News 21: Reporting on a Changing America


News21 shares content and approaches developed over six years of innovative teaching and storytelling.

Voting Wars

Students from 18 universities investigate voter access and participation in a presidential election year.

Join the Team

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

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.

Big Journalism On Campus (PDF)

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.

Setting up a Program

News21 has been an experiment in journalism education. This guide is intended to help journalism schools that want to start their own News21-like programs or apply some of the techniques and practices that have been developed in News21 over the past six years.


Innovation is the cornerstone of News21, so you need leaders who are willing to break out of the traditional mode of journalism education. They need to be willing to work across disciplines to build subject matter expertise for students and to create working newsrooms where students can do not only traditional reporting and writing but also work with developers, designers and others to present their work in new and interesting ways on the Web. In many cases, this will require “bending” the existing journalism curriculum, making room for an educational experience beyond the typical three-credit hour course.

Leaders ideally will have extensive professional experience producing and editing high-quality content and directing a newsroom. They will be comfortable with new media technology – at least to the point that they understand what’s possible and speak the language of Web development. Professional contacts are important as they work to develop partnerships with outside news organizations and market the students’ work.

If you don’t have a faculty member available or qualified, consider hiring an adjunct, visiting professor or lecturer from the profession. We’ve found many who jump at the opportunity to do in-depth journalism with a group of willing, talented students – at minimal pay.


It’s important to develop media partnerships from the outset. Identify news organizations in your area or nationally willing to work with you to develop and distribute high-level, innovative content. This works much better than waiting until you have content, then trying to market it to a news outlet that has no vested interest in the work and has had no say in its development.

Having a media partner at the outset committed to publishing your work also will eliminate or reduce technical issues. You’ll know ahead of time what formats to use for video, what the Flash capabilities are, etc.

It’s important that the partnerships you form are true partnerships. This should not be a program where students “assist” in a project. Partners can help identify stories and projects, provide data and lend expertise, but the work should be done by students, and they should get the credit.

Partners can be a local newspaper, radio or television station or Web site. Nonprofit journalism organizations such as, the National Institute on Money in State Politics or American Public Media also might be willing to partner to develop and distribute projects.


Select a topic that you want to tackle – one that resonates in your community and that taps into the expertise available on your campus. Your media partner or partners may have particular topics that they are eager to develop.

Topics tackled in News21 have included everything from food safety to the changing role of religion in society. The most successful have had a narrow focus. Remember that students will have limited time to report and produce their projects and will do better if they are given specific parameters. In addition, a deeply reported, narrowly focused project will have more impact than one that may have more parts but suffers in execution. Go for quality over quantity.


You need your best students in this program – students who have solid journalistic skills, who aren’t afraid of multimedia and who are willing to experiment.

As you build your team, consider the range of skills students bring to the table. You want students who can research, report and write; gather and analyze data; shoot and edit sound, video and photos; design and build Web and mobile content; and use social media effectively. It helps if at least one or two students have worked on websites previously and have basic knowledge of software programs such as Flash, PhotoShop, Soundslides, Dreamweaver and FinalCut or another video editing system. Language skills and expertise in various subject areas – Latino issues, health care or business, for example, also may be important, depending on your topic.

Students should be selected in a competitive process. Making the program competitive enhances its prestige and helps ensure a more committed, higher-qualified participant. Consider asking candidates to pitch a high-level multimedia project as part of the application process so that you can evaluate the way they think about stories and how innovative their approaches might be.

The number of students can vary: News21 projects have ranged from 10 students to 24. But keep in mind that the more students you have, the more instructors/editors you will need. We recommend at least one editor per 12 students.


Quality journalism begins with knowledge. Before they begin reporting, students need time to study and understand a topic. This study can take place in a newly created seminar or as part of an existing class that is retooled for this purpose and that takes place the semester before the reporting experience.

The seminar should be interdisciplinary, reaching across the university to tap expertise in your topic area. Journalism programs typically underutilize the knowledge and research available in their own institutions. By bringing those experts into the classroom, you’ll give students a rich, interdisciplinary base of knowledge from which they can begin to tease out story ideas and concepts, and you’ll create a platform for educators to speak on policy and journalism education issues.

Ideally, the faculty member who teaches the seminar will have expertise in the topic area you select as a focus. However, subject matter expertise is not as important as a high-quality teacher and facilitator who can draw on experts inside and outside of the university to create a rich experience for students. We recommend that the faculty member becomes part of the newsroom experience that follows the seminar – if not full time, at least on a consulting basis. This helps transfer knowledge from the classroom to the newsroom.

