Tuesday, 21 de May de 2024 ISSN 1519-7670 - Ano 24 - nº 1288

On Campus, an Experiment to Save Local News


From the rattling cicadas at twilight to the willow trees bending in the late summer heat, the lush campus of Mercer University seems like the last place to find one of the nation's boldest journalism experiments.

This fall, Mercer, a 179-year-old former Baptist school, is starting an ambitious $5.6 million project to try to save local journalism by inviting both the Macon newspaper and a Georgia Public Radio station onto its campus.

Reporters and editors for the 186-year-old paper The Telegraph and the radio station will work out of the campus's new journalism center, alongside students whom the university expects will do legwork for newspaper and public radio reports, with guidance from their professors and working journalists.

It's a plan born in part of desperation. Like many newspapers, The Telegraph has lost circulation and advertising revenue in the last decade, and the public radio station was forced to trim down to one staff member during the recession.

William D. Underwood, Mercer's president, expects that by applying what he calls a medical residency model to journalism, all of these players may give the struggling industry a chance to stay alive.

"I want young people to be able to practice journalism ethically and competently the day they graduate," Mr. Underwood said. "I have a concern about the future of local print journalism. There's nothing more vital to a functioning democracy."

Mercer's is one of several such collaborations across the country. A 2011 study by the New America Foundation called on journalism schools to embrace the model of an "anchor institution and do what they can to help local media outlets.

Three universities in Ohio joined together to provide content for local news organizations with a company called the News Outlet, The Miami Herald worked with WLRN 91.3 FM to have print reporters prepare and provide news for the local station. But the Mercer project is believed to be the first venture among a university, newspaper and public radio station. Groups like the Knight Foundation, which financed most of the Mercer experiment, are closely monitoring Mercer's success.

"This could be a new model for journalism education," said Beverly Blake, a program director for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which provided a $4.6 million grant. "We thought about what it could do for journalism education and to strengthen our community."

There have been some growing pains. University officials housed the radio station in a space that has the distinct smell of a nearby wings joint. The newspaper offices are just three noisy stories below student dorms known for their Friday night dance parties. A recent Friday deadline was accompanied by what reporter Joe Kovac Jr. joked sounded like "a wild game of Twister."

On a recent election night, newspaper editors who were already short-staffed neglected to plan with professors in advance to have students help out. Telegraph editors and reporters who have previously worked with interns and students are concerned about working with inexperienced staff.

"Some reporters think they're going to be unduly stressed," Mr. Kovac said.

There's no shortage of material. Macon – a city with 91,000 residents in the throes of gentrification – is filled with enough political battles and economic disparity to occupy flocks of enterprising student journalists. It's rich with old Southern grandeur: it has an opera house, enough stately homes on the National Historic Register to rival Charleston and Savannah and an imposing Beaux-Arts 1916 train station where preservationists kept the "Colored Waiting Room" sign etched into the facade. But Bibb County, where Macon is, has a 22.4 percent poverty rate that is equally visible as residents linger on the front porches of decrepit homes that local community groups have been working to help clean up.

At a recent morning editorial meeting, Oby Brown, the senior editor of local news for The Telegraph, ran through a long list of story ideas. With many of the paper's 20 staff journalists out on mandatory furloughs and maternity leave, he said there's "not a lot of room for throat-clearing."

Mercer students, who say they depend heavily on the Internet for news, will be used to fill the gaps. On a recent evening, nearly two dozen students, many dressed in candy-colored fraternity and sorority pledge shirts, herded into a classroom at Mercer's new Center for Collaborative Journalism. They ate pizza slices and listened to Timothy Regan-Porter, a newly minted professor and the program's director, nervously walk them through a slide show of his plans.

"Practical experience won't be something we want you to have," said Mr. Regan-Porter to the crowd of students. "It will be required."

The vision for the Macon program was conceived three years ago by George McCanless, publisher of The Telegraph and a magician of sorts at keeping The Telegraph profitable through circulation and advertising declines.

Data from the Audit Bureau of Circulations shows that The Telegraph's Monday to Friday circulation shrank to 43,100 from 58,522 in the last five years. So Mr. McCanless outsourced the printing of the paper and tried to find The Telegraph a smaller work space. Through these largely discouraging cuts, he found that he felt inspired when he talked to university students about how much they wanted to work in journalism.

"I got a lot of energy from being around the youngsters," Mr. McCanless said.

In 2009, he called Mr. Underwood while he was stuck in traffic driving from Atlanta and asked him whether he would welcome The Telegraph onto Mercer's campus. Ms. Blake, whom he knew through the Rotary Club, helped the pair brainstorm how to pay for the venture. After two years of meetings, the Knight Foundation offered a five-year grant to build out space for Mercer's Journalism and Media Studies department and for Georgia Public Broadcasting to expand its programming. The Peyton Anderson Foundation provided an additional $1 million to pay for The Telegraph's newsroom at Mercer.

Mr. Underwood recognizes that he is trying to save an industry that many wise businessmen have failed at before, especially since so many students do not read newspapers.

"I acknowledge the possibility that it might fail," said Mr. Underwood. "But there are really good people working on it."

Those "good people" were drawn to Macon for its reporting opportunities and homes that cost slightly more than a Manhattan parking space. Mr. Regan-Porter, the program's director and a founder of Paste magazine, cut short the interview process for a job at Condé Nast to move to Macon and buy a nearly 6,000-square-foot Victorian for $180,250.

Adam Ragusea, who previously worked on a local news program called Radio Boston for WBUR, relocated with his wife and bought a 1917 Craftsman bungalow for $145,000. Both Mr. Regan-Porter and Mr. Ragusea say they love being part of a community and the kind of journalism they can do.

"I missed doing small-city journalism,'" said Mr. Ragusea as he sat in his new studio where he hosts a three-hour morning program.

But editors and professors recognize that the best way to understand the future of journalism lies in learning from and working with students. Mr. Brown said that he learns a lot about online journalism trends from his daughter who works on graphics for the Harvard Crimson. Jay Black, a Mercer journalism assistant professor, said this program gives more of his students a chance to gather professional clips that will land them jobs after graduation.

"I can only take my students so far," he said. "We're trying to define what journalism is in the future. Nobody knows how to be a journalist anymore because nobody knows the direction journalism is going to go."

In the first few weeks of classes, Mr. Regan-Porter said that a Telegraph photographer had invited a student with experience shooting live video to live-stream the sentencing at a closely watched murder trial. Mr. Black has been finding students to help a business reporter on an investigative project. Erica O'Neal, a sophomore, published an article in The Telegraph about nearby bike trails.

"I wanted to be a vet. I completely did a back flip and I went into writing," said Ms. O'Neal, who typically reads her news online. "Maybe I'll end up being a journalist."

Mr. McCanless is unfortunately the last to benefit from his vision. Since the newsroom moved to the university, Mr. McCanless is one of the few people left at the Telegraph's half-abandoned offices in downtown Macon. When he wants to be inspired about journalism's future, he heads back to Mercer. On a recent evening, he stared out at a room of students and aspiring journalists, hesitated and then smiled.

"Y'all what we were hoping for," he said. "It's been three excruciating years."