As you have probably worked out, this year’s Online Journalism students have been building up towards launching an environmental news website. This week the site went public, and I thought I’d take the opportunity to reflect on the lessons learned so far…
The site is the final year project of two final year journalism degree students – Azeem Ahmad and Rachael Wilson. The decision was made to launch an environmental site because of the increase of investment in this area from a number of news organisations, and also because of a local connection – more of which later.
Azeem is responsible for the more technical side of the site, which he has built from scratch using the open source content management software Joomla.
Azeem has been blogging his progress with the software, including the frightening experience of having the site hacked into by the creator of a theme Azeem installed.
Rachael has the responsibility for editorial, which means writing for the site herself, but more importantly managing 14 second year students on the Online Journalism module as they try to build a news site on a subject most have never written about. She’s also been blogging her experiences.
Week One: Choosing a name, assigning beats, making connections
After some cheesy brainstorming, the very literal name ‘Environmental News Online‘ was chosen for the site for the simple reasons of search engine optimisation and domain name availability. The abbreviation ‘ENO’ lent it more character.
In week one I introduced the principles of the ’21st century newsroom’ students would be working within.
The team of reporters were introduced to their editors and asked to pick their roles from a list. That meant correspondents for each continent, for particular sectors (e.g. business), and correspondents specifically for grassroots stories.
And they were introduced to RSS readers and social bookmarking as they began gathering leads and stories.
Week Two: blogs and slackers
The second week began with the first news conference, with all reporters in attendance and hosted by the two editors 30 minutes before the lesson was due to begin.
In the lesson, once they’d started to explore their areas they were asked to set up individual reporters’ blogs – but not before they brainstormed blogging ideas.
In retrospect this brainstorming has proved particularly fruitful, as students have been more creative in their blogging than in previous years, and a number of blogs have attracted comparatively significant audiences.
Equally significantly, students were strongly encouraged to comment on other blogs and engage with the blogosphere generally.
In the same week a system was introduced to tackle the problem that every lecturer (and most editors) has: team members who don’t pull their weight.
The system was the same as is used in most professional environments: if a team member did not pull their weight, they would at first receive a verbal warning, then a written warning, and finally be ‘sacked’. Sacking meant they would not have publishing rights on the website.
Reasons for warnings would include persistent lateness; absence without leave; and failure to meet deadlines. Warnings would be decided upon and issued by the editors, Azeem and Rachael.
Week Three: The content management system
With students getting to grips with Twitter, and blogging well too, the CMS was introduced. As the team began to use the freshly-built system it quickly became clear that tweaks were needed: Azeem added new navigation links to different news sections (Joomla is clearly intended for sites where ‘news’ is just one section of content among others), and the option for reporters to submit different story types up front.
Over the following week Azeem added a number of features to the site: comments were top of the list, along with the facility to email to a friend, and for reporters to tag the article. Social bookmarking features were also added.
Testing was too often overlooked, though – it was only through a user email that we realised the comments feature was not working for users. It was fixed thanks to online dialogue between Azeem and OJB contributor Alex Gamela.
Week Four: UGC and images
By week four some problems emerged: too many students had still not posted an item to the news site, despite some of them having suitable material already on their blog. There seemed to be a fear of publishing on the site what they were happy to publish on the blog.
Conversely, those who had published to the site had too often written in a style that was appropriate for a blog, but not for a news website, particularly in terms of opinion and subjectivity.
Inflexibility of style is a common problem for journalism students – so this became a good way to drive the point home when looking at the same story on different platforms.
A further interesting issue was the reporters’ leaning towards a ‘local’ angle, or assuming that the reader knew, for instance, that they were talking about Birmingham, UK and not Birmingham, Alabama. After years of writing local news, getting into thinking of international audiences was not