What Would You Write About for $6 Million?

Imagine you had lots of resources and time, and a bunch of eager, J-school grads to report at length about issues of national and international importance under the guidance of seasoned coaches and trainers. Sounds pretty idealistic, yes?

What if you could get the Carnegie and Knight foundations to kick in $6 million over two, maybe three years for five universities? And to see if those grads could produce some serious journalism, while improving research and journalism curricula?

The stories, by 44 grads from the five U’s, including New York’s Columbia, focus on the after-effects of 9/11 — from the ways business is raking in bucks, to a rock band’s tour of American bases in the Mideast, to a Guatemalan family’s struggle with immigration, to incursions on our privacy through data collection.

Merrill Brown, coordinator of the news-producing part of the initiative (known as News21), and J-School deans Orville Schell of Berkeley and Geoffrey Cowan of USC explained it all to us today at the wood-paneled conference room of Carnegie’s swank midtown digs. “Us” was Danny Schechter of mediachannel.org, Myrna Blyth of the NY Sun, Jennifer Saba of E&P and Pola Rosen and Emily Sherwood of Education Update. (Full disclosure: We (well I) were on the inside in earlier stages of this program.)

If the initiative works, Cowan noted, the program could help provide a new model for journalism. Because the current model, due to financial and other constraints, isn’t working. Big media companies aren’t making the investment, the months of full-time work it can take, to get the big stories.

The project, by the way, isn’t just some little Webby feel-good navel-gazey kind of venture that makes profs happy and no one ever sees. CNN and ABC’s Good Morning America, for example, will air a bunch of TV segments produced by the program, and seven stories will run this weekend on the AP’s main wire.

The program also hasn’t played it safe. Students were sent to the Korean DMZ, both sides of the Tex-Mex border, and to visit U.S. forces in Djibouti and elsewhere, showing that, Brown said, one can produce high-quality international journalism “from a cold start, a brand new program, get access … and tell a story of what it’s like to be in the U.S. military.”

But what, we asked, about 9/11’s effect on Brangelina? Cowan laughed.