Powering the Nation – Powering Journalism

 “Stunning” that was the word Jim Brady – digital journalist and guru to many who care about the future of news – chose to describe the work of Powering the Nation.

That experimental foundation-supported student incubator at the University of North Carolina was a big reason why I was intrigued when I was asked to think about becoming dean of the J-School at Chapel Hill.

Powering the Nation was UNC’s version of News21.– an experiment that worked.

 I need to go back to put this project and a series of J-school experiments into context. In 2002 I was a foundation executive at the fabled Carnegie Corporation of New York.  The trustees wanted to focus on an initiative that could improve journalism.  It was changing and they were worried about what was happening.

Journalism was changing more than anyone realized as the new century began. Newspapers have been in an economic free-fall ever since.  At Carnegie my boss Vartan Gregorian told me to find a strategy where we might be able to make a difference.  We decided to focus on great research universities’ Journalism Schools.  First, because Carnegie Corporation has worked in education for its 100 years.  Education was our wheelhouse.  And second, because Vartan Gregorian, an academic, believed in the power of higher education to make a difference in America.

 So in three years we had a strategy and a great partner, the Knight Foundation, the most important journalism philanthropy in America. We also had great journalism schools.    When we created News 21 we saw it as an incubator for changing how journalism would be taught.  “21” to represent the 21st Century and the age of most of the students who would work in finding new ways to tell news stories.

 News 21 gave students at all of the 12 Carnegie Knight schools great hands-on experimental learning.  It gave all the professors involved a chance to experiment. The industry has been impressed and our students have gotten better jobs.  The work has found news partnerships.

 So back to the summer of 2013.

Powering the Nation is a powerhouse.  I’m now the dean at UNC  and proud that Powering  was nominated for a National Emmy.  Stunning.  Yes it’s that.  But it’s proof to me that great journalism exists – in new ways.  It also proves to me that higher education can make a difference in real students’ lives and in the news world that is being invented.  I’m happy to say we have a new partner.  PBS NewsHour will use some of the multi media work on air and on line.

 We don’t have a sustainable financial model yet for keeping this kind of reporting and experiential learning going forward.  Carnegie and Knight are not funding the 12 schools as an initiative anymore.  But I’m convinced the experiment that I was part of has crafted a path for the future. One that is powerful for training journalists and storytellers about how to be innovative and serious.

 Don’t’ take my word for it: watch the 2012 project that won the Emmy nomination. It’s called 100 Gallons.   Or dive into this year’s experiment in reporting on water.  A wonderful story on so many levels. It’s called Over Water, Under Fire.

 Stunning. I think you will agree.  It’s wonderful work.  And it’s the future.

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