Universities as Innovation Hubs for American Journalism

--Guest post by Jan Lauren Boyles, American University doctoral student.

Eloquent eulogies have wistfully mourned the Ghosts of Journalism Past – the muckrakers, the ink-stained wretches and the shoe-leather reporters. The funerary narratives have spooked aspiring practitioners of Journalism Present, particularly cub reporters in American journalism schools.

Undergraduate students brave enough to choose journalism as a major are constantly besieged by the gloom and doom prospects for their future employment. Yes, massive downsizing efforts have decimated traditional newsrooms. And yes, the industry itself is a rudderless ship – adrift in a sea of content overload, crowdsourced material and confounding business models.

But journalism is not dead. At this vital time in the lifespan of news, journalism schools should re-orient themselves, infusing innovation into the industry itself through research translation.

In my last Big Think post, I argued that journalism schools struggled to locate their appropriate station in the academy because of an ambiguous disciplinary lineage tied to divergent fields like sociology, political science and psychology – among others. Today journalism schools can forge a distinctive identity through rich, real-world research to gain legitimacy and respect on campus. Furthermore, such study can help journalism redefine its image and reconsider its future.

In “The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” authors Leonard Downie and Michael Schudson advocate such an approach. The duo champion j-schools as “laboratories for digital innovation.” Using an academic lens to address journalistic woes “can enhance the teaching and research missions of universities.” That recommendation was echoed in the Knight Commission’s 2009 report, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age.” The scholars similarly state, “Institutions of higher learning should likewise regard promoting community information flow as central to their mission.”

Such research translation could include:

  • Operation of university-sponsored news outlets, newsrooms and wire services that serve local communities
  • Creation of new pro-am community, Web-based collaborations
  • Development of niche publications that capitalize upon the university’s strongest realm of expertise (the arts, business, politics, science)
  • Scholarship investment could yield a positive externality to the communities served: quality local news. In many cases, journalism schools are now filing a vacuum vacated by legacy media. The FCC’s 2011 report, “The Information Needs of Communities: The Changing Media in a Broadband Age,” contains a chapter on how journalism schools can assist in local news creation. As Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism’s Dean Nicholas Lemann shared with the FCC’s working group, “With the typical metro news editor looking at a half-empty newsroom, the question isn’t whether to cover local issues with journalism students or veteran reporters, it’s whether to cover local issues with journalism students or not at all,” Lemann says.

    Achieving success will not be simple, as journalism school administrators will initially need to seek internal support to launch such costly, broad-based initiatives. Released earlier this year, the Carnegie-Knight Report on the Future of Journalism Education (a project headquartered at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center) emphasized that j-school deans must curry favor from the highest institutional levels – efforts that include knocking on the university president’s door. Additional institutional supports, such as redefining tenure guidelines so that research creativity will be rewarded through promotion, must also be assessed. And external support – funding from foundations, charitable trusts and private donors – remains another crucial component to the program’s success or failure.

    Despite the arduous road, some institutions have already accepted the challenge. At New York University, Prof. Jay Rosen’s course launched a hyperlocal in the East Village. “Deciding how to launch the site, how it should operate, and how to make it effective in the East Village community are ideal tasks for students,” Rosen told the FCC panel. Through the work, students are “immersed in the innovation puzzle in journalism.”

    At American University, veteran journalist and professor Chuck Lewis launched the Investigative Reporters Workshop which produces originally reported investigative stories in collaboration with PBS Frontline, MSNBC and other news outlets.  Through this process, IRW researches and experiments with new models for creating and delivering investigative projects. The collaboration among faculty, students and professionals also features iLab, an initiative that identifies and evaluates new business models for investigative reporting.

    Solving the puzzle will keep journalism alive and well, albeit a ghost of its former self.

    --Guest post by Jan Lauren Boyles, a doctoral student at American University’s School of Communication.  She currently serves as project manager at AU’s Center for Social Media. Before joining American, Boyles served for five years as a faculty member and Director of Advising at West Virginia University’s P.I. Reed School of Journalism. She is also a former newspaper reporter for the Charleston Daily Mail.

    Read other posts by AU doctoral students and find out more about the doctoral program in Communication at American University.

    See Also:

    Reading List for Doctoral Seminar on Advanced Media Theory.

    Internet Politics Scholars Join School of Communication at American University

    Science Journalists Online: Emerging Practices and Shifting Roles


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    The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

    But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

    What's dead may never die, it seems

    The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

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    The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

    As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

    The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

    "This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

    An ethical gray matter

    Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

    The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

    Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

    Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

    "This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

    One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

    The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

    "There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

    It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

    Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

    The dilemma is unprecedented.

    Setting new boundaries

    Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

    She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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