Although COMM-580 Qualitative Methods in Communication sounds like it would offer a typical classroom experience, New Directions and a professor’s innovations provided its students with the opportunity to learn qualitative research methods by engaging in fieldwork guided by the expressed needs of a community.
In redesigning the course in this way, Professor Kevin Barnhurst of the UIC Department of Communication focused it on a real project – helping to improve and evaluate a community newspaper, the North Lawndale Community News.
“The original impetus was from the community group,” he explained. “They do lots of community-building work that needs funding, which means they have to write grant proposals. For this they needed the kinds of information that granting organizations want, that proves they’re actually doing something, and that shows they’re having results. And so their initial idea was to get some kind of practical tool that they could use to gather the information they would need to document their impact on the community.”
And this fit the needs of NLCN founder and CEO Isaac Lewis, Jr., who explained, “We wanted a tool that we could use to raise the social impact of the newspaper upon the community. Also to meet the funders’ need for evaluations at the end of granting periods. We had several standard methods that regular, daily, and community newspapers use, like a circulation audit. But we wanted something more on a social standpoint. Plus, it could help us gauge things we may need to change, and things we’re doing right that we should keep doing. And we needed a third party assessment to do this.”
Barnhurst wanted to create a process that built on the expertise of the community group itself. “Generally when people come to the University asking for something, it’s because they have an idea that the University is a source of high-status people who have access to insider knowledge. For me, a project like that is just begging for us to turn the tables and say, instead, ‘You guys have a tremendous wealth of resources. And what we can do is help you see what you’ve already got.’”
He also saw the project as an important learning opportunity to “build the curriculum so that the research methods course would connect to the community,” because the students can learn more from applying research methods than from just studying them in books. “So there were several directions of benefit that looked like advantages for everybody.”
Barnhurst was pleased with the results. “The great thing for me was to watch the students come back with the conclusion that actually the newspaper itself was documenting day by day what it was doing, but it wasn’t very aware that it was documenting it.” In addition to showing NLCN how it could use the information it was already collecting, the student groups had several other useful recommendations, for improving the impact of the paper and for documenting its effect on the community.
NLCN is already implementing many of these recommendations, such as adding short bios of the reporters to articles, a seemingly simple change but with significant consequences. Until the paper added this feature, readers did not always know that most reporters were North Lawndale residents. And when residents see that the news is coming from their neighbors, they can be encouraged to do some writing themselves, advancing the NLCN mission to promote resident writing. Also, funders can see that residents really are the writers on this paper.
Following another recommendation, NLCN has added a resident profile feature, which highlights the life or achievements of interesting residents. On the distribution side, NLCN, as the class suggested, has begun to distribute an electronic version of the paper and record Web hits to its site. On the production side, the staff now keeps track of where story ideas originate, in a story database and in an ideas log for future stories. All of these steps enable NLCN to document to funders and readers that it responds to resident interests.
NLCN is still working on implementing other suggestions. “It’s like a reference,” Lewis said, “that you need to go back to and ask, ‘Are we fully maximizing the recommendations? What things have we missed? What things have maybe gotten weaker in the system and can we enhance them and make them stronger?’”
On the University side, the redesigned course has since become a requirement for the doctoral program and continues to develop mutually beneficial ways to partner with a range of other neighborhood and issue-focused newspapers.