After a short summer break, our Hyperlocal Voices series returns. In this issue we visit the tiny island South Atlantic island of Saint Helena. Perhaps best known for being the home of an exiled Napoleon, it is frequently described as one of the world’s most isolated islands. At just 10 x 5 miles, and with a population of 4,255 people, Simon Pipe’s St Helena Online, offered Damian Radcliffe an insight into a very different type of hyperlocal site. Continue reading →
In January 2012 I was facing an old problem: as I prepared to teach a new undergraduate online journalism class, I wanted to find a way to encourage students to connect with wider networks in the area they were reporting on.
Networks have always been important to journalists, but in a networked age they are more important than ever. The days of starting your contacts book with names and numbers from formal organisations listed in the local phonebook are gone. Now those are instantly available online – but more importantly, there are informal groups and expert individuals accessible too. And they’re publishing for each other.
Because of this, and because of reduced resources, the news industry is increasingly working with these networks to pursue, produce and distribute stories, from Paul Lewis’s investigative work at The Guardian to Neal Mann’s field reporting for Sky, the Farmers’ Weekly team’s coverage of foot and mouth, and Andy Carvin’s coverage of the Arab Spring at NPR.
How could I get students to do this? By rewriting the class entirely.
The site is being run by a colleague of mine from Birmingham City University, Jennifer Jones, as part of a project we’re working on which sees students at BCU and other universities connecting to wider online networks in investigating Olympics-related questions.
In almost a decade of teaching online journalism I repeatedly come up against the same two problems:
people who are so wedded to the idea of the self-contained ‘story’ that they struggle to create journalism outside of that (e.g. the journalism of linking, liveblogging, updating, explaining, or saying what they don’t know);
and people stuck in the habit of churning out easy-win articles rather than investing a longer-term effort in something of depth.
Until now I’ve addressed these problems largely through teaching and individual feedback. But for the next 3 months I’ll be trying a new way of organising students that hopes to address those two problems. As always, I thought I’d share it here to see what you think.
Students are allocated one of 5 roles within a group, investigating a particular public interest question. They investigate that for 6 weeks, at which point they are rotated to a different role and a new investigation (I’m weighing up whether to have some sort of job interview at that point).
The group format allows – I hope – for something interesting to happen: students are not under pressure to deliver ‘stories’, but instead blog about their investigation, as explained below. They are still learning newsgathering techniques, and production techniques, but the team structure makes these explicitly different to those that they would learn elsewhere.
The hope is that it will be much more difficult for them to just transfer print-style stories online, or to reach for he-said/she-said sources to fill the space between ads. With only one story to focus on, students should be forced to engage more, to do deeper and deeper into an issue, and to be more creative in how they communicate what they find out.
Only one member of the team is primarily concerned with the story, and that is the editor:
The Editor (ED)
It is the editor’s role to identify what exactly the story is that the team is pursuing, and plan how the resources of the team should be best employed in pursuing that. It will help if they form the story as a hypothesis to be tested by the team gathering evidence – following Mark Lee Hunter’s story based inquiry method (PDF).
Qualities needed and developed by the editor include:
A nose for a story
Project management skills
Newswriting – the ability to communicate a story effectively
The community manager’s focus is on the communities affected by the story being pursued. They should be engaging regularly with those communities – contributing to forums, having conversations with members on Twitter; following updates on Facebook; attending real world events; commenting on blogs or photo/video sharing sites, and so on.
They are the two-way channel between that community and the news team: feeding leads from the community to the editor, and taking a lead from the editor in finding contacts from the community (experts, case studies, witnesses).
Qualities needed and developed by the community manager include:
Interpersonal skills – the ability to listen to and communicate with different people
A nose for a story
Contacts in the community
Social network research skills – the ability to find sources and communities online
The multimedia journalist is focused on the sights, sounds and people that bring a story to life. In an investigation, these will typically be the ‘victims’ and the ‘targets’.
They will film interviews with case studies; organise podcasts where various parties play the story out; collect galleries of images to illustrate the reality behind the words.
