Multi-award winning former-Age legend Bill Birnbauer will help launch a pioneering Trans-Tasman student journalism portal, with junior scribes to be given a prominent platform exploring international issues in their quest for paid employment.

The idea for the collaborative website, with the glorious title of UniMuckraker, was floated by Monash University’s Birnbauer at the recent Media, Investigative Journalism and Technology conference in Auckland and will coordinate student research stories across at least eleven Australian and New Zealand campuses.

Birnbauer told Crikey that students will collaborate on a research topic as part of their university assignments — say cross-jurisdiction issues like river pollution or nursing home standards — and the pick of the crop would be massaged into a multi-pronged feature on the Muckraker website. Individual yarns on separate topics would also be encouraged, Birnbauer said.

“The idea is for students at participating universities to undertake common assignments so that a national or even global picture of an issue would emerge,” he said.

The concept has recently attracted enthusiastic support from Wendy Bacon at the University of Technology Sydney, James Hollings at New Zealand’s Massey University and South-Pacific media specialist David Robie at the Auckland University of Technology. Edith Cowan University senior lecturer Kayt Davies is also keen, as is Swinburne University lecturer and Crikey media writer Margaret Simons. A further six schools, including the University of Wollongong, have declared their in-principle support.

“I’m hoping to hear from more, but that’s a great start … it’s just a small matter of coordinating things now,” Birnbauer said.

UniMuckraker is based partly on the News21 initiative for United States students and a popular collaboration portal for senior journalists — the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists — backed by the US-based Centre for Public Integrity. Davies, Robie and Simons are all currently associated with the academic journalism journal Research Journalism, run out of Perth’s Edith Cowan campus.

According to Birnbauer, a central committee will decide on a topic relevant to both Australian and New Zealand, with participating institutions dispatching junior hacks to secure scoops. The most talented snouts-in-the-making would then draw together text, images and video and package it up for the website. A central fund is envisaged to pay students for their time, and the individual and group output would be offered to mainstream media outlets for follow-up and republication.

Crikey conducted a series of student journalism experiments last year,  including the “Brumby Dump” in collaboration with Victoria’s Swinburne university, and Spinning the Media in partnership with Sydney’s UTS. Crikey has also expressed an interest in becoming involved in Birnbauer’s project.

Birnbauer, who joined Monash in December 2008, is renowned in Age circles for his investigations into the destruction of key internal documents by Big Tobacco and helping to pull together the paper’s time-critical narrative of the Port Arthur massacre in 1996 under the editorship of Bruce Guthrie.

Peter Fray

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