Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Duke and Journalism

Play word association with “journalism school,” and you might blurt “Columbia” or “Missouri” or “Carolina.” But “Duke”? That seems an odd pairing, especially for us Chapel Hill alums. But Duke’s conference on nonprofit media last month was no random act. It was part of a new, deliberate effort by the university to help save the business of journalism.

Under a new director, Jay Hamilton, and a new, five-year plan, Duke’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy is applying a think-tank approach to the “fundamental market failures” that threaten enterprise and investigative journalism. Among other things, the center is trying to discern how the nonprofit model might be best applied; the May conference was part of that effort.

In an article in Duke Magazine, Hamilton, an economist, had this to say about the premise for nonprofits in journalism:

When you look at where news markets are today, I think that it's pretty clear that the biggest market failure lies in the threat to accountability journalism. People have four different types of information demands: producer, consumer, entertainment, and voter. The first three work pretty well, because people seek them out. For voter information, the fact that you're not really the decider, that your single vote will not determine the outcome of the election, means that many people remain rationally ignorant about the details of politics. That means papers often don't have a profit incentive to engage in significant watchdog or accountability journalism.

As part of the center’s new direction, it has hired two new professors, both of whom previously worked at The Washington Post.

Sarah Cohen, who will teach and pursure reasearch in “computational journalism,” which Hamilton says “holds the promise of combining traditional public records and database work with new methods and tools adapted from other disciplines to help renew watchdog coverage.”

Phil Bennett, the Post’s former managing editor, will teach and be “a strong contributor to debates about the future of accountability and watchdog journalism,” Hamilton said.

Bennett talked with me today about his view of evolving role of nonprofits in journalism. More about that in a post coming soon.


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