Tag Archives: online journalism education

Teaching journalism not journalists – and 7 other ways we can change journalism education

As an addendum to my 3 part series on how journalism education is changing I wanted to round up some practical steps and examples.

To recap: in the first part I talked about how changes in the news industry were reflected in changing journalism education. In the second I looked at how education itself is reacting to changes in information. The third looked at the relationship between the two.

But how are journalism schools and courses reacting to these changes?

What next?

I’ve outlined a lot of issues and ideas in the previous posts, so here is a more concise list of ways that education is adapting to the new information environment, changes in the news industry, and in the relationship with news organisations:

  1. Taking a lead in identifying best practice in new journalism skills – and transmitting that back to the news industry
  2. Reshaping its perception of what the ‘journalism industry’ is – and making connections with the new players
  3. Moving from platform-based teaching to multiplatform working throughout the curriculum. In some cases this is through a shift from single-tutor modules to team-teaching until enough individuals have the mix of skills required; in others it’s through creating project-based modules where students opt to take skills workshops.
  4. Working with industry to identify problems facing that industry, and providing the infrastructure for students to research those problems and experiment with solutions.
  5. Providing the infrastructure for students to establish new media businesses
  6. Moving from transmitting information to students to teaching the skills to find and filter the information most relevant to their objectives
  7. Moving from acting as a gatekeeper to the industry to teaching students how to establish their own contacts through networks and through building their online reputation
  8. Teaching journalism, rather than ‘how to be a journalist’

The final point bears some further explanation. At the EJC event that prompted me to write this series of posts, the panel I was part of was asked: how can you teach journalism when the concept of what a ‘journalist’ is has become so contested?

The question was revealing. In platform-based journalism teaching, students are often taught how to work within particular production workflows. For example, they might be trained by taking a press release and rewriting it into something that fits into a newspaper or magazine. Or they might attend a mock (or real) press conference and write up the results.

In other words, they are trained to take the existing or historical position of ‘journalist’.

These all reflect common practices in mainstream journalism – but they do not prepare students for how it might change in the next decade, nor for emerging forms.

As journalists have to work across an increasing number of platforms, to differing audiences, and to deal with information which is also coming from more and more sources, teaching a particular ‘content factory line’ process is likely to become less relevant.

Employers will be (and are) frustrated at graduates who can spot a story in a press release but not a tweet, forum thread, or dataset; at those who can write a 300 word print piece but cannot adapt their style for the latest web platform; who will buy one source a drink but not invest the same time in building trust with dozens on social networks.

Workflow experience is still key, but workflow systems have already changed a number of times in the past 10 years, and will continue to change.

In the absence of certainty around what those will be, journalism educators are focusing on core skills and the flexibility to adapt those to new situations; or indeed, to invent them themselves.

Do you find the same factors playing out in your own experience?

I’m collecting examples of all of these and similar processes so if you know of examples or changes I’ve missed please let me know.

Communities of practice: teaching students to learn in networks

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.

This year I set MA Online Journalism students at Birmingham City University an assignment which attempts to do this.

It’s called ‘Communities of Practice’ (the brief is here). The results are in, and they are very encouraging. Here’s what emerged:

Continue reading

Teaching community-based journalism

Image by AndYaDontStop

Image from Flickr by AndYaDontStop

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.

I’ve recently been asking students – at both City University London and Birmingham City University – to complete assignments that ask them to do just that.

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.

Likewise, tools needed to be chosen based on where the community is, and what the tools did. There’s no point starting a blog if all of your chosen community are using Facebook. And there’s no point choosing Facebook if you want the information to be available to search engines.

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.

Assessment

As the assignment is inherently experimental, I’ve borrowed the marking scheme from the ‘Experimental Portfolio’ assignment on Birmingham City University’s MA Online Journalism. This is designed to allow students to ‘fail’ to meet their own objectives without necessarily failing the assignment itself. Put another way, they are assessed on process, not product (and online, of course, the process itself is often the product).

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.

Universities without walls

@majohns Economist believes in future their distinguished and knowledgable audience is as important as their editors #smart_2011

This post forms part of the Carnival of Journalism, whose theme this month is universities’ roles in their local community.

In traditional journalism the concept of community is a broad one, typically used when the speaker really means ‘audience’, or ‘market’.