In addition to subject experts, students in the seminar should be exposed to some of the best in-depth journalism available on the Web and explore new tools and innovative ways that stories are being told. Sessions with professionals seasoned at Web development and visual presentation can help students think about what they might do to engage audiences differently. Plan meetings with professionals who specialize in audience analytics, SEO and social media to help students better understand how to reach select audiences.

We recommend a semester of this kind of deep exploration, during which students are expected to develop and pitch multimedia story packages. These pitches should be based on knowledge learned in the seminar as well as outside research and basic reporting. Over the years, our seminars have incorporated more reporting, so that students are prepared with solid ideas, sources and at least a general outline of what they will do when they enter the immersion reporting phase of the program.

Finally, think about giving your students a field experience suitable to your topic. Students at Arizona State University, for example, make trips to the U.S.-Mexico border as part of their seminar on Latino issues and immigration. This helps them apply classroom concepts in new and concrete ways.


Once students have accumulated a sufficient understanding of a topic and have developed their ideas on how to tell stories related to that topic, they’re ready to report, write, record and produce their projects.

You can schedule the newsroom experience during a regular semester or during the summer following the seminar. In either case, it’s important that students have an immersion experience – that the time they commit to the program is substantial. In News21, students participate full time for 10 weeks in the summer. If that’s not possible, consider offering the program two full days a week, with students working out their schedules so they are in the newsroom all day on regularly scheduled days. If the program has to be incorporated into the regular classroom schedule, consider keeping the newsroom open at least two full days a week so that students can regularly access their editor and interact with other students on a drop-in basis.

This portion of the program requires dedicated space. You need a place where students can gather to work with their editors, other professionals and each other. The space doesn’t have to be elaborate; a computer lab will suffice. Students need computers with basic software (most likely Adobe Suite and a video-editing software – either FinalCut or Avid.)

The newsroom should be a lively, interactive place where good journalism and innovative ideas can flourish. Bring in Web developers, designers, photographers and videographers from your school or your community to share their expertise with students and help them troubleshoot problems. They’ll have fun working with students, and students will learn a lot about collaboration, working across disciplines and experimenting with various forms of multimedia storytelling.


Increasingly, journalism schools are becoming places that not only teach but produce content for the news industry. University-based newsrooms are stepping in to fill gaps created as the industry retrenches, covering state governments, investigating wrongs and covering local communities. And mainstream media increasingly are willing to accept quality student work for publication.

The media partners that you develop as well as other news organizations – broadcast, print or online – can showcase your students’ work by publishing individual stories or by linking to a destination website that you create.

In creating your own website to showcase student work, we recommend using an off-the-shelf content management system such as WordPress, which is readily available, relatively easy to use and offers standardized formats that can be customized. Students often have the skills to do basic design, or you can solicit the help of an outside designer or Web developer. If you do the latter, we recommend that the designer or developer work closely with students so that they gain the benefit of the professionals’ expertise and learn to work with Web specialists as well as to ensure that the end product reflects the students’ conceptualization of how their work should be presented.

If you’re feeling uncertain about developing a site, consider partnering with a digital media class in your program or in another department at the university. Online media class instructors often are hungry for content; they may be delighted to have access to a rich reservoir of material for their students to work with in their classes. Your students’ content could become the fodder for next semester’s digital media class.

Either way, your students should be encouraged to try new ways of presenting information and reaching audiences. Depending on your students’ level of technical expertise, that might include telling text stories in non-linear ways or developing widgets, mobile applications, video players and interactive graphics.

One of the most important lessons we learned in News21 is 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.


To build a successful program, you need to evaluate the effectiveness of your efforts: Where was the work published? Who adopted innovative tools or presentations developed by students? How many people visited your website and what did they look at? In other words, what impact did the stories and innovations have?

The goal of News21 is not just to get student work published but to seed innovation at news organizations, leading to the adoption of storytelling techniques that resonate with audiences and reinforce the industry’s commitment to meaningful, in-depth reporting.

Another goal is to supply the industry with multimedia journalists who will continue that work as they move through their careers. A good measurement of success, then, is what happens to students who participate in the program: Do they get jobs? Are they hired at rates that surpass that of other graduates? Do they land the kinds of jobs that will place them on the cutting edge of industry change?

The answers to these questions will tell you whether your program is making a difference to your students and to the industry.

Share What You Learn: We hope this guide will help you think about what your university can do to change the way journalism is taught and will help you as you create your own News21 newsroom. We’re here to help. E-mail us at


Northwestern News21′s 2009 editorial director Bill Handy conducted research on News21 lessons learned and created a website to share features and insights, including a mini-documentary and perspectives from students. Visit

Big Journalism On Campus

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.