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Carnival of Journalism: Class is in session

David Cohn of Spot.Us contacted me a couple of months ago to see if I’d be interested in serving as part of a roundtable discussion at the Reynolds Journalism Institute in April. Maybe we’ll finally get a chance to finish the conversation we started in Chicago back in September…

Part of getting ready for the fun awaiting me in Columbia, MO in three months is to answer the call of the Carnival of Journalism. It will serve as the basis of a few posts here in the coming months.

Maricopa Estrella Mountain Community College Library. Cyprien/FlickrThe issue we’re currently looking at is the changing role of higher education as a resource for the information needs of a community. I’m approaching it by wondering if institutions of higher learning have an obligation to reach out and assist their surrounding communities – helping them tell their stories while making sure they are aware of opportunities.

After spending several years living in Savannah, GA watching the Savannah College of Art and Design work their magic in terms of using the talents of the students to amplify the issues affecting the city, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Luckily, I’ve been spoiled here in Birmingham, AL too.

I think that most universities already serve as hubs of journalistic integrity as they encourage those attending to think critically and investigate why they believe what they do. They allow us to ask how and why without necessarily making us feel stupid.

They are also outlets of opinion that can encourage discussion and a deeper look at issues. The rise of the online classroom may lead to less focus on the area that surrounds them, but it does provide an opportunity to bring issues affecting them or the region to a much wider audience.

I’ve had a few opportunities to talk with Michele Forman and watch students in UAB’s Digital Community Studies program in action. They share their work not just via traditional screenings, including our own Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival, but online via YouTube (like the one-minute video to your left). The students gain the valuable experience of distilling an issue to its most important points, tools that help them digest information not just in college but once they are well into their careers.

I’ve also had the privilege to pick Cheryl Morgan’s brain and watch the students at Auburn University’s Urban Studio listen to the needs of the community while presenting realistic solutions that are only missing the willingness and urgency of those with power truly listening and running with the suggestions to make them a reality.

While UAB’s program may seem like a logical one to include, some may be wondering why I reference Auburn in a post that should be squarely focused on journalism.

The way I see it, there are several ways to tell a story. Architecture students that are not originally from Alabama or metro Birmingham still have to do the research and information gathering that a “traditional” journalist would in order to honestly and accurately capture the issues that face the community that is assigned to them to develop a master plan.

Many of us love to consume bits of information via infographics nowadays.

We should prepare graduates to feel as though it is their responsibility to speak up not just for those without a voice but for those that need help but for those things that they see as problems in their own neighborhoods. A person shouldn’t necessarily be hung up on how that final product is delivered, so long as the information is shared. It’s also important to note that the story never really ends, it just changes direction.

It may also be helpful to either open up the doors of the institution or perhaps establish outposts throughout the community as a potential way help get information out there. There is a level of respect and credibility that people associate with organizations of higher learning that is not even shown to traditional mainstream media. As municipal budgets are slashed across the country, these institutions may have to take the role as community gathering place even more than they would like.

The university may just become one of the most trusted voices in the community as the number of outlets continues to rise (and the resulting noise with it). It may help diffuse the adversarial tone that many institutions tend to take with the communities they call home if a greater effort was made to share what is being learned with residents instead of just determining how to expand and grow for the sake of the students alone.

As we continue to expand our use of digital tools, it enables universities and organizations to open the doors virtually via podcasts and video archives. Colleges and universities provide a great way for many that would not necessarily have access to the Internet to hop on and take advantage of these tools. It also means potentially expanding offerings of classes that help people learn how to navigate this maze of options and re-learn how to digest all of this information.

I probably didn’t focus on journalists enough for some people’s tastes, but we have to make sure we have someone to write for, right?

Photo: Maricopa Estrella Mountain Community College Library. Cyprien/Flickr