It’s a paradox of the digital age: More information than ever, but less local watchdog journalism. The same communications revolution that makes everyone a potential journalist has at the same time maimed America’s heavily advertising-based method of paying for professional journalism.
The nation’s institutions of higher learning have an important role to play in the local news crisis. In August, at the annual convention of the Association for Journalism and Mass Communication Educators in St. Louis, universities showed they are increasingly getting into local journalism. This is good news. Watchdog journalism is the “security camera” that keeps the powerful honest. Without it, government corruption always increases. The story of Bell, California, a town too small for a daily newspaper, where officials raided the city coffers to pay themselves six-figure salaries, is proof enough that a decline of local news is not without dire consequences.
Can journalism education really play a major role in local news flows? Teaching hospitals are some of our best medical institutions. Legal clinics at law schools take on major cases. And a new Harvard report, on the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education, shows that journalism schools can do it, too. Long thought to be the caboose on the train of American journalism, they can instead be engines of change that drive news agendas.