Universities combine forces to bring stories to life

The idea was direct and clear: Illinois university and college professors who work with students on investigative reporting would form a network to share ideas and experiences and collaborate on stories.

First proposed by Bill Freivogel, director of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale in spring 2010, the idea has grown into a network of Midwest university professors and students from six states about to complete the first phase of their initial project. The project focuses on the increased pressure on the mental health treatment on campuses and the shortcomings of that treatment.

Columbia College in Chicago has published its findings on the Chicago Talks website, and in the Chicago section of the New York Times.

The faculty and students found the state of Illinois failed to follow through on recommendations to improve campus security after the shootings at Northern Illinois University in 2008.

SIUC has posted its initial video stories. This package includes stories that find students increasingly are coming to college with more severe mental illnesses.  The package also examines the quality of counseling services. Key to the establishment of the network — now known as the Investigative Journalism Education Consortium( IJEC) — is a grant of $75,000 from the Robert M. McCormick Foundation in Chicago. The grant provides funds for a part-time project coordinator, Web site development, meetings among participants and travel for project work.

The current members of the consortium are the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (which coordinates the effort), SIUC, Columbia College in Chicago, the University of Wisconsin, Ball State University, University of Missouri and the University of Iowa. There are plans to include more institutions.

Faculty and students at Wisconsin, Illinois, SIUC, Ball State and Missouri have stories slated for February ranging from investigations into a shortage of college counselors, long waiting times for counseling sessions, an increase in the severity of symptoms students are showing and a lack of resources for issues of veterans returning to college.

The idea for a network and the first meeting were a natural outcome of the new spirit of collaboration among university, nonprofit and commercial media across the nation.

One successful example of faculty and student investigative projects has been The News 21 project funded by Carnegie Corp. and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. That initiative, based at Arizona State University, brings selected students from across the country to work on a major project over the summer after doing research in the spring.

The News 21 Project http://news21.com/about/ has produced stories about transportation and food safety, with both projects published not only on the website, but also in the Washington Post.

IJEC organizers saw many Midwest regional stories that deserve attention as mainstream news staffs are reduced. They also wanted to make sure students were getting practical experience at a time when internships also are being eliminated. And they wanted to set up an ongoing collaboration that runs throughout the year and over all the semesters. Among the challenges of doing such collaborations is bridging work from semester to semester.  The consortium discovered that stories might be near completion at the end of a semester but the stories would need work in the next semester by the same students or new students brought into a project.

And the consortium found additional challenges in the faculty members’ different types of classes and their personal schedules and class schedules. In two cases, faculty participants could not begin work on the mental health project until this winter semester because of class schedules and other duties. In another case, a set of stories had to be published in December, ahead of other participants’ stories, because a faculty member was going on sabbatical this winter. Thus, instead of all results coming out on one day or one week, investigations now roll out over a period of time. The advantage of this is that findings and knowledge accumulate over time and new stories built on top of archived stories.

Each of the institutions can publish or air stories with local media partners and also post their stories on the IJEC website. Most of the universities’ faculties have ongoing working relationships with public or commercial media in their areas and in some cases are already working with local NPR or PBS stations. For example, SIUC’s School of Journalism has a relationship with the St. Louis Beacon, a successful nonprofit online news organization in St. Louis.

Other proposed story projects will include examinations of criminal justice systems and environment and energy issues. The consortium also will carry out its educational mission of sharing resources by posting investigative reporting syllabi, links to training materials and seminars and by establishing an active Facebook page and Twitter account.

Read the St. Louis Beacon story here.  Read more stories from the IJEC. Here is a video link to the story.