By Matea Gold. When former Los Angeles Times reporter Alan C. Miller ’76 launched the News Literacy Project in 2008, he told colleagues he had a bold goal for the nonprofit start-up: someday, he hoped to offer schools all across the country a curriculum that taught students how to be discerning consumers of news and information.
That ambitious vision is now close to becoming a reality. After spending six years refining its program in New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago schools, the News Literacy Project is poised to go national in the fall of 2014, with a free digital unit that will dramatically expand the reach of the Bethesda, Maryland-based organization.
The digital curriculum, which is scheduled to go wide in the fall, is currently being offered in the group’s major markets as a five-day program of narrated videos that includes a live webinar and chat with a prominent journalist. More than 2,700 students in 29 schools have used the program in just the last three months. Together with the live classroom unit, which typically involves three weeks of teacher-led lessons, student projects and in-person visits from journalists, more than 3,700 students have been exposed to the project’s curriculum during the current school year. In the past five years, the project has reached more than 13,000 students in more than 75 schools.
The organization is now launching a three-year plan to further ramp up its capacity to help students sort fact from fiction.
“This is the year of the big bang,” said John Carroll, the former editor of the Los Angeles Times, The Baltimore Sun, and the Lexington Herald-Leader, who serves as the chair of the project’s board. “We want to provide this to everybody, all over the country.”
As part of the project’s digital push, the organization has revamped its website, creating a Learn Channel that features video case studies from leading journalists about stories such as the Boston Marathon bombings and Hurricane Sandy.
“We hope once it becomes a robust enough space, it will become a ‘TED talks’ of news literacy,” said Peter Adams, NLP’s national education director and program manager for the Chicago area.
The expansion to a digital format is “a great leap forward for us,” said Miller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who left the Los Angeles Times to start the organization, inspired in part by an experience he had as a guest speaker for his daughter’s sixth-grade class.
Bombarded with texts, e-mails, tweets, and posts, young people were awash in a sea of information, he realized—with few skills to figure out what was credible.
The concept of the News Literacy Project took root a few weeks later, after Miller served on a panel at Wesleyan moderated by Alberto Ibargüen ’66, president and CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Miller told Ibargüen his idea of setting up a nonprofit to teach young people news literacy. Knight ended up being the group’s first funder.
Miller recruited his fellow journalists to back the effort, including Carroll, his former editor.
“It’s a very easy sell,” Carroll said. “When you tell people what it’s about, about 15 seconds into your pitch you see people nodding their heads. In a broad sense, it’s aimed at giving young people the critical-thinking tools they’re going to need the rest of their lives to know what to believe. … If we can give young people the tools to do that, we’ll have equipped a generation to be better citizens, and more fulfilled in their lives.”
The program recruits journalists to visit middle- and high-school classrooms to teach concepts such as sourcing and credibility and to share lessons about the value of the First Amendment and the challenges of social media. (Disclosure: I have been a volunteer for the program since its early pilot days.)
The classroom unit is “really high-impact,” said Adams, but “we had much more demand than we could meet.”
Interest in the project’s curriculum has been driven in part by the new Common Core education standards, which emphasize nonfiction reading and critical-thinking skills.
The solution that the group hit on, with the help of a Chicago consultancy, was to develop a free virtual unit that will be accessible to anyone. The classroom unit in the project’s major markets will continue as a fee-for-service model, which will allow the organization to become less dependent on foundation funding and other donations. (Individual, corporate, and foundation contributions can help cover the costs for schools that cannot afford the fee.)
The students who view the digital unit will not get to meet the journalists in person, but the program allows them to move at their own pace and replay portions if they miss a concept. During the live webinar at the end, students interact with reporters through a live chat, which has generated a tremendous response, Adams said.
Lucas Woolums, a world history and AP psychology teacher at the Air Force Academy High School in Chicago, said the digital unit resonated with his freshman history students when they did the program in the fall. It helped them recognize that, with every tweet, they are contributing to an unprecedented body of global information, he said.
“For them to understand how information could be used for both good and bad, and their role in social media—I think it’s one of the most important things they could take away from their education,” he said.
Up next: there are plans to offer news literacy programs to libraries and develop a Web-based game in which students win badges once they show they grasp certain concepts.
The organization’s financial backers have greeted the developments enthusiastically. The Charles H. Revson Foundation, the group’s biggest funder, recently renewed its initial $600,000 donation.
“We’re not a very large foundation, so this is a significant commitment for us,” said Revson Foundation President Julie Sandorf, who said she’s been impressed with how the program has evolved.
“It really promotes an opportunity to think critically,” she added. “And that is a lifelong skill that will do someone well.”
Gold covers money and politics for The Washington Post.