By Cliff Barney
Special to Calbuzz
Whether newspapers vanish or morph into flexible multimedia press lords of the 21st Century, grads of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism will be ready.
The school’s required introductory course — J200: Reporting the News — has been turned into a multimedia training ground whose laboratories are three Bay Area hyperlocal news websites. They are designed to produce a new breed of journalist, a kind of media Army of One, not dependent on the fate of the troubled print journalism industry.
Each of the news sites — MissionLoc@l in San Francisco’s Mission District; Oakland North; and, next month, Richmond Confidential — is edited by a veteran professional from the J-School faculty, and staffed by about one-third of the entering class of 50-plus students. Reporters and multimedia producers in a single skin, students are responsible for a feature every week; instead of being graded and forgotten, these stories are revised, edited and re-edited until they are ready for publication.
“It’s become the core of what we are doing,” says J-School Dean Neil Henry. “We are trying to address the crisis in our industry. Since we are the only journalism school in the UC system, it’s incumbent on us to serve the public interest.”
Across the nation, online hyperlocal news sites have sprung up to supply the kind of local coverage that newspapers used to provide, but increasingly are abandoning because of staff reductions; one quarter of all news jobs have vanished since 2001, and local coverage has been sacrificed in the name of cost savings. Almost none of the hyperlocal sites make money (though a few do), and some don’t even try; they are labors of love and thus subject to the mood swings and lapses common to the blogosphere. Coverage can be spotty or spot-on.
Hyperlocal sites are typically run by single, dedicated editors, both professional and amateur, infatuated with their beat. Some are cold-blooded robots from Web 2.0, crafted to make money in the Link Economy. Some are run by newspapers; some are glorified blogs. They are one of the most popular forms to have developed from web technology.
The Bay Area’s J-School sites are professional newsrooms, though you wouldn’t think so from a first glance at MissionLoc@l headquarters on 20th Street; it’s a tiny storefront space, half taken up by statuary parked there by the owner. There, former New York Times correspondent Lydia Chavez, who once had all of South America as her beat, is reinventing journalism with a couple of graduate assistants, two media gurus newly hired by the school, and her eager staff of amateurs.
MissionLoc@l teaches basic reporting, and assigns reporters to beats: two on government, another pair on city services, three on education, two on crime, two on the arts, etc. The reporters dig up stories and tell them with a variety of cameras, recorders, and other multimedia tools that their forebearers saw only as toys. Stories are not just assigned –- they are storyboarded. Once reported in various media they may be processed with Garage Band, mashed with Google Maps, and otherwise digitally transmuted.
Chavez still focuses on the news; she brags not about a sensational video, or even about the Webby award the site won this year, but about the mostly-text story of the failing local music business that a student teased out of a remark concerning a canceled live event. “Worthy of a Times page one article,” she says.
Similarly, Chavez’s colleague, former Washington Post correspondent Cynthia Gorney at Oakland North, takes pride in the piece one of her reporters broke on the Labor Day shooting death of a young woman. Like Chavez, Gorney is an old-school reporter who professes ignorance of the deeper intricacies of multimedia. “I worry about multimedia distracting from the essence of what we do, which is report and write good sentences.”
But Gorney appreciates the school’s emphasis on integrating media into the assignment, and using it to tell a story the best way, rather than simply adding video to some text. “I have become a big fan,” she says.
The hyperlocal labs came into existence almost accidentally, out of a multimedia program that has been in development for a decade at the school, in which students learned to blend video, audio, text, graphics, and photography, and from a single hyperlocal site developed for suburban Albany by a J-School student, Linda Fan, as her thesis project. That site was an instant success (though it has faltered since Fan graduated and left town), and the school tried to emulate it with five similar sites last year; these have been telescoped to three with the melding of the multimedia program and hyperlocal web publication in a mandatory course this year.
The program is currently funded by a $500,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, scared up by Henry and Paul Grabowicz, who has run the school’s multimedia program for a decade and has been prodding journalists to get online all the while. Grabowicz says teaching multimedia and news together represents a huge change in the focus and impact of the J-School curriculum. Students now expect to use multimedia as a part of all classes. Most of them like it, he says, and take to it naturally.
“This is the most exciting time I’ve worked in,” says Chavez, who postponed a sabbatical leave for a year in order to get MissionLoc@l up to speed. “These kids are young and hungry; they aren’t looking for nonexistent jobs, they have a more entrepreneurial view [of their careers]. They will define what journalism is for the next 50 years.”
A Calbuzz Footnote: The folks at the not-so-hyper local site voiceofsandiego.org are showing how it’s possible to put out a wholly online local newsreport if you’ve got philanthropic backing.