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IowaWatch: Nonprofit Journalism Links Students with Reporting and Learning

‘… the focus of experiences in the nonprofit journalism program should not be solely on the education of future journalists, but also on the broader education of these college-age students.’

By Robert Gutsche Jr.
J-School Partnerships

The nonprofit news model is much in the news these days. With the demise of the old ways of gathering and distributing news—and consternation about the financial underpinnings of some of the new ways of doing this—the idea of nonprofits filling some of this void find greater appeal. Here, at the For additional information and resources about J-School Partnerships, go to our Teaching Tools: J-School Partnerships »University of Iowa, we’re operating a regional nonprofit reporting center—relying, in large part, on our students—to assist seasoned journalists in news projects by doing research, reporting and writing.

Part classroom experience, part local news publication, The Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism (a.k.a. IowaWatch), is a hybrid approach with lessons worth sharing. This nonprofit initiative—developed in the spirit of similar efforts involving educational enhancement and community engagement going on at other universities—fulfills the j-school mission that some journalists and academics have been calling for by turning our university programs into hubs for local journalism.

This evolution should be celebrated, but at the same time it’s our belief that its visionary concept also needs to be expanded. Hands-on, collaborative experience with in-depth reporting—under the supervision of trusted veteran journalists—provides a terrific opportunity to educate students about aspects of social responsibility, social justice, and the weight and influence of multiple perspectives. Yet, into this mix should also go the educational and social aspects of nonprofit news, and these topics are the ones that aren’t discussed nearly enough.

IowaWatch

As we continue to build IowaWatch (www.iowawatch.org) we want to do so with the broader goal of educating students at the forefront of our public affairs journalism. To us, this means offering students a vibrant laboratory for in-depth journalism in their university setting that is based on the desire to produce socially aware journalism and socially aware journalists.

IowaWatch is similar in its approach and basic structure to other nonprofit journalism centers that have been emerging over the past few years—from New England to California, Texas to Colorado—many of which are at least partially affiliated with a university or college and have access to bright, young journalists and faculty members. But what sets IowaWatch apart are its intentional efforts to create a learning environment that is focused on combining what we think of as “good journalism” with social awareness.

Here is an example: Our first news story, which was published in The (Cedar Rapids, Iowa) Gazette, focused on the inexplicable response of two universities in Iowa, news organizations, and law enforcement when two college students went missing. IowaWatch’s report detailed the uneven responses in the searches for the students. The family of one student—who was white and the son of a lawyer—received extensive university and community help in a search. The other student—a Haitian immigrant—received almost none. Both young men were later found dead.

Why the responses differed is complicated and proved difficult to definitively answer: university policies, for one, and, likely, the social demographics of the two students. Still, at the heart of this effort to engage students in reporting these stories were issues of social justice and legal equity. Such news coverage is common to university-based nonprofit journalism, here and elsewhere. At the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (WisconinWatch.org), which I helped launch with Executive Director Andy Hall and others at the University of Wisconsin in 2009, the initial stories involved reporting on these investigations:

Each story focused on wrongdoing and exploitation, and reporting them took students—and those who read what they produced—to the intersection of social and political efforts that are failing segments of our society.

What Journalism Teaches

With the flowering of nonprofit journalism, it’s critical that we think about the pedagogical, philosophical, and practical challenges of students working at these university centers. Yet, it can be hard to find much, if any, discussion about the social, educational, and personal influences placed upon students as they become involved with nonprofit news.

As college students work on journalism projects these experiences become ingrained in them, in the ways similar to how other experiences in the classroom and on campus should do. It’s a different experience than interning at a for-profit news organization during the summer. For one thing, many of these student journalists balance what they do at this nonprofit news center with their academics during the school year, and this creates a new level of experiential learning.

The insights of progressive educator John Dewey and other researchers on college student development—Ernest Pascarella, Patrick Terenzini, Alexander Astin—reveal that experiential learning and involvement outside of the classroom develops a students’ cognitive and affective skills. Being aware of this dynamic means that at IowaWatch we incorporate journalistic skill building into their work on projects, and at our organizational level we integrate lessons and experiences that push forward not only journalistic objectives, but raise social awareness.

Given this mission, here is what some of our efforts look like:

  • The IowaWatch’s Board of Directors created a board position for a doctoral journalism student, who provides perspective and enables future journalism educators an opportunity to be involved in the management of a nonprofit organization.

  • Reporting interns developed our center’s media contact list that intentionally includes racial, ethnic and gender-based news media, American Indian, and other marginalized groups.

  • With funding from various grants, we have increased the educational quality of the students’ experience by partnering with journalism faculty and other educators at the university. Earlier this year, IowaWatch received a $2,500 grant from the university’s honors program to fund an undergraduate student as an editing fellow. Another intern received university grant money to work on establishing a nonprofit organization in Iowa.

What’s clear about our approach is that the focus of experiences in the nonprofit journalism program should not be solely on the education of future journalists, but also on the broader education of these college-age students. Making sure that this happens relies on collaboration and outreach within the university community, such as turning to those who are involved with student affairs in the Dean of Students office.  

As we move in this direction at Iowa, we hope other nonprofit journalism leaders will also work intentionally to bring educational perspectives from outside the newsroom into their similar endeavors. By doing this, we will emphasize to students how experiential learning about social issues is so much a part of the journalism they do—and that lesson holds enormous value for them, whether they go on to practice journalism or not.

Robert Gutsche Jr., a doctoral student in Mass Communication at The University of Iowa, is also co-founder and a board member of the nonprofit Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism at IowaWatch.org. Visit him at robertgutschejr.com.