One year later: ONA challenge fund shows clear focus an advantage in collaboration

By Margaret Staniforth


Melissa Mendoza, ONA Challenge Fund participant from Florida International University, teaches high school students at The Marine Academy of Science and Technology about visual storytelling. (Photo by Ted Gutsche /

Twelve journalism schools across the country received grants last year from the Online News Association’s Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education. The schools were tasked with exploring the teaching hospital model and new avenues for collaboration with media organizations.

As the 2014-2015 projects come to an end, Irving Washington, deputy director of ONA, says the results demonstrate the importance of clearly focused partnerships and public input.

“The next phase for us, as we’re learning what’s making the projects work, is really focusing the groups,” said Washington. “What you’ll see with the second group – they’re very much focused in terms of what areas they’re dealing with and what topics they’re covering.”

Washington said the 13 universities participating in the 2015-2016 Challenge have projects designed with this narrow concentration.

“Virtually all of the current winners have the focused-type projects,” Washington wrote in an email. “You’ll notice they all deal with a specific topic.”

Indiana University, alongside The Herald-Times, will narrow in on the increased cost of logging in Indiana’s state forests, and, according to the ONA website, is striving to have a simple “yes” or “no” answer to whether logging makes money for the state.

Washington also said he saw a focus on community engagement emerge in the first round of projects, although it was not a requirement.

Florida International University found participants in members of the community who are often overlooked.

“Florida, they’re looking at sea levels rise,” said Washington, “and they ended up getting a ton of support from the community, even trickled down to high school students getting involved in their project.”

Alicia Sandino, a recent graduate of FIU, acted as both journalist and educator as she took high school students to the beach for observations on the coast line.

“I got to actually be in the classroom with them and then afterwards we went out on the field,” Sandino said, “and they just used what they learned.”

Sandino said that she thinks the future of journalism education will be changed by the Challenge.

“A lot of curriculum doesn’t really merge the real deal in the classroom, I think it’s more textbook, and a lot of what we did was hands on,” said Sandino.

Tufts University is working with ONA to analyze the results of the projects.

Abby Kiesa, youth coordinator and researcher at Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, said that a common trend among the projects was playing with the timing of engagement in the community by bringing community voices into the stories earlier in the news production process.

“I think that that was a theme that we really saw in these projects: to try and make public engagement a thing that was really effective, something that informed the process,” said Kiesa.

Tufts is now analyzing the project outcomes to look for insight into how to structure journalism courses to be more innovative and collaborative.

Editor’s Note: The PIN Bureau participated in a 2014-2015 ONA Challenge Fund partnership with the Carnegie-Knight News21 Initiative. You can read more about the project here and take a look at a few lessons learned here.


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