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Institute for Local News at SUNY looks to connect young journalists with struggling newsrooms

The University at Albany is one of the  campuses that will take part in the Institute for Local News at SUNY.
Ian Pickus
The University at Albany is one of the campuses that will take part in the Institute for Local News at SUNY.

The State University of New York has launched a system-wide effort to have college students produce local news.

Pointing to numbers showing 80 million Americans live in news deserts, the Institute for Local News will link young journalists with media outlets across New York. SUNY says it’s the first initiative of its kind.

University of Vermont professor Richard Watts is a graduate of SUNY Cortland and Director of the Center for Community News at UVM. Watts has been tapped by SUNY to get the program up and running across the 64-campus system as interim coordinator.

“The State University of New York is this enormous system that has this opportunity to try and build these programs across multiple campuses,” he said.

Watts says programs like this can help reverse the growing loss of local news that experts say is contributing to a lack of trust in and engagement with democracy. 

Here’s how it works: a SUNY campus gives journalism students academic credit or funding to report under the supervision of a professional in collaboration with a media outlet. The student gets experience and the outlet gets news coverage it might not be able to offer otherwise. 

“These are public institutions with infrastructure often located in or near what we call news deserts, and success is engaging more students and other resources at these colleges and universities to step up and help address the local news crisis,” Watts said. 

Lane Filler, a former “Newsday” reporter, is now SUNY’s Chief of Communications. 

“This is something that we think has tremendous value for the students, and for SUNY, and for the media outlets, but the reason it has value for the media outlets is because it has value for our nation and for our communities as a civic issue,” Filler said. “We cannot allow communities to go unversed in what’s going on in their civic life, in what’s going on in their government, in what’s going on in the lives of the people that they live with, their friends and neighbors.” 

Filler says SUNY plans to hire a full-time director to run and grow the initiative, and acknowledges funding will be needed to support the various segments of the program. 

“The specific skills that come from putting together these kinds of stories can be a little bit different from classroom skills,” he said. “They translate in a lot of ways to people who may not in the long run be professional journalists. There’s so much about learning how to do this work, how to gather information, how to process and evaluate information, how to edit, how to think. And being led through that by a professional, we think, is very helpful.”

Some students are already taking advantage of the Institute for Local News branch at their local campus. A native of Brazil, Rafael Cruvinel is a senior at Stony Brook University on Long Island studying journalism and creative writing and literature.

“As soon as I heard about it, I wanted to take it. I was very invested in it from the very beginning. It was a class that you had to enroll in like any other class,” Cruvinel said.
Cruvinel took part in the program last semester in the “working newsroom” course and has published stories on everything from shark attacks to immigration in local outlets. 

“Unfortunately, local journalism is threatened,” Crunivel said. “We see local newspapers closing their doors, we see many news deserts around the country, and I think that I always studied that in college as a journalism major, but I was really never given any opportunities to act on that and help change that reality, so what I really liked about this class was that it served as an outlet for me to promote change.” 

Annemarie Franczyk teaches journalism at Buffalo State and is a faculty advisor to the SUNY initiative. She says it’s “disheartening” to see news staffs shrinking. Her students are working on hyper-local coverage of the city’s West Side neighborhood. 

“It’s a section of the city of Buffalo that used to have a weekly publication that went out of business many years ago, and this course attempts to fill that gap,” she said. “I think ultimately, this is what the initiative is all about, is helping to remove some of those news deserts that are out there.” 

Filler says the Institute for Local News will be a win-win for SUNY and decimated reporting staffs. 

“Media outlets are hurting, they’re hurting for resources, they’re hurting for great content, they know their readers and their listeners and their watchers want it, and there’s not a lot of resistance to using it,” he said. 

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.