Pulitzer’s New York World Reborn as Online News Site

January 31, 2012

Last fall, a private bus company operating under a city contract permitted its passengers, primarily Orthodox Jews, to enforce a religious tradition—in order to prevent physical contact between the sexes, women were required to sit in the back of the bus. The New York TimesNew York Post and CBS 2 ran the story, which was later picked up by the BBC and Belgian and Israeli news outlets. But it was an enterprising reporter from The New York World—a new Graduate School of Journalism endeavor—who first broke this story of segregation.

Sasha Chavkin (JRN’10), one of six reporters who contribute to the news site covering city and state government, posted the story the day the World’s website launched in October. One week later, the bus company agreed to stop the practice, which violates city anti-discrimination policies, and Chavkin wrote a follow-up story for The Jewish Daily Forward.

“This story is a really great example of something unique The New York World does,” said its editor, Alyssa Katz, a veteran journalist who has covered urban policy, politics and housing in New York. “We’ll take seemingly mundane things about how life works in New York City and say, ‘Well actually, this is what’s really going on.’”

The case for launching a local news site based at Columbia finds its root in the pages of a 2009 Journalism School report proposing steps to reinvigorate American media amid economic challenges and changing technology. Its authors, Professor Michael Schudson and Leonard Downie, former executive editor of The Washington Post, called upon universities to take on accountability journalism as budgets at for-profit news outlets shrink.

Columbia President, and First Amendment scholar Lee C. Bollinger has similarly said that universities are among the organizations in society that can contribute to filling the void left by decline in both local and international news reporting.

“This was the one recommendation we had the power to implement,” said Nicholas Lemann, the journalism school’s dean. “We want to provide important coverage that others are not doing and to establish a model for ongoing news production at a journalism school.”

Accountability journalism, said Katz, is a two-way street: It is holding government officials accountable and simultaneously making sure readers know what they can and should expect from public institutions.

The World, named after the New York World published by journalism school founder Joseph Pulitzer, is entirely supported by J-school alumni and foundations. Reporters have the freedom to pursue long-term investigative projects, a rare opportunity in a profession increasingly driven by clicks and advertising revenue.

Each of the reporters, who hold yearlong post-graduate paid fellowships, is an alumnus of the J-school’s master’s programs in investigative journalism and digital media. “It’s an opportunity to take the skills learned in a classroom and put them to work in a real newsroom that continues to be a teaching environment,” explained Katz.

Alice Brennan (JRN’11) said she went to work for the World because no other place offered similar opportunities for experimentation. “It not only fosters investigative journalism, but also interesting, original ways of telling stories and delivering them to a wider audience,” she said.

When Occupy Wall Street protesters in Zuccotti Park were threatened with eviction in October, reporters Yolanne Almanzar (JRN’11) and Michael Keller (JRN’11) wanted to learn more about the city’s privately owned public spaces, including whether people know they are public and how the spaces are used.

Keller discovered a database of the places and plotted them on a map. But there were too many to check up on, so he and Almanzar asked the community for help.

Almanzar presented the crowdsourcing project on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, and within a month, listeners provided 200 reports on the city’s privately owned public spaces. “There were some egregious offenders with illegal locks, gates and no-entry signs,” said Almanzar, who is now working on a follow-up story. Katz has established partnerships with other media outlets in New York that run stories her reporters have produced. This growing list includes City & StateMetroFocus and Queens Chronicle. TheWorld stories also have been picked up by larger media, such as The Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press.

“It’s a place where we can try some experimental forms of storytelling and test them out in a live lab,” said Bill Grueskin, dean of academic affairs and faculty adviser to the project. “And if we’re smart about it, it will create a feedback loop to the classrooms where students and faculty can learn from the World.”

by Meghan Berry