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Colleges ramp up Statehouse media coverage

March 17, 2012

What started out as a one-month Franklin College journalism class has turned into a statewide news-gathering operation that has become a critical aid to cash-strapped small- and mid-sized Indiana newspapers.

The model worked so well—for students and local newspapers—that Butler University this month launched a venture similar to the one Franklin College started six years ago and dramatically expanded in the last year.

In an attempt to give students more practical experience, Franklin in January 2006 sent a small contingent to cover the Indiana General Assembly as part of one of its winter term journalism courses.

Franklin’s journalism department director, John Krull, began pitching the stories to Indiana newspapers.

That first year, four newspapers published the stories generated by Franklin students. As word spread about the availability of the students’ stories, the number of Indiana papers lining up to publish them quickly increased.

By 2008, 30 newspapers published stories generated by Franklin students, and in 2010 more than 50 newspapers statewide ran dozens of the stories.

Editors for some of those publications began requesting that students cover the Statehouse beyond the one-month winter term, a request the school granted last year.

This year, Franklin rolled out a pay-for-content business model for its news bureau and brokered a deal to make stories available to all 165 Hoosier State Press Association members. Students generated myriad stories covering everything from state taxes to right-to-work legislation.

Last July, Franklin hired former Fort Wayne Journal Gazette and Louisville Courier-Journal Statehouse correspondent Lesley Weidenbener to direct students and write for the school’s news bureau, which has about 20 student journalists.

Krull continues to oversee the news bureau and also writes a regular column for it, but he now has more time to devote to classes on campus.

As demand for Franklin’s stories grew, Krull and his students began to branch out beyond the Statehouse, covering things like the emergence of the rare hooded crane bird in southwestern Indiana last summer and the devastation of tornadoes in southern Indiana earlier this month. Krull said he wants to keep the school’s news bureau focused on “politics and public policy.”

“I think you can see there’s a need for the service we’re providing,” said Krull, a former long-time Indianapolis Star and Indianapolis News reporter and columnist who later served as executive director of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union. “The demand for news and information is greater than it’s ever been, but financial constraints being felt by a number of newspapers can make it difficult to fill the news hole. We quickly became an important news provider for a lot of weekly and daily newspapers.”

Franklin’s expanded offerings have some within the Associated Press’ local office quietly concerned that its smaller and more rural members may opt out of its services in favor of the cheaper Franklin College offering.

Questions from IBJ were referred to Associated Press’ corporate office in New York, and AP officials there did not return calls for comment.

Krull said the AP should not be concerned.

“We don’t see ourselves as competing with the AP,” Krull said. “We’re primarily doing this for the enrichment of our students. If we can do a community service in the process, that’s great.”

The tepid economy and tight newsroom budgets have fueled the growth of the Franklin College and Butler initiatives, said HSPA Executive Director Stephen Key.

“Many of the state’s newspapers are focused on the news within their county and don’t have the staff or resources to send someone to the Statehouse,” Key said. “Some of our members simply can’t afford a full AP membership, so these [college] services are filling an important void.”

Key, who is an attorney, said he has little concern about the student-generated stories leading to libel issues. All the stories get at least one read from a faculty member, and often times they get edited twice, officials for Franklin and Butler said.

Krull thinks the AP and other news organizations should cheer for programs like those at Franklin and Butler.

“We’re almost like a farm team,” Krull said. “It’s a way for professional news organizations to get a prolonged look and perhaps groom young talent.”

Franklin’s mission may be educational, but it’s certainly running its news bureau like a business.

Indiana newspapers pay between $2,000 and $6,000 annually for the right to run any of Franklin’s stories, or they can pay $25 per article. The school also sells subscriptions to its website, Thestatehousefile.com, for $50 annually or $5 per month.

Franklin’s news bureau got a boost in 2011 from a $6,000 HSPA grant and $20,000 from the Ball Venture Fund. Emmis Communications Corp. donated office space for the group to work out of its Monument Circle headquarters.

Franklin’s news bureau is operating on an annual budget below $100,000, Krull said, not including his salary.

HSPA member papers can access the stories generated by Franklin and Butler students through the association’s content sharing system, InfoNet.

Any profits from Franklin’s service go toward scholarships and student stipends, Krull added. He hopes to raise $25,000 annually for scholarships though the news service.

Butler’s program is so new, school officials don’t yet have any revenue generation projections.

“The main objective is to get our students relevant experience, but we think a lot of small and mid-sized newspapers as well as smaller TV stations statewide are hungry for this,” said Loni McKown, an instructor in Butler’s school of journalism who leads the news program.

Butler’s news bureau will focus on the General Assembly and the governor’s office in addition to public education, including issues regarding Indianapolis Public Schools, charter schools, the Indiana Department of Education and State Superintendent of Public Education.

“We think that scope is a good starting point, but there could be room for growth in terms of what we cover,” said McKown, who formerly worked for the Indianapolis Star and Indianapolis News and WISH-TV Channel 8.

Small and rural newspapers aren’t the only ones beginning to lean on the college news bureaus. Larger newspapers, too, are starting to buy content from Franklin’s news bureau, including IBJ, the Star, Nuvo Newsweekly, Louisville Courier-Journal and Evansville Courier & Press.

“The growth of this has been pretty amazing,” Krull said. “We’re way ahead of our own business model.”•

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