THBT: Academy-Industry Partnerships

May 14th, 2008; 7:41 am by Ryan Thornburg

One of the reasons I decided to make the move from newsroom to classroom is because there’s a need for journalism schools to be a source of applied research and development of products and processes that can help journalism be more memorable, relevant and inclusive. Today on the Tar Heel Bus Tour I had a chance to see how some of those partnerships are constructed between UNC and private business in other fields, and to think about how they might work in journalism.

It seems that the primary connection between journalism schools and news organizations has been through the training of an entry-level workforce. There is an increasing amount of mid-career training, but there is a certain community college feel to the relationship — you need trained workers, we’ll certify them and send them your way. Some might say this sounds like a medical school, too, but journalism doesn’t license its practitioners in the same way.

Today during our visit to the N.C. Research Campus we saw a big — and I mean huge — example of one way the connection between UNC and private business is working in the hard sciences. I’m incredibly uninformed about this topic, but I wonder how or whether these kinds of partnership have analogies in journalism.

Forget for a moment the massive infrastructure of the campus, which is being built on the site of an abandoned textile mill with about $1 billion from the former owner of the former mill, David H. Murdock. Once the campus is complete, it will house an impressive set of scientific instruments in its core research lab as well as scientists from Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State, several other North Carolina colleges and universities and private companies doing related work aimed, basically, at furthering the production and consumption of healthy food.

The private companies will rent space on campus at what Steve H. Zeisel, director of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Nutrition Research Institute that will be located on the Kannapolis campus, said will be market rates. In exchange for their rent, the companies will have proximity to university researchers as well as use of the core lab facilities.

The state is putting up a big chunk of recurring change to fund the public universities’ work on the campus. For his billion, the 85-year-old Murdock gets his name on a revolutionary effort to solve health issues through nutrition. Murdock’s wife died young and is a big believer in nutrition, according to Steven Leath the UNC System vice president for research. Probably not coincidentally, Murdock is also chairman and sole owner of Dole Food. And he owns much of the land surrounding the new campus — land that Zeisel said had more than doubled in value last year.

So the creation of the campus, I think, has a few key components:

  1. Public policy goals that are supported by North Carolina taxpayers. The most immediate is the creation of jobs in a town that was devastated by the largest layoff in state history when the mill closed in 2003. Over the long term, the state hopes to reduce the cost of providing health care to a population that is — like in most Southern states — incredibly overweight and suffering from the diseases associated with that.
  2. A billionaire. It’s always helpful to have an extra billionaire lying around when you need one. And not just any billionaire will do. You have to have one at the right stage in his life, one with a personal passion for your field and perhaps one who is convinced that he might quickly earn back at least some of his donation.
  3. Interested and willing ongoing private partners to help foot the bill for some of the recurring costs of the facility. The private tenants of the N.C. Research Campus think there is some benefit to locating their offices there. They probably want *both* access to researchers as well as access to equipment.

Would a journalism facility be able to have those key components?

1. Is good journalism a public policy goal that North Carolina taxpayers would support? Taxpayers have generously supported higher education in North Carolina, and a generous portion of that support the School of Journalism and Mass Communication in Chapel Hill. But considering the standing in public opinion polls of journalists and even the First Amendment, I’m sad to say that any line item for this kind of thing would probably either come with debilitating strings attached or not at all. Or, at least not without a significant public affairs campaign aimed at changing these perceptions. Anyone out there have a study showing that health news organizations are part of the bedrock of a healthy economy? We would need something to capture the imagination of North Carolina’s “progressive plutocrats,” to borrow V.O. Key’s famous term.

2. We don’t need a billionaire, but we would need a person or a foundation with deep pockets. These exist in journalism. They put about $450 million in to building the Newseum. They generously gave $40 million to the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication between 1999 and 2007. Already, private funding accounts for 78 percent of the School’s non-personnel budget. Could we capture their imagination with a R&D facility like this?

3. Ongoing private partnerships. One of the amazing cultural changes that is transforming newsrooms is the shift from a culture of competitive and fierce independence to one of collaboration. Unfortunately, the more powerful current affecting newsrooms is a trend of massive layoffs. But one of the places where newsrooms are hiring is programming. The industry can’t find enough people with programming skills who are willing to take the low pay of journalism. Would news organizations be drawn to a collaborative facility like this if they received with their rent access to programmers and developers? Could the facility be structured in such a way to make this kind of talent sharing cost effective for news companies?

Companies that I would see as ideal partners would be as diverse as Pluck, Freedom Communications, Facebook, Yahoo, Amazon and McClatchy.

Elements of Journalism Research Facility

First of all, what would a Journalism Research Facility look like? The big cost would probably be people. You’d want to have journalists and programmers working side-by-side to develop content management systems and mobile phone applications. You’d want researchers looking at the technology and sociology of health online community development. You’d want management and logistics experts looking at the process of creating online news. You’d want quants crunching the massive amounts of usage data generated by news Web sites.

Zeisel said he wants his faculty to bring in four to five times their salary every year in grants. So you’d need some sort of housing facility, and an endowment that would entice them to come as well as entice their employers to let them go for a month, a semester or a year.

You’d need some equipment. Mostly the tools of video and audio collection and production. You’d need enough server-side computing power to support the needs of the developers.

I have to run and catch the bus now, but here are three things I think a Journalism R&D Institute would do:

1. House a depository of aggregated and anonymized data on Web site usage. This would create a hub of research around core questions about how people consume news online. This would spur intense and applicable quantitative research.

2. Research facilities. Eye-track machines, phone banks for survey research, rooms and facilitators for focus groups. All these aim at developing a better understanding of user needs for online news and information. The industry is flying blind right now.

3. A prototype local news site and a prototype national news site. Staffed by professionals and students, these newsrooms would be a place to conduct experimental research in staffing structures, storytelling techniques, information delivery and design as well as advertising delivery and design. Academics get great data, practitioners learn great skills and industry gets low-risk way to test ideas without jeopardizing their core brands.

4. Opportunities for short and long-term industry partnerships through a journalist and programmer-in-residence program. Not “how-to” seminars, but opportunities for journalists to undertake some experiential training as participants in the prototype newsrooms. Or to come and partner with a programming team to work on a story or new product. Or to come and work with a graduate researcher on a specific question.

PS — seriously. I need to go. But check out the partnership between Adam Riggsbee and Restoration Systems. It led to both a dissertation and a job for Riggsbee. Another model for partnership between the academy and industry.

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