Magazine article Editor & Publisher

The Accidental Publisher: How J-Schools Are Embracing Real-World Reporting

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

The Accidental Publisher: How J-Schools Are Embracing Real-World Reporting

Article excerpt

Boston University journalism professor Michelle Johnson's students had covered the Boston Marathon for years, providing text, image and video updates to their student audience as well as established media partners. But as her reporting team of 20 began to finish their work and wander back to campus on April 15, 2013, she got a call from a student, saying she'd heard two loud bangs and now everyone was running away. While wire services had no information, a quick check of Twitter showed Johnson that chaos was unfolding near the race finish, with her students peppered all around.

"I sent out an SOS to check in and tell them to let us know you're OK," Johnson said. "Then, start reporting."

In the hours and days that followed, Johnson's students were at the epicenter of reporting the Boston Marathon bombings, the biggest national news story of the year. But she couldn't escape being struck by how close they were to harm's way and how her role as their teacher had changed.

As more programs embrace clinical approaches to journalism education--known to many as the "teaching hospital model"--educators within these schools are becoming something akin to accidental publishers. Two bombs spaced just 12 seconds apart opened Johnson's eyes to her transformation: Educators now need to tackle the legal, ethical and fiscal issues news publishers have long encountered. And while some are well-prepared for and supported in this endeavor, others may find their institutions' responses lacking.


Proponents of the teaching hospital model use the metaphor to urge journalism programs to serve their communities by engaging in real-world reporting and published news coverage that both serves the local area and benefits from the latest academic research. Like an academic medical center that trains tomorrow's doctors while treating cancer patients and researching new chemotherapies, an academic journalism program should teach students, report on its community and develop cutting-edge technologies and storytelling approaches. These clinical evangelists heavily emphasize experimentation and innovation, urging J-Schools to realize the promise of digital media for journalism and help students both master the skills needed in today's information economy and imagine new means for gathering and communicating news.

Boston University News Service is one such effort. Though not a fully formed teaching hospital, it's certainly a functioning journalism clinic. Conceived as a place to enable students to publish their work publicly, the news service ties together young reporters across a range of classes, including multimedia reporting and photojournalism. As its faculty adviser, Johnson considered herself a teacher primarily, but when the bombings struck, she found the publisher role unexpected and unnerving as crisis arose.

"We were right next to everybody else covering the story, but we had not had that conversation in advance," she said. "That's the one thing every school doing this teaching hospital model has to think about. How do you handle the need to be careful and safe?"

And while BU's situation was particularly dramatic and traumatic, schools are dealing every day with questions large and small that once were kept far more in the domain of professional news organizations.


For Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, most institutions he encounters that are doing clinical journalism are not fully versed in the possible legal ramifications of that work. The very first question almost always unanswered is who owns the work itself. Does a student who takes a photograph for a class hold the copyright? The answer in the past would almost certainly have been yes. But what if she takes it for Boston University News Service? Does the journalism department now hold it?

In Johnson's situation, a student had captured images of bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev for an earlier profile of him as a boxer. …

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