Rhode Island Library Report
KINGSTON, R.I. (Jan.20, 2013) - Newsbrary.
Did we get that right? Newsbrary!
Is it a town? A genetically-engineered fruit? A new comic book?
Actually, it’s a word. It emerged spontaneously during a conference of some 60 journalists, librarians, academicians and others who came to the University of Rhode Island Jan. 16-17 to discuss the work and mission that journalism and libraries may have in common.
Unclear was whether the new word should be capitalized, hyphenated, re-spelled, copyrighted or banned by the International Grammar Police before things got too much farther.
But to many attendees, “Newsbrary” summed up the challenge they faced: looking deeply at possible relationships between news media and libraries and exploring ways those relationships might shape the training of future librarians and journalists.
Invited participants understood that there is no clear vision of the future for libraries and news organizations. Rather, they tried to define the essential issues the Harrington School must examine to educate students who can flourish in a changing society and contribute to a re-emerging Rhode Island economy.
The Harrington School is integrating the work of six URI departments – communications studies; film/media; public relations; writing and rhetoric; journalism; and the graduate school of library and information studies – so that their students can benefit from skills and knowledge of the various disciplines.
As Renee Hobbs, the school’s founding director, told attendees at the start of the conference:
“If we are successful, we are going to get a clearer vision about what we need to do to prepare students for the unknowable future.”
“Unknowable” was the key word. For journalists and librarians, the future is a mystery in a way it never was during the last century, because the digital revolution and changing reading practices have called into question whether newspapers and libraries even have a future.
The financial underpinnings of newspapers have been drastically reduced as readers have migrated, first to watch television, then to the Internet. The Web has snatched away a big portion of newspapers’ income, for instance, by offering free classified advertising that once was a major cash generator for newspapers.
All of these developments pose a frightening question to journalism and library students, and to the universities who prepare them professionally: after graduation, will there be jobs?
Thus, the conference looked at two related questions:
What do the two fields have in common? And what coursework, with relevance to both professions, will students need?
“Intellectual freedom” and “fact-based inquiry,” he replied, along with a commitment to public service.
Both fields flourished in the days when information was relatively scarce and the public depended on newspapers to create information and libraries to house it and provide access to it. But digital technology and the Internet now have made information widely available and cheap or free.
“In a world where anybody can be a publisher, what distinguishes a journalist?” Fancher said, posing the parallel question for libraries: “In a world where anybody can get any information that they need, why do they need a library or librarian?”
Thus, he said, both journalists and librarians have to ask: “What value to do we have to society? What do we offer that’s meaningful and relevant and accountable and makes us viable?”
Fancher said society needs both: the independent approach to truth-telling that is characteristic of journalism, and the inclusiveness of community-based libraries.
Fancher honed in on the issue of “trust,” a recurring topic of discussion at the conference. There’s a gap in the way libraries and news organizations are perceived, he said. Libraries are highly trusted by the public; not so newspapers.
“When I think about the library community looking at journalism,” Fancher said. “They don’t see journalism as the same neutral force that they try to be. They see themselves as being really the ones who are protecting this neutrality in a lot of ways and just finding information and sharing information.”
But the two fields have more common ground than differences, he said. Libraries have a potentially important role in expanding journalism, by training more people as citizen journalists working at the neighborhood and local level. These citizen journalists could fill in the news gaps left by the retrenchment of traditional news organizations.
Journalists attending the conference included representatives of both old and new models: newspapers and magazines such as the Providence Journal and the Harvard Business Review, as well as the non-profit “Hummel Report” in Rhode Island, started by former newspaper and TV reporter Jim Hummel; the all-volunteer “Rhode Island Library Report;” and a cooperative, the Banyan Project, with a prototype in the works in Haverhill, Mass.
As the conference progressed, the discussions became less abstract.
Amy Garmer, director of journalism projects for the Washington-based Aspen Institute, organized a brief brain-storming session to discuss the idea of the Harrington School forming a “center of excellence” would provide unique training, which could distinguish Harrington graduates from those of other universities.
There was talk about cross-training students in both journalism and the library sciences in a way they could adapt during their careers to a changing marketplace.
Linda Fantin, of American Public Media, suggested that journalism students, as part of their training, have a role in thinking about new kinds of journalism organizations.
Fantin is director of network journalism and innovation for American Public Media, a major public radio network based in Minnesota, and it was at this point in her presentation that she did some on-the-spot innovating.
Searching for a way to describe an enterprise that might draw from both libraries and journalism, Fantin blurted out the word: “Newsbrary.”
Others at the conference, including John Pantalone, chair of the URI journalism department, quickly recognized that she had encapsulated a key idea of the conference. He and others sprinkled the word “Newsbrary” through the rest of the day’s discussions.
Fantin herself was at a loss for words (as it were) to explain just how she thought up "Newsbrary." She said it seemed to put elements of libraries and news organizations into one label, although neither she nor others generated a precise definition.
An innovator herself – she has created an information network in Central America linked by cell phones and the Internet – Andrade gave the Facebook group a name.
She called it: “Newsbrary.”
Gina Macris, of the Rhode Island Library Report, contributed to this story.