In a networked age, however, a community is an asset: it is a much more significant source of information than in other media; an active producer of content; and, perhaps most importantly, at the heart of any online distribution system.

You can see this at work in some of the most successful content startups of the internet era – Boing Boing, The Huffington Post, Slashdot – and even in mainstream outlets such as The Guardian, with, for example, its productive community around the Data Blog.

Any fledgling online journalism operation which is not based on a distinct community is, to my thinking, simply inefficient – and any journalism course that features an online element should be built on communities – should be linking in to the communities that surround it.

Teaching community-driven journalism

My own experience is that leaving the walls of academia behind and hosting classes wherever the community meets can make an enormous difference. In my MA in Online Journalism at Birmingham City University, for example, the very first week is not about newsgathering or blogging or anything to do with content: it’s about community, and identifying which one the students are going to serve.

To that end students spend their induction week attending the local Social Media Cafe, meeting local bloggers and understanding that particular community (one of whom this year suggested the idea that led to Birmingham Budget Cuts). We hold open classes in a city centre coffee shop so that people from Birmingham can drop in: when we talked about online journalism and the law, there were bloggers, former newspaper editors, and a photographer whose contributions turned the event into something unlike anything you’d see in a classroom.

And students are sent out to explore the community as part of learning about blogging, or encouraged to base themselves physically in the communities they serve. Andy Brightwell and Jon Hickman’s hyperlocal Grounds blog is a good example, run out of another city centre coffee shop in their patch.

In my online journalism classes at City University in London, meanwhile (which are sadly too big to fit in a coffee shop) I ask students to put together a community strategy as one of their two assignments. The idea is to get them to think about how they can produce better journalism – that is also more widely read – by thinking explicitly about how to involve a community in its production.

Community isn’t a postcode

But I’ve also come to believe that we should be as flexible as possible about what we mean by community. The traditional approach has been to assign students to geographical patches – a relic of the commercial imperatives behind print production. Some courses are adapting this to smaller, hyperlocal, patches for their online assessment to keep up with contemporary developments. This is great – but I think it risks missing something else.

One moment that brought this home to me was when – in that very first week – I asked the students what they thought made a community. The response that stuck in my mind most was Alex Gamela‘s: “An enemy”. It illustrates how communities are created by so many things other than location (You could also add “a cause”, “a shared experience”, “a profession”, “a hobby” and others which are listed and explored in the Community part of the BASIC Principles of Online Journalism).

As journalism departments we are particularly weak in seeing community in those terms. One of the reasons Birmingham Budget Cuts is such a great example of community-driven journalism is that it addresses a community of various types: one of location, of profession, and of shared experience and – for the thousands facing redundancy – cause too. It is not your typical hyperlocal blog, but who would argue it does not have a strong proposition at its core?

There’s a further step, too, which requires particular boldness on the part of journalism schools, and innovativeness in assessment methods: we need to be prepared for students to create sites where they don’t create any journalism themselves at all. Instead, they facilitate its production, and host the platform that enables it to happen. In online journalism we might call this a community manager role – which will raise the inevitable questions of ‘Is It Journalism?’ But in traditional journalism, with the journalism being produced by reporters, a very similar role would simply be called being an editor.

PS: I spoke about this theme in Amsterdam last September as part of a presentation on ‘A Journalism Curriculum for the 21st Century’ at the PICNIC festival, organised by the European Journalism Centre. This is embedded below:

Slides can be found below:

Comment call: do your students run hyperlocal blogs?

Thanks to the massive interest in hyperlocal blogs a lot of journalism courses are either asking their students to create hyperlocal websites, or finding their students are creating them anyway. This post is to ask what your own experiences are on these lines?

PS: I’ve also created a Google Group on the topic should you want to exchange tips with others.

Comment call: Are you teaching data journalism?

On Monday The Guardian published an article about data journalism and the future of journalism. As part of that I was asked what university courses taught data journalism. I could only think of Glyn Mottershead at Cardiff and – probably – Steve Hill at Southampton Solent.

So let me ask: are you involved in – or study on – a course that covers any aspect of data journalism? That might be statistics, computer assisted reporting, or mashing, or something else. Please comment – I’d really like to know what’s out there.

An exercise in interactive thinking

I’ve just run through an exercise with my class of students from the MA in Television and Interactive Content at Birmingham City University. The exercises are intended to get them to think about the web as more than just a repository of content, but a platform that people use in different ways depending on who they are and what they want to do.

