Ribbon cut on Mercer, GPB and Telegraph’s journalism venture

jkovac@macon.comSeptember 28, 2012 

In grand-opening style Friday morning, the Center for Collaborative Journalism at Mercer University, considered a bold journalism experiment, was formally introduced in a ceremony where professors, editors, students and others, including Macon’s mayor, wielded scissors in three rounds of ribbon cutting.

The Telegraph, which has joined forces with Georgia Public Broadcasting and Mercer to create a hands-on-learning lab for student journalists with aims to bolster community news coverage and, perhaps, serve as a model for other news organizations, moved its newsroom to the Montpelier Avenue center in mid-August.

David Hudson of the Georgia Press Association, speaking to a gathering of a couple of hundred or so at Mercer Village, said, “Who will benefit from this center? We, the citizens. We who make up our democracy. We who will be able to read and listen with confidence that the highest standards of journalism have been followed.”

Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which has backed the center with a $4.6 million grant, noted how funding from the late newspaper magnates, the Knights, was vital to the Macon-based news initiative.

“We’re more or less involved in a gigantic recycling project,” Newton said. “Money came and money comes back.”

Teya Ryan, president and executive director of GPB Media, lauded the uniqueness of a private university, a commercial newspaper and a public media entity coming together to promote innovation and scholarship.

“Not only are we leaders, I hope, in the Macon community,” Ryan said, “but I think we’re setting the stage for a model for public media around the nation.”

George McCanless, the Telegraph’s president and publisher who came up with the idea for the paper’s connection to Mercer as something akin to a teaching hospital, said the paper’s newsroom will be a focal point of the project’s success.

“When I personally really knew that we were onto something good here was when we started exposing our news staffs to this idea, and as the good journalists they are, they had some pretty tough questions,” McCanless said. “But they quickly realized that not only would this be a great benefit to journalism education” but that it also would enhance “the quality of news that we’re able to deliver to our community.”

Before the ceremony, Mercer University President Bill Underwood, said, “I think anyone interested in studying the art of journalism ought to be excited about the possibility of experiencing the practice of journalism working side by side with competent and ethical working journalists.”

Cal Powell, a journalism teacher at Macon’s First Presbyterian Day School, was at the event with a pair of students in tow. Powell said he is trying to guide young people toward careers in news gathering, but with a wary eye.

“We’re going to be watching this (center) with a lot of interest and curiosity,” said Powell, who instructs middle and high schoolers. “I’m definitely concerned about the future of journalism. ... You don’t really know where it’s going. So as a journalism educator, there’s a real concern about what’s going to happen 10 or 20 years from now.”

Friday afternoon, at a panel discussion on the Mercer campus about local journalism in the digital age, Joaquin Alvarado of the California-based Center for Investigative Reporting said that for news outlets to remain relevant and engaged in their communities “people have to feel like what you’re doing is useful.”

“Go into somebody’s home, spend an hour with them and look at what they have in their house,” he said.

“What do they use every single day? If the newspaper’s not there, it’s because they don’t find it very useful. But you will definitely find the medicine’s there, the food is there, the things that they need are there.”

Alvarado added, “You’ve got to be close enough to catch a cold in order to qualify to be community engaged. ... Try anything. Try everything.”

He advised prospective journalists in the audience to make the most of Mercer’s new journalism program.

“It just opened. Day one is right now,” Alvarado said. “So I would be over there on a daily basis trying to get my thing going.”

To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.

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