UM Journalism Joins New Google News Lab Initiative

Google News Lab text logoThe University of Montana School of Journalism announced Monday that it was joining other top-tier media schools in the launch of a new Google “News Lab University Network” in an effort to better train new and existing journalists in data, search and emerging technologies.

The Network is the latest effort by the School of Journalism to deploy technologies to tell and distribute stories in new ways.

School of Journalism Dean Larry Abramson said the initiative comes in response to student demand, and to changes in the industry. “Our students tell us they want more training in digital tools to make them more competitive when they hit the job market,” Abramson said. “The News Lab partnership will equip the entire school—faculty, students and staff—to stay ahead of changes in the news landscape. The faculty and I are very excited about this opportunity,” said Abramson, who arrived at UM in 2014 after nearly 30 years with NPR in Washington, DC.

Abramson has moved to accelerate changes in the school, bringing in noted media critic and change agent Jay Rosen and establishing the relationship with the Google News Lab.

The new University Network will provide resources and support to the top universities around the world, in exchange for feedback and input to help guide News Lab curriculum and training materials for journalists, professors, and the future journalists of the world.

“Being a part of the Network from the beginning gives us a great opportunity to have access to the latest tools and techniques being developed by the leading technology firm in the world,” said Lee Banville, who teaches web and digital reporting at the school and ran the Online NewsHour for 14 years before coming to Montana. “This will put our digital news reporting projects on par with far larger programs.”

As part of the network, Montana professors will work with Google to develop lessons and test new products in the classroom as well as offer feedback that will help make sure new tools serve a wide array of journalism outlets, including smaller, more rural newsrooms all across Montana.

In the past the J School has partnered with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab and pioneered work with the Public Insight Network project.  Google News Lab trainer Scott Leadingham visited the J School in October for a daylong workshop on digital tools. In addition to students and J School faculty, working journalists from across Montana attended the training session.

Google started the News Lab in 2015 “to empower innovation at the intersection of technology and media,” according to the company. Google-trained experts collaborate with educators and newsrooms around the world to explore the frontiers of data analysis, mapping and graphics.

The University of Montana School of Journalism launched in 1914, and has trained generations of journalists in print, broadcast, photography and new media. The school is regularly ranked among the top 10 journalism schools in the United States.

Welcome Back from Dean Abramson

Don Anderson Hall building exterior
Don Anderson Hall, home of the J-School

Boy, what a summer it’s been. Could there be any doubt that we need caring, smart journalists now more than ever?

As we prepare to open the doors for another year at the UM J-School, I keep asking myself that question. Just take one news story as an example: we have a presidential election before us between two people who seem to have a very troubled relationship with the truth. How could the average citizen possibly scrutinize statements by Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, without professional help from reporters, editors and researchers? Reporters remain, despite the turmoil in our industry, our election ghostbusters: they are uniquely qualified to train their ray guns on statements like Trump’s assertion that the real unemployment rate is closer to 42 percent than 5 percent. And we still need someone to jump on distortions like Hillary’s insistence that the FBI Director called her statements about her email server “truthful.”

While the need for good reporting remains clear, the way to pay for it is not—the crystal ball remains cloudy on that point. As comedian John Oliver pointed out recently, even he ruthlessly rakes through the work of journalists in the search for joke material, without signing up for a subscription. Oliver’s appeal to recognize the work of journalists got a lot of play, but I predict it will have zero impact on the financial plight of the news biz. That’s because pity is not going to help us make news profitable again. Only innovation and hard work will.

So, as we start the year I will present our students with this simple challenge: come help us save the world from a flood of lies. It’s our job.

By Larry Abramson

Missoula to Berlin: The Field Experience

Missoula to Berlin members and Dean Larry Abramson listen to tour guide Alischia Kusche in Berlin. Photo by Sachi Sinhara.
Missoula to Berlin members listen to tour guide Alischia Kusche in Berlin. Photo by Sachi Sinhara.

Today in Berlin, a new piece of journalism was born. Maybe that doesn’t qualify as news, but if you had the chance to be there at the birth, you might share my appreciation. 18 UM J School students put together a web site bursting with articles, photographs, graphs, charts and social media. Their focus is a major story on the world stage: the refugee crisis facing Germany, and specifically Berlin.  The miracle is that many of them had never written for publication under deadline before, and no one had every done so in a foreign country. The quality of this work, and the experiences that led to it, is solid proof of what our school believes: the best way to train journalists is to put them in the field.

The UM J School backs trips overseas because they provide a concentrated version of the classic journalism encounter: stepping into a strange world, pulling back the veil and then making sense of it for an audience. Confronting that challenge in a foreign country raises the challenge to the tenth power, making the learning process is that much more intense. Here in Berlin, students have had to talk their way into asylum homes, youth shelters, burial facilities, bike cooperatives and many other nooks and crannies of the refugee world. They’ve struggled with setback after setback: interviews that were cancelled, crabby bureaucrats who refused to return their calls, and the endless challenge of working in foreign languages. They figured out how to move ahead, and save their stories. I can’t think of a better learning experience.

Last Saturday night was our deadline for filing our final stories, and our students experienced the Sturm and Drang of crunch time. Students kept the train on the track, contacting each other about final corrections, and editing copy over and over. At some points, the faculty went to bed, and the students took over. They took ownership of the enterprise, pushing each other to polish the final product. Once again, that’s a learning experience that’s hard to create in the classroom.

As we wrap up our work here, we’re sitting down with students to get their assessment of their three weeks in Berlin, and the months of preparation that got them here. Almost without fail, they remark on how different it is to work in the field versus doing classroom assignments. They all see how they could have been smarter and more successful if they had asked a few more questions, taken photos from different angles, or tried just a little harder. Those are the real lessons they will take into the newsroom, or to whatever field calls to them. You can see their work here. Thanks to everyone who helped our students get here, and watch this space for more news.

Larry Abramson