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Professor Todd Wolfson is spearheading new collaboration between public advocates and journalists

Professor Todd Wolfson is spearheading a new collaboration between public advocates and journalists as part of a joint project with the University of Pennsylvania.

Rutgers and the University of Pennsylvania have teamed up to tackle the greatest challenges in the digital age.

The project, codirected by Todd Wolfson in Rutgers' School of Communication and Information, is working to address the opportunities for communication that come with rapid technological advancement at the same time as the journalism industry is undergoing a major shift – which opens the door to platforms that can spread misinformation and affect the political process.

The new initiative, called the Media, Inequality and Change (MIC) Center, joins Rutgers and University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication in trying to ensure a place for community voices in Philadelphia in that shifting landscape.

“For so long, journalists, elected officials and corporations have determined what issues matter and how we understand those issue,’’ said Wolfson, associate professor of journalism and media studies.

In one of its first projects, the MIC Center is launching a working group to develop policy and is organizing interventions to address challenges of the emerging platform economy created by online marketplaces such as Amazon, Airbnb, Uber and Etsy.

"We have seen some great possibilities with this new economy but also real problems that affect workers and consumers,'' Wolfson said. "The MIC Center is looking to work with people to make a plan to solve some of these problems proactively with a focus on workers' rights."  

The MIC Center is also working to create a collaboration between prominent public advocates and journalists in Philadelphia funded through a $25,000 grant from the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Named the Community Journalist Exchange: Bridging the Divide – it is the first collaboration of its kind in the city that is intended to be lasting and ongoing.

“This project aims to bring new voices into the conversation. The public advocates come from across the political spectrum and they have different ideas and opinions, but regardless of their bias, community voices need to be lifted up and heard, in Philadelphia,” Wolfson said.

Through this exchange, journalists and advocates in Philadelphia will have a dialogue around the most critical issues facing Philadelphia in advance of the city’s municipal elections on May 21. The advocates will speak to vital community issues including public education, poverty, housing, criminal justice, climate change and health, Wolfson explained.

The Media Mobilizing Project, an organization Wolfson co-founded that has worked to break the digital divide with poor and working communities, and The Philadelphia Inquirer opinion section will play a role in managing the Community Journalist Exchange.

One of the goals of the exchange is to develop a pool of community advocates who will write editorials. Opinion editors at The Inquirer will provide support and work with writers who don’t have experience crafting editorials, Wolfson said. The grant will be used to provide a stipend for the writers.

“Stories reaching the public through the Philadelphia media will be written by both the advocates and the journalists,” Wolfson said.

Moving forward, the aim of the Community Journalist Exchange is to ensure that the Philadelphia media seek out public advocates in the city for information and quotes for news stories, in order for a greater number and range of issues and voices to be shared with the public. Ultimately, Wolfson said, the exchange has a goal of establishing a database of public advocates for journalists, to enable them to more easily find community experts on specific issues.

“This is not the first time this kind of collaboration has been attempted,” Wolfson said. “Free Press developed a similar project in New Jersey, and the Center for Public Interest Journalism held forums with advocates and journalists in Philadelphia. We were a part of these forerunners, and we studied how both of these groups work.”

A conference marking the official launch of the MIC Center – which includes a keynote conversation by Naomi Klein, the Gloria Steinem Endowed Chair in Media, Culture, and Feminist Studies at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, runs April 11-12.