Is NY World proof that the ‘teaching hospital’ works?

New York World Map

New York World Map
If 2012 is the year that newspapers pinned their hopes on paywalls, it’s also the year that journalism schools pinned theirs on the so-called “teaching hospital” model: employing their own students and recent alums in their newsrooms. The highest profile example of the teaching hospital is  Columbia Journalism School’s New York World, a watchdog website focused on state and city government that launched in October 2011. And a little over a year later the site, and the school, are claiming vindication.

Among the scoops and headlines that the World (a not-so-internet-friendly nod to the newspaper put out by Columbia founding donor Joseph Pulitzer) has produced with its paid staff of six reporters are an exposé of a city-contracted bus company serving the orthodox Jewish community that required women to sit in the back, a crowdsourced map of New York’s privately owned public spaces and an analysis of the quality of care provided in New York City’s hospitals. The site, which is run by former real estate reporter and author Alyssa Katz and funded by the school, foundations and alumni, claims its purpose is to disseminate watchdog journalism to other outlets, not to score traffic on its own (it has no advertising).

New York World articles are freely available under a Creative Commons license and have appeared in Britain’s The Guardian, Newsday and the New York Daily News, among others. “By design most of our projects are published or broadcast via our partners, such as WNYC radio, so the majority of traffic on those stories does not go to our site,” says Katz. Still, the World’s site gets its fair share of visitors: around 30,000 unique visitors—the favored blog metric—in the last month, according to Google (which Katz shared with Ebyline).

School-run news operations aren’t new, but they’ve traditionally followed a model wherein professors and writing coaches select homework assignments of exceptional quality to be offered for free on a wire-type feed. Columbia Journalism School has one. So does Northwestern’s Medill and CUNY Journalism School and, suffice it to say, it’s a big deal when someone’s homework gets picked up by a major outlet. In contrast, New York World only occasionally publishes student work done for classes and instead relies primarily on recent alums, paid $41,000 a year plus benefits, who report for the site full-time. (Katz is also salaried.)

“There’s a temptation with journalism school news sites to put up a range of work to represent what the students are doing,” says Katz. “We want to make sure these are stories that would have and could have appeared on professional news organizations. They really need to rise to the level where they are advancing important stories that have a real impact.”


The rise of ‘teaching hospitals’


Columbia isn’t the only one adopting this model and there are two reasons for schools to do what is essentially commercial journalism on their own dime. The first is the  appearance of glaring holes in traditional news coverage thanks to increasingly threadbare American newsrooms. The New York World is the brainchild of Columbia faculty member Bill Grueskin who tells Ebyline he saw a gap between what New Yorkers expect to read about the services they pay for and what they’re actually getting, both from government and from the media.

“People in New York pay very high taxes but it’s not always clear what they’re getting from the police, courts, or health services,” says Grueskin, one of the architects of the Wall Street Journal’s subscription-based online strategy that now appears to have been way (way) ahead of the curve.

The segregated bus story led the city to step in and launch an investigation (although Katz notes that the busy company has put giant decals on the vehicles so it’s difficult to see if they’re enforcing the city’s rules). More recently, the site’s reporters covered Sandy’s effect on the city’s ecosystem and public housing.

“We’ve done remarkably well in establishing a new news organization that fills an important role largely missing now in the media environment: providing original public service journalism to news organizations that don’t have the resources to produce that coverage themselves,” says Katz, “and in the process extending the training that a journalism school can provide its students.”


Kill two birds: news and jobs


That last point—providing training—is the other reason why schools are starting their own newsrooms and handing tuition dollars back to students in the form of stipends, grants and salaries. Jobs. Or the lack thereof, especially for younger reporters who haven’t been trained up in a daily newsroom before attending school and are unlikely to get that essential training in an age of drastically reduced staff at the mid-career level, the industry’s traditional mentors. To succeed at the highest levels of journalism—and Columbia J-school regards itself as the academic equivalent of The New York Times—you need to know deadline reporting on a metro beat.

“The teaching hospital model enables some of our best new graduates to spend another year at the journalism school honing their skills and doing it in a way that’s supervised by an experienced journalist and allows them to do more ambitious work than they’ve done in the classroom,” says Grueskin.

So New York World, and other journalism school projects like it, should be judged as much by the jobs graduates land as by the news they break. As for the World: last year’s  reporters are now a senior data reporter for The Daily Beast, a staff reporter for Singapore Press Holdings (owner of Straits Times), a freelancer leading investigations for the Center for Public Integrity and Columbia Journalism Review and a web producer for Forbes.

Image courtesy of The New York World