They will work closely with the CM as their roles can overlap, especially when accessing sources. The difference is that the CM is concerned with a larger quantity of interactions and information; the MM is concerned with quality: much fewer interactions and richer detail.
Qualities needed and developed by the MMJ include:
Ability to find sources: experts, witnesses, case studies
Technical skills: composition; filming or recording; editing
(This was called Network Aggregator in an earlier version of this post) The CJ is the person who keeps the site ticking over while the rest of the team is working on the bigger story.
They publish regular links to related stories around the country. They are also the person who provides the wider context of that story: what else is happening in that field or around that issue; are similar issues arising in other places around the country. Typical content includes backgrounders, explainers, and updates from around the world.
This is the least demanding of the roles, so they should also be available to support other members of the team when required, following up minor leads on related stories. They should not be ‘just linking’, but getting original stories too, particularly by ‘joining the dots’ on information coming in.
Qualities needed and developed by the CJ include:
Information management – following as many feeds, newsletters and other relevant soures of information
Wide range of contacts – speaking to the usual suspects regularly to get a feel for the pulse of the issue/sector
John Grayson’s post on G4S uses a topical issue as the angle into a detailed backgrounder on the company with copious links to charity reports, politicians’ statements, articles in the media, research projects, and more.
This post by Diary of a Benefit Scrounger is the most creative and powerful example I’ve yet seen. It combines dozens of links to stories of treatment of benefit claimants and protestors, and to detail on various welfare schemes, to compile a first-person ‘story’.
Publish regular pieces that come together in a larger story
If this works, I’m hoping students will produce different types of content on their way to that ‘big story’, as follows:
Linkblogging – simple posts that link to related articles elsewhere with a key quote (rather than wasting resources rewriting them)
Profiles of key community members
Backgrounders and explainers on key issues
Interviews with experts, case studies and witnesses, published individually first, then edited together later
Aggregation and curation – pulling together a gallery of images, for example; or key tweets on an issue; or key facts on a particular area (who, what, where, when, how); or rounding up an event or discussion
Datablogging – finding and publishing key datasets and documents and translating them/pulling out key points for a wider audience.
The story so far – taking users on a journey of what facts have been discovered, and what remains to be done.
What will make the difference is how disciplined the editor is in ensuring that their team keeps moving towards the ultimate aim, and that they can combine the different parts into a significant whole.
UPDATE: A commenter has asked about the end result. Here’s how it’s explained to students:
“At an identified point, the Editor will need to organise his or her team to bring those ingredients into that bigger story – and it may be told in different ways, for example:
A longform text narrative with links to the source material and embedded multimedia
An edited multimedia package with links to source material in the accompanying description
A map made with Google Maps, Fusion Tables or another tool, where pins include images or video, and links to each story”
If you’ve any suggestions or experiences on how this might work better, I’d very much welcome them.
One of the problems in teaching online journalism is that what you teach today may be out of date by the time the student graduates.
This is not just a technological problem (current services stop running; new ones emerge that you haven’t taught; new versions of languages and software are released) but also a problem of medium: genres such as audio slideshows, mapping, mashups, infographics and liveblogging have yet to settle down into an established ‘formula’.
In short, I don’t believe it’s wise to simply ‘teach online journalism’. You have to combine basic principles as they are now with an understanding of how to continue to learn the medium as it develops.
A couple weeks ago I wrote a post about ‘Universities Without Walls‘. At its heart was a belief that community is an asset for news organisations, and reputation in at least one community is an asset journalists should be actively cultivating.
The first assignment is a Community Strategy Analysis (you can read the brief here). This was given to students across the 8 Masters degrees at City University. They are required to identify a community that they can join and contribute to, with the objective of becoming a better journalist as a result (because they will have access to a wider range of sources, and sources will have access to them, they will build a diverse distribution network, and most of all they will have built reputation and relationships that form the basis for all the above)
The other assignment was given to Birmingham City University MA Online Journalism students last week. This is a Communities of Practice assignment, where students are asked to join groups of practitioners (e.g. online video makers; data journalists and developers; podcasters; and so on) to improve their multimedia journalism, contribute to the field, and build support networks for ongoing skills development.
