Journalism schools: New hyperlocal hubs for publishers?


Teaming up with journalism schools has long been a way for publishers to recruit and get inexpensive content in return for giving students coveted bylines and experience for their resumes. Now, some publishers are taking university partnerships beyond the occasional project to launch full-blown hyperlocal initiatives that are more hands-on for student journalists. 

The New York Times recently launched The Local: East Village, a website covering a neighborhood in Manhattan, alongside New York University. The Arizona Republic teamed up with Arizona State University for the website AZ Fact Check, a fact-checking service of politicians. In the most expansive example yet, this fall AOL's Patch has rolled out Patch U, a network of partnerships between local Patch publications and journalism schools. 

Partnering with local media is a big part of Patch's strategy, so it's no surprise that the AOL-owned company is including journalism schools in the mix. Patch U was announced this summer in partnership with 13 schools, which has since grown to 20. Warren Webster, president of Patch Media, said the company is pursuing more schools to partner with through an outreach team at Patch.

“It was a natural fit for us to want to go develop relationships with journalism schools,” said Webster. “We feel like most of the innovation and forward-thinking that’s going to happen in this big shift in media is going to happen at the journalism schools, and it’s really important for us to be a part of that.”

Hyperlocal partnerships 

Patch U can be structured differently depending on the school and its location, Webster said. The program can be set up more like an internship or offered through course credit. “When we talk to a school, we talk to the deans and faculty about what would work best for their particular program,” Webster said. 

Hofstra University, the first school to launch a program with Patch U, publishes Patch's website for Mineola, N.Y., a nearby town to Hofstra. In another example, students at the City University of New York (CUNY) will work with Patch to launch a site for the Brooklyn neighborhood Bedford-Stuyvesant. 

While Patch is expanding its local reach, students gain experience pitching and writing stories, covering local events, using multimedia and social media, and publishing stories through a content management system (CMS) ― all must-haves for today's journalism graduates.

At Hofstra, students can get credit or just use it as an activity to learn more, said Bob Papper, professor and chair of the department of journalism, media studies and public relations at Hofstra. So far the school only has about a half dozen students involved because it didn't have much time to plan before the fall semester, but Papper expects the involvement to grow.  

Why pick Patch? 

The cynical view of partnerships between publishers and journalism students — including what Patch offers — is that it's just a way to institutionalize free labor. Papper has turned down partnership offers from publishers in the past looking for free local content in exchange for giving clips to students. Clips, he noted, can be obtained from almost anywhere these days.

“For all of these places that approached us to get involved with us, it was really easy for me to see what the organization got out of it ― free content. It was about students working for nothing for some organization,” he said. 

Papper saw the Patch offer as more of a partnership. “I saw this as a tremendous opportunity to provide way more hands-on experience right here at the university at no cost to the university,” he said. 

Because Patch is structured as a place where editors work out of their homes, Papper suggested the local editor come into the school's newsroom. He told Patch: “If you’ve got your editor working out of our newsroom, now I can see what our students get out of this.” 

Students still aren't paid to work on the Mineola Patch, but they can get paid by freelancing for other Patch publications, Papper explained.

A new type of journalism

Patch, of course, is one of a repertoire of publishing outlets already available to many student journalists ― such as student-run newspapers and radio stations. As any former j-schooler knows, getting work experience is critical to students. “This is a business that rewards experience above all else,” Papper said. 

"We have lots of ways for students to get involved and we want to get them involved early," he said. "Patch fits in with that and that's another opportunity."

What Patch can add to traditional outlets is experience in an area where many of the jobs of the future might be: at community news outlets looking for versatile reporters and curators. Papper noted that it's a different world for journalism students: “There are a lot of very traditional jobs out there and there are an even bigger number of non-traditional jobs out there.”

Webster said Patch talks a lot about “entrepreneurial journalism” (a term trumpeted by media educators like Jeff Jarvis). “Today’s journalist at a company like Patch needs to do the reporting and writing but a whole lot more,” Webster said. 

The model of Patch and other community journalism outlets aren't immune from criticism for moving in on local news (comparisons to WalMart have popped up). But like it or not, Patch plans to be the largest hirer of journalists this year. “We absolutely believe that some of the students that work with us through this program will eventually become editors with us,” Webster said. 

Papper is aware of the Patch criticisms ― that it's a sweatshop requiring ungodly hours for low salaries ― but, at the same time, he noted that starting salaries for Patch editors (in the mid-$30s) are more than the average starting journalism salary. Also, working a lot of hours is hardly uncharacteristic of the journalism profession. 

"Patch will be the biggest single hirer of journalists in the next two or three years," he said. "You can’t ignore that."

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