Interview: Merrill Brown

Merrill Brown is the national editorial director of News21, which, as part of the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education, is a partnership amongst five Universities to give student journalists a broader outlet for their investigative reporting.

Merrill Brown is the national editorial director of News21, which, as part of the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education, is a partnership amongst five Universities to give student journalists a broader outlet for their investigative reporting.

He talked with PRWeek about today's crop of journalist students, beacons of the Web 2.0 journalism movement, and how News21 is changing the j-school environment.

Q: How was News21 borne out of the Carnegie-Knight initiative?
A:
The discussions involving the foundations, journalism deans, and others that led to the creation of the initiative covered many topics over a number of years. Today the project has a curriculum component, a research component, and the content component, known as News21. I'm deeply involved in just one piece of the larger initiative, in my role as National Editorial Director of News21. In brief, the foundations and the deans believed there was a way to enhance the story development training and capabilities of their journalism schools and that's why the program evolved into News21.

Carnegie Knight's News21 program is perhaps the most significant effort in the history of journalism education to provide a large media platform for graduates to add to their educational experience by producing world class, impactful journalism. The project's in depth coverage is available at www.newsinitiative.org and has already been distributed by Associated Press, Forbes.com, and others. This week we'll be launching a special program with CNN, slated now for prime time.

Q: Do you envision a future where more reporters are independent of traditional news publications? Where they become their own news organization?
A:
We're already at that point. Whether it's independent business bloggers like Rafat Ali and Om Malik or local bloggers such as Debbie Galant [editor of Baristanet.com], or important voices like Talking Points' Josh Marshall, Surfette's Lisa Stone, or Buzz Machine's Jeff Jarvis, each of these journalists has broken ground in creating what have become independent outlets. In Ali's case and in Marshall's case, they're building independent, organizations of scale and talent.
 
Q: Do younger journalists have a different viewpoint of the importance of seeing their names in print or being published in certain esteemed papers? Or is more about the work they do?
A:
There's really no such thing, as far as I know, as a monolith we can call "younger journalists." They have varying career goals and varying views of the kinds of journalism they'd like to practice. It is clear from everything I've seen of the large schools in the initiative and at other schools I've worked with, that students at the major institutions do lean toward careers at large news organizations and that they've enrolled in those schools in large part in hopes of improving their chances of getting those kinds of jobs. That said, for the 44 fellows in the first year of the News21 initiative, they were very focused on creating important work and improving their skills for the marketplace they were entering and were not consumed with how they work would land them employment. It was another bright spot in our work this summer.
 
Q: Are younger journalists interested in open-source journalism? Where they are comfortable showing their work before the final publication of their story?
A:
Again, I'm reluctant to draw sweeping conclusions about younger journalists. I do think their views of new techniques like open-source journalism aren't that much different than those of their older colleagues. And by that I mean many willing to experiment with new story forms, but a much larger number comfortable with many of the historic conventions of the business.
 
Q: Who do you consider some of the beacons of the Web 2.0 journalism movement?
A:
There are many categories of individuals and organizations that I'd say are real leaders. There are large great sites that constantly innovate like the sites of MSNBC (I was founding editor in chief), BBC, and The New York Times. Then there are smaller innovative sites throughout the country in places like Greensboro's News-record.com and the independent Newwest.net (I'm an advisor). The placeblog sites are doing some great work and I'd include Malik, Ali, and others as beacons, as well. I also work with Nowpublic.com and Backfence.com and they're breaking new ground in nurturing on a local basis in the case of Backfence and on a global basis in the case of NowPublic the important world of citizen journalism. There are many others. My friend Dan Gillmor is of course a beacon in both leading the charge for innovation and in developing new institutions to foster significant change. I have a bunch of other colleagues whose works constantly inspire me, and I consider them beacons in moving the ball forward everyday in the field.
 
Q: What are some fallacies of the Web 2.0 journalism movement?
A:
Not quite sure we're far enough along yet in this stage of development to have fallacies. I will say however that I'm not in the camp of those who believe that journalism ethics, digging, and learning in a serious-minded way to write, shoot and produce quality material isn't critically important. The notion that some articulate about the blogosphere, as currently constructed replacing the critical functions of journalism of real scale, is wrong-headed. Covering a community, exploring complex issues around the world, sifting through data, writing clearly, and producing compelling multimedia isn't something one learns on the fly. I believe there are many ways to get that training, but I believe serious training in those skills and others has real merit and those simply hanging up a shingle without working at learning those skills aren't journalists simply by claiming to be. 
 
Q: With bloggers and citizens reporting the news, how do younger people training to be journalists feel about the value of a j-school education?
A:
Many journalists I encounter training at journalism schools value the chance to upgrade and polish their skills before jumping into the workplace. They welcome the chance to learn under quality professors. But frankly, they feel constrained at times by the limits of those institutions, enterprises that, like news organizations, are in the midst of significant change. But they are changing and we're hoping that News21 can create some new ideas to help accelerate that change.
 
Q: What do journalism students do better than the current crop of journalists? What do they have to learn?
A:
Today's journalism school graduates have, in many cases, a broader set of skills and capabilities than either earlier graduates had or than today's industry professionals have. They have an enormous opportunity to influence the field in very important ways. Many come into their work as cross-trained capable of writing, creating media, and thinking through stories across platforms. Those are great skills that today's working journalists are learning at an accelerating rate. Many of today's students understand and utilize the Web in very instinctive ways. Part of that is simply generational. Part of that is because they're often engaged in their journalism schools in important Web based programs.

Q: What have you learned from News21?
A:
Among the things we've learned definitively from the first year of the News21 program is that great foundations and outstanding journalism schools can create a new model for producing great stories. Journalism schools can be centerpieces of creating coverage and great financing institutions like foundations and others can with them do important work in developing new approaches and perhaps new journalistic institutions. On a personal note, I've learned how capable and wise graduate students can be in understanding the professional world they're entering and the larger world they'll be coming into. There's a great deal to be encouraged about when it comes to assessing the future leaders of the field.

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