Here’s what I’m learning so far.
I have to explain why community matters
The vast majority of my work with the City University students has been cultural. The idea of ‘the audience’ is so persistent, so resistant, that it takes a huge amount of work to unpick.
We are so precious about ‘our’ journalism, it seems, that we will do anything but let other people into it. More worrying, we seem to see journalism as either a glamorous profession, or a paternalist one. ‘Public interest’ is ‘our interest’; the ‘public sphere’ is ‘our sphere’.
Students understand the importance of building a network of contacts; they understand why they should make themselves contactable; and they are happy to get involved with distributing content online. But many expect all this to happen without building relationships. Some, indeed, worry about this being a “waste of time”.
I’m not sure whether this is a result of news organisations increasingly becoming content factories, or whether aspiring journalists have always expected ‘being a journalist’ to mean that the hard work of building relationships had already been done for them by the newspaper and their predecessors. It might be an inherited cultural attitude that sneers at readers. It could be all of the above, or none of those reasons. Whatever the reasons, I find it rather depressing that the communities we are supposed to serve are often seen as something we cannot be bothered with.
Common misunderstandings about community
At the module’s midway point I asked students to submit a draft of their community strategy so that I could make sure they were on the right track. It was a useful exercise in what you might call ‘Agile’ teaching – it allowed me to pull out some common misunderstandings and correct them. Normally this doesn’t happen until you’ve taught a module for the first time, and adapt it for the second and third times.
One recurring problem was students being too focused on content, or community, rather than both. The content-centric strategies started with what they were going to do – write a blog, etc. – and then positioned the ‘audience’ as a compliant distributor and contributor, with little thought around why they would do that.
The strategies that were too focused on community failed to identify the journalistic objectives that should remain important. The journalist was left helping a community, but without necessarily playing to their own journalistic strengths of communication and investigation.
Two key questions to ask were illustrated by one particular student, whose draft contained a brief section titled ‘What do I have to offer them?’ and another titled ‘What do I get back?’. Addressing both questions ensures the project is balanced.
A good strategy is specific – but too many failed to specify what they were going to do to stimulate interaction. Exceptions included one student who noted that many successful blog posts ended with an open question; and another who identified the questions that she would use to stimulate debate.
Finding the community at all was a problem for some, a problem which came down to their search techniques. There’s plenty of advice on this, from the search engines you use to the phrasing, but the key issue is to imagine what your community is saying, not who they are: so don’t search for “twins”, search for “my twin sister” because that’s the sort of thing that only a twin is going to say.
How do you measure success? Many students saw volume as the key, aiming for round numbers of followers on Twitter, fans on Facebook or hits on their blogs. But engagement would be a much more relevant metric: how many comments do you want? How many @ messages, or even retweets?
Other problems including not looking at what else there was serving that community, and why it was successful, or trying to compete with it instead of working with it. If your community is mothers then best to build a reputation on Mumsnet instead of trying to beat it.
The three assessment criteria, then, are: research; creativity and viability; and analysis. So as long as the student’s community strategy is based on research, and they critically analyse the results, that is A Good Thing. This is Masters level education – they should be learning something from their work, and yes, that means being prepared to fail. The assessment of creativity is aimed at both ensuring that taking big risks is encouraged, and that creative and effective executions are also rewarded. Few things depress me more than a student who is afraid to learn anything because they might lose marks.
Communities of practice
The assignment for MA Online Journalism students is different. It is an acknowledgement that in a field like online journalism, where technology and knowledge is evolving all the time, Masters level education means having the professional contacts that allow you to remain at the forefront of the field in 2 or 5 years – not just in 6 months.
There are many similarities with the other assignment: the focus is on building relationships, and contributing something to the wider community, rather than just taking from it. The difference is that the objective is skills-based, not story-based.
One of the key features of education is what you learn from the people around you – not just the person lecturing you. That’s why e-learning has failed to take off in quite the same way as expected, and why the Open University still does it so well (they recognise that it is about more than content).
Having a ‘university without walls’ where students learn as much outside the classroom as they do in it is a key development in this respect. And as lecturers we need to help make that happen.