I thought I would share them here – for my own record if nothing else.

What’s your topic – who is your userbase?

Most editorial productions begin with a topic, and an angle on that topic. They also have a particular audience in mind, which dictates the tone that is taken in its production: a documentary aimed at 5-year-olds is going to have a very different tone to one aimed at 25-year-olds, even if the topic is the same.

This gives you the People bit of the POST method I’ve written about previously – the starting point for everything that follows.

From there then you can identify

  • The objectives of those people*.
  • How you might help those people meet those objectives (the strategy and technology)
  • Which of those strategies match your own objectives – or those of the person you’re pitching to

*In the original POST method the objectives are yours, but I would suggest starting with users’ objectives because you need a mutually beneficial outcome.

Here’s how it works in practice: Continue reading

Online journalism student RSS reader starter pack: 50 RSS feeds

Teaching has begun in the new academic year and once again I’m handing out a list of recommended RSS feeds. Last year this came in the form of an OPML file, but this year I’m using Google Reader bundles (instructions on how to create one of your own are here). There are 50 feeds in all – 5 feeds in each of 10 categories. Like any list, this is reliant on my own circles of knowledge and arbitrary in various respects. But it’s a start. I’d welcome other suggestions.

Here is the list with links to the bundles. Each list is in alphabetical order – there is no ranking:

5 of the best: Community

A link to the bundle allowing you to add it to your Google Reader is here.

  1. Blaise Grimes-Viort
  2. Community Building & Community Management
  3. FeverBee
  4. ManagingCommunities.com
  5. Online Community Strategist

5 of the best: Data

This was a particularly difficult list to draw up – I went for a mix of visualisation (FlowingData), statistics (The Numbers Guy), local and national data (CountCulture and Datablog) and practical help on mashups (OUseful). I cheated a little by moving computer assisted reporting blog Slewfootsnoop into the 5 UK feeds and 10,000 Words into Multimedia. Bundle link here. Continue reading

Music journalism and data (MA Online Journalism multimedia projects pt1)

I’ve just finished looking at the work from the Diploma stage of my MA in Online Journalism, and – if you’ll forgive the effusiveness – boy is it good.

The work includes data visualisation, Flash, video, mapping and game journalism – in short, everything you’d want from a group of people who are not merely learning how to do journalism but exploring what journalism can become in a networked age.

But before I get to the detail, a bit of background… Continue reading

Do users really want to pay for separate Times and Sunday Times sites?

The Times and Sunday Times have launched their new paywalled sites at  http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/news/ and http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/. But while the sites have some good features, which I was shown at a preview last night, I still can’t work out why users would want to pay for two different websites covering the same subjects …

What’s on offer?

The plan is to replace the current site – timesonline.co.uk – with two new sites, one for The Times and one for The Sunday Times. £2 a week (or £1 for an individual day) buys you access to both sites. There isn’t an option to get just one site.

The Times proposition

The Times won’t try to be a news wire – it’ll be offering fewer stories on its home page than most online newspapers with the aim being to enhance those stories.

Without the need to chase search engine traffic or page views for advertisers, the idea of covering fewer stories but in a better way sounds appealing.

Some articles, for instance, will have information graphic and tabs to let you explore the history and different aspects of the story without leaving the page. This package of content is brilliant – it works much better as an experience than lists of related articles or auto-generated tag pages.

The Sunday Times proposition

The Sunday Times site will look very different to the Times’s. It will have the sections people know from the paper. So, news, sport and  business – but also culture, style, travel, In Gear and the magazine.

The site won’t be updated much during the week – though the aim is still for it to function as a 7-days-a-week site.

But instead of trying to compete with the Times sites for news, it will offer readers the ability to browse and explore Sunday’s content over the week, concentrating on galleries, videos and interactive graphics.

Why two websites?

The decision to replace the current timesonline.co.uk site with two brands and two websites – thetimes.co.uk and thesundaytimes.co.uk – has obviously meant some thinking about how they work together.

They seem clear enough that they are two products – a daily news site and a site that you’re meant to browse all week. But it was interesting that the reasons they talked about for this were the different editorial teams, the “different but overlapping audiences”, the different values of the newspapers, and the different reasons why people buy the Sunday paper vs the weekday paper. Continue reading