News21 serves as an incubator for new ways to report and present in-depth journalism.
Students from 18 universities investigate voter access and participation in a presidential election year.
News21 now welcomes students from all journalism schools. Applications are due Nov. 10.
Student work has appeared in numerous national publications.
News21 stories and projects have been honored in multiple journalism awards contests.
Foundations support News21 fellows:The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York have provided millions of dollars in funding for News21 since the program's inception in 2005. For a history of News21, go to http://cronkite.asu.edu/experience/news21.
Other support comes from foundations and philanthropic organizations that support the work of individual fellows. These include the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, the Hearst Foundations, the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, the Peter Kiewit Foundation and Women & Philanthropy, part of the ASU Foundation.
News21 is meant to be not just a collection of well-reported stories presented in interesting ways, but an incubator for innovation within the news media industry. Students are challenged to work in a newsroom setting to develop methods and approaches that help readers and viewers interact with content in ways that haven’t been tried before.
Of course, innovation means different things to different people. What seems ground-breaking to one journalist may not be to another.
At News21, we came up with our own simple definition. For us, innovation could be any means of reporting or presenting news that has not been tried before — or has been tried only sparingly or with rudimentary execution. We added the requirement that these new methods should improve the experience for our audience.
Some of what we came up with revolves around technology – video players that allow users to interact with content in unusual ways, motion graphics, time-lapse maps and Twitter widgets calibrated to bring in discussion on specific topics. One school came up with a working prototype of a national database for reporters to share hard-to-find data about cities.
Other innovations deal with how content is visually consumed. For example, students have tried new ways of weaving multimedia into text stories and experimented with non-linear storytelling.
Finally, we learned that innovation is as much about newsroom culture and structure as it is about mastery of technology and presentation. It requires new approaches to multimedia storytelling that are as simple as putting reporters and developers in the same room so they can learn from each other and as complex as embracing failure, recognizing that being innovative means that some ideas simply won’t pan out – and that’s an opportunity for learning, too.
Here are some of the things we learned:
We found that some of our reporters became enamored of new ways of presenting stories without figuring out whether those methods fit the story. It is best to do the journalism first — report and outline the story without worrying too much about technology, multimedia or presentation. If you master the story first, it’s easier to come up with innovative ways to report and present it.
In our experience, reporters who worked in teams were more efficient and better able to handle the stresses of an intense reporting project. Team members were able to lean on one another and help each other out. Our team members, sometimes serendipitously, had complementary skills and knowledge. The team members also held each other accountable for specific tasks and deadlines. The size of teams can vary, but we found it worked best to keep teams to no more than three or four members.
Innovative newsrooms should hire highly skilled programmers and Web developers who have some experience with basic Web design and production techniques and applications. But the best developers are not just technically skilled – they have ideas, and they like to share those ideas with others. In addition, we found that developers who are news junkies – or who at least have an affinity for news – get the most excited about the kind of work our students are doing and collaborate better. With limited time to develop projects, it’s also important to find developers who don’t feel they have to build everything from scratch – they’re good at finding existing solutions and bending those solutions to their needs. The most important thing we learned, however, is that developers should not be isolated to a cubicle somewhere in the building. They should be placed in the middle of the newsroom, where they can work directly with student journalists, teaching them and learning from them.
Reporters and editors should learn what developers and their tools can do and what they can’t do. They also should have an idea of how much time basic development tasks take and be aware of the many tools that already exist that can help them accomplish their goals. And they should know enough about Web production to be able to help developers publish and edit content. For example, if a developer builds a Flash application that is controlled by an XML file, reporters and/or editors should understand the format of the XML file and how to modify it. Reporters and editors should understand how HTML and CSS work and be able to make basic edits and modifications to the code.
At its heart, News21 is about multimedia reporting. It’s important to build a team of students with a range of skills that include reporting, writing, data analysis, graphics, photography, video and even building games and mobile applications. This doesn’t mean that students should do just one thing, however. In fact, it’s important that everyone gets to try out new skills. In News21, one student taught himself Flash during the program; others shot video or photos or created photo slideshows for the first time. Still others built maps and online data bases and created graphics to go with their stories. One danger is that students will get enamored with a new technology or tool and the story will suffer. We carefully monitor what students attempt to take on and pull them back if necessary. We remind them: The journalism comes first.
The “best” will change from year to year and from decade to decade. At the University of North Carolina, students used the latest Adobe software suite. At ASU, students editing video had access to a Storage Area Network with high data transfer rates. But even if you don’t have the latest in technology or equipment, a student can do a lot with a basic video camera or a smart phone. As these kinds of technologies spread – and get cheaper – it makes multimedia reporting easier than ever.
At its heart, multimedia relies on visual presentation of information, and you need someone in the room who really understands how to think visually and who can help reporters and editors do the same. It’s not enough to bring in one visual expert when a project is nearing its end; that’s far too late. Visual thinking at the outset often shapes how the reporting is done and what kind of reporting is done.
It sounds simple, but the best work came out of collaboration, and that required people to be in the same room – sometimes late at night. We found that this kind of newsroom provided organic opportunities for collaboration – and inspiration.
Innovating means taking risks, and that means accepting the reality that some ideas are going to fail. Our newsrooms need to accept – if not embrace – failure as part of the learning process. We tried to encourage risk by making it clear that we didn’t expect every idea to work out; we just expected that we would learn something that would help us succeed next time.
Leonard Downie Jr., vice-president-at-large and former editor of The Washington Post, writes about how journalism schools are producing high-level reporting that is making its way into major news outlets.