Community colleges are enabling greater participation in local news

By/
Cole Goins + Megan Lucero, Journalism + Design
Participants of Community Journalism: Reporting for Civic Power, a noncredit certificate from Cuyahoga Community College, gather at Signal Cleveland with local journalists and community media publishers. Credit: Cole Goins

Header photo: Participants of Community Journalism: Reporting for Civic Power, a noncredit certificate from Cuyahoga Community College, gather at Signal Cleveland with local journalists and community media publishers. Credit: Cole Goins

 

In fall 2021, a diverse group of students, local organizers and community members based in Philadelphia gathered via Zoom to learn the fundamentals of community-centered news. They were participating in Community Journalism for Civic Power, a pilot certificate program that our team at the Journalism + Design lab created with Resolve Philly and the Institute for Community Engagement and Civic Leadership at the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP). 

We designed the program as a free, noncredit certificate for anyone in the city interested in learning the tools of journalism to better serve their community. Through six workshops, participants engaged in both practical skill-sharing – the basics of newsgathering, interviewing, human-centered design and more – and discussions about the types of news and information that their communities needed. 

This first pilot program with CCP has become a model for similar noncredit certificates in community journalism that the J+D lab has launched with community colleges and organizations around the country through our Community News Networks initiative. From partnerships in cities like Cleveland to a statewide initiative in New Jersey, we’re growing opportunities for more people in their communities to learn journalism skills and become active participants in their local news ecosystems. 

As we offer the third iteration of Community Journalism for Civic Power with CCP and Resolve Philly, we wanted to highlight what these noncredit programs entail, and how other colleges can develop similar offerings for their own communities.

Why noncredit programs at community colleges?

The primary goal of our Community News Networks initiative is to equip more people to participate in the flow of reliable news and information in their communities. We believe that community colleges have a powerful role to play in fueling more active networks for local news. 

The more than 1,000 community colleges across the country offer a rich array of noncredit programming – courses that don’t carry academic credit – enabling people in their communities to learn new skills that help advance their lives, their careers and their communities. According to the Noncredit Research Collaborative approximately 4 million people per year engage in noncredit coursework, accounting for about 40% of community college students. 

We learned that creating training programs on the noncredit side can be a low-barrier way for colleges to share the fundamentals of journalism with people who live in their service areas – particularly those who have been historically marginalized by and excluded from media production. In partnership with local media and community organizations, colleges can also offer opportunities for participants to get more involved in circulating news and information. 

The community journalism programs we’ve helped launch are geared toward people who aren’t currently registered students, though current students can also participate – especially those who aren’t already enrolled in journalism-related courses. Through support from the MacArthur Foundation, the Knight Foundation and the NJ Civic Information Consortium, we’ve offered funding to help make these programs free and accessible. 

In addition to our workshop series with CCP and Resolve Philly, we’ve also helped power the following noncredit community journalism programs:

Co-designing and experimenting based on local opportunities and needs

True to J+D’s grounding in design practices, each of the community journalism programs we’ve co-developed are unique to the partners involved, their goals and the needs of their communities. In this phase of our Community News Networks initiative, we have prioritized trying out with different models and learning from our partners. 

What that’s looked like so far:

  • Investing in local educators and organizations. In every program, we work with local leads at community colleges and at local media organizations to design the programs and co-lead the course instruction. We believe this is key to both creating solutions that are truly responsive to local needs and enabling long-term sustainability. 
  • Virtual, in-person and asynchronous facilitation. So far, the programs in Cleveland and Philadelphia have been hosted virtually. Mercer County Community College convened everyone in person, while Atlantic Cape Community College led a completely asynchronous course through the learning management system Blackboard. 
  • Core curriculum. We have drawn from the initial curriculum we built for our first workshop series with CCP as the base for additional community journalism programs, but we’ve adapted in each instance. In Cleveland, for example, we worked with long-time educator and community journalist Charlotte Morgan to add modules on newswriting and community reporting. Professor Holly Johnson of Mercer County Community College largely drew from her own teaching to shape the instruction for the college’s community journalism certificate, called the “J-Lab.
  • Requirements for completing the certificate. Our main goal at the start was to make the certificates as accessible as possible. For the first iterations with CCP and Tri-C, we only set an attendance requirement to achieve the certificate. Other programs have required participants to complete a published news article, or other journalistic assignments that correspond to the skills we introduce during the programs.

Creating “pathways for participation” 

A crucial component of the community journalism programs we’ve developed with colleges is providing a variety of opportunities for people to apply the skills they learn and participate in their local news ecosystem in some way. 

Here are some of the pathways that we’ve created for participants across our programs:

  • Transferable and accessible accreditation. Our certificate programs equip participants with documented training and experience that they can use when applying for other programs, opportunities or jobs – in the journalism field or beyond.
  • Producing original journalism. Students in Mercer County Community College’s J-Lab produced a series of stories they reported from their communities, which Professor Johnson published in a new section on the college’s student newspaper, The College VOICE. 
  • Becoming a Documenter. Our partners in Cleveland and Philly – Signal Cleveland and Resolve Philly – each operate local chapters of City Bureau’s Documenters program that trains and pays people to cover public meetings. Participants in our community journalism certificates can get connected if they’re interested in Documenters assignments.
  • Earning academic credit. Two of our programs have created for-credit equivalents for the noncredit certificates. Students who want to continue their education can go on to enroll at the college with the earned credits.
  • Developing an original news product. We encourage participants to consider launching their own media endeavor to help meet local news needs; we can provide mentorship and connections to organizations like Tiny News Collective and Listening Post Collective to grow their ideas. 
  • Ongoing training opportunities and connections to local media. In Philly, those who complete the certificate get a free, one-year Individual Membership to PhillyCAM, a community media center that teaches people to become creators of independent media. In Cleveland, our partners at Neighborhood Media Foundation are connecting participants with community media outlets for freelance assignments. Mercer County Community College is planning a J-Lab workshop series that will be open for anyone to learn additional skills and get support on developing ideas for reporting.

What’s next?

Key to the pathways we’ve outlined above is having ongoing support, mentorship and infrastructure that enable program participants to contribute to the flow of reliable news and information after the training. We are experimenting with different models that position the colleges as a resource and engine for people to get more engaged in their local news systems, including: community newsrooms housed at the college where people can get direct help producing journalism, events that spark conversation around timely local issues, and other opportunities for people to connect around local news and information. 

Another primary goal for all of these programs is sustainability. We’re working with our partners to identify incentives and ongoing funding streams to keep supporting, iterating and growing these programs. We’ll share more in the months ahead as we continue to experiment and build with local input. 

If you’re interested in working with us on developing a similar noncredit certificate program, please get in touch! You can tell us more about what you’re interested in here.

 

This article was initially published by Journalism + Design on April 18, 2024.