News21 exploring – and producing – the future of news

News21 is an ambitious project, attempting to chart a course of innovation for news coverage that is both “immersive” and “socially powerful,” in the words of Jody Brannon, News21′s national director. Brannon, who has been working in online news since 1995 with stints at washingtonpost.com, USAToday.com and MSN.com, has been leading the project for the past couple years. I checked in with her last week to see how it’s going and to get a better understanding of the project and its mission.

news21The bottom line: impressive. If you’re a fan of innovation for news, News21 should be on your radar. Co-funded by Knight and Carnegie, the project brings together 12 universities to experiment with new forms of investigative reporting and multimedia storytelling. One of the goals, according to Brannon, is to “unleash young journalists who want to tell stories in new ways — many of which are noticeably different than the way journalism was produced last century, and by that I mean the 1990s. Many of this year’s projects are very non-linear. Some have little text. And some I struggle to find, in my mind, a polished nut graph of sorts. But it is incredibly rich and often evocative. It’s very blended media, using styles of documentary, MTV, the Learning Channel and even The New Yorker.”

There is a good roundup of the mission and the projects produced by News 21 here. To get a sense of the larger vision for the project, I asked Brannon the following questions:

What has been the highlight or showcase example of journalism produced by News21?

That I have a difficult time pinpointing a single example indicates two things: the site is incredibly deep so it pains me to limit my choice to a single example; and experimental journalism is incredibly difficult to do.

I think Maryland’s Tag Video Player, as a tool, holds incredible potential. It allows for highly personal journalism to be conveyed; conceivably helps with plotting a multilayered story; and helps editors’ deal with boatloads of content, making use of the Web’s distinct abilities to make the experience highly personal. They used it to explore the important issue of multiracial voters but more fundamentally our melting-pot nation. Plus it’s a tool with far-reaching storytelling purposes. (Links: http://umd.news21.com/innovations/videoplayer | 
http://umd.news21.com/mixedrace/beyondother)

What is the future plan for News21? Expansion to other schools?

You’ve cut to the heart of our sustainability challenge. What does News21 become after the summer of 2011 and beyond? What if we’re refunded, less or more? Would we stay in the same configuration? Some schools swapped? Added? We could shrink to six or grow to 100.

Right now, I’m looking for synergies with existing non-profits or for-profit news companies. It’s possible if we’re not refunded, that we become our own non-profit. And if we continue to sharpen our niche, do we become a hub of standout in-depth and investigative journalism that makes maximum use of available media platforms?

That’s a great concept, but how do we get it attention year-round when students only work 10 weeks? I urged the students to tackle their projects like a meaty issues piece that might appear in the Atlantic Monthly. That’s a magazine I can get into even after it’s sat around for a couple of months; same thing with our content. I’m a prosletizer that though content is posted yesterday, last week or last month, it’s not stale, especially if the journalist conceives of it to be long-lasting.

I’m getting into some of the operational challenges to our longevity, but much of the future depends on the next few months leading into next year, as well as watching the media landscape morph. Could News21 become a trusted agent of big media wanting to put some young newshounds with digital sensibilities onto a big story? Maybe.

What is the distribution plan? Are you working to syndicate the content anywhere besides the News21 web site?

We have an alliance with Gannett’s Content One and McClatchy. Collectively, all News21 coordinators and profs and former practitioners are trolling their various contacts, looking for likely syndicators or content partners. Actually, the site’s depth and truly integrated storytelling is complicating our efforts to get the journalism shared with traditional outlets. This journalism is not meant to be a text story or a broadcast piece. It’s very digital. Gutting it for another site presents challenges, too, so framing our pages probably is the better approach for holistically experiencing the story.

And while we shared the early budgets with a lot of media companies (editors were intrigued by many of the budget lines and eager to see the presentations themselves), we are still working to get the content to our partners in a system. To anticipate the way editors so far have looked at content, we created category pages like these: http://www.news21.com/topics/cities/

Currently these pages only present the main packages of the site, not a lot of the sidebars which also have possible interest. But the categories allow us to approach niche pubs and sites, so we hope to find more alliances this way as well.

In the works is a more robust geotagging system that will allow editors to explore topics regionally. Many of our young students traveled widely, digging up great examples of the way America is changing and infusing their work with substantive reporting and anecdotal journalism that has resonance in may communities. The mapping will help users explore content but will have the ancillary affect of helping editors in particular areas.

What’s the best part of your job?

I love doing what I can to unleash these bright minds on ways to tell stories in ways not yet explored. On my journey this summer to all the incubators, I relished hearing them marvel about their incredibly enriching experience as a fellow. Knowing they have much to give in their efforts to pursue journalism in new ways as fervently as any proud practitioner who has gone before them makes me glad, too.

Oh, and transplanting a girl from the Great Pacific Northwet has been a lot of fun! I love Phoenix and my Cronkite colleagues are terrific.

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One Response to “News21 exploring – and producing – the future of news”

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