Journalism and Mass Communications, College of


Date of this Version



Copyright (c) 2012 Mary Kay Quinlan, John R. Bender, and Charlie Litton.


So many news outlets; so little news.

That could be the headline for the Federal Communications Commission’s 2011 report The Information Needs of Communities by Steven Waldman, which describes in detail the landscape of commercial and nonprofit media and the regulatory landscape in which they operate. The digital revolution has spawned a proliferation of online sources of information, but Waldman’s research documents a concomitant decline in news reporting, particularly that pertaining to state and local governments.

Citing numerous previous analyses and case studies, the report summarizes the evidence:

● In just four years, from 2006 to 2010, the workforce in daily newspaper newsrooms dropped by nearly 25 percent to 4l,600, which was roughly the size of the daily newsroom workforce before Watergate (40).

● Statehouse news bureaus have shrunk, by one estimate by as much as one-third, with more than 50 newspapers nationally terminating statehouse coverage altogether between 2003 and 2009, according to data compiled by the American Journalism Review (44-45).

● The number of regional reporters working in Washington also has shrunk, with more than half of the states now having no reporter in the nation’s capital (50).

The FCC report quotes Bill Girdner, owner and editor of a California wire service that covers legal issues, who explains succinctly why all of this matters. When journalists aren’t present, he said, “others control the information process” (48).

The FCC report contains a plethora of recommendations, but of particular interest to journalism educators is its endorsement of the idea that journalism schools should take a more active role in producing journalism for their communities (355). To that end, Part I of this 4 document reports on the results of research conducted under a Knight Foundation grant to examine efforts by journalism classes at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to provide news content for specific audiences, particularly those that historically have been underserved. A companion grant to the University of Texas at Austin supported research on similar J-school community news efforts in Texas. Additionally, Part II of this report, supported by the Knight Foundation grant, is an examination of intellectual property issues related to having students provide community news. John Bender, a professor in the UNL College of Journalism and Mass Communications, explores copyright and public records issues as they pertain to student-created news content and also comments on whether establishing such news-generating projects as 501(c)3 entities has merit.

The idea that journalism schools can and should be engaged in providing community news is not a new one. The FCC report describes numerous such efforts, some of which have been ongoing for decades, largely in urban settings on the east and west coasts (194-196). But these reports, focusing on efforts in Nebraska and Texas, will add new dimensions to the discussion. Specifically, the UNL community news efforts shed light on serving the unique needs of the underserved refugee and rural communities, particularly those with weekly newspapers, which are not addressed in the FCC report. The three case studies examined in this report are:

● Nebraska Mosaic, News and Information for Lincoln’s New Americans. This website,, aims to reach Lincoln’s refugees and the broader community with stories about refugees and their experiences. It also aims to provide opportunities for refugees to contribute their own stories and to learn more about navigating their new environment.

● Nebraska News Service. This news bureau provides state government news coverage to small dailies and weeklies throughout the state and to about a dozen radio and television stations.

● UNL-Seward County Independent partnership. For nearly three decades, students from UNL summer school reporting classes have worked at the weekly Seward County Independent as part of their course, providing Fourth of July coverage and special projects that the four-person editorial staff of this community newspaper otherwise would not have time to accomplish.

This report offers a detailed examination of each project, describing the origins of each one, how it works and how its stakeholders see it. It also attempts to assess these projects in connection with the FCC report’s recommendations and addresses questions of the long-term sustainability of efforts like these to fill the community news gap.

Finally, this report offers some observations about possible best practices that seem to have evolved from these projects or, at the very least, pitfalls to avoid. Journalism programs interested in embarking on community news operations may wish to consider some of these common threads and practical ideas. Expanding research on these kinds of operations at other schools in other regions also may prove fruitful as a way to compile lessons learned so journalism educators more broadly could benefit.

A press release "UNL receives $20,000 to study community news providers" is attached to the end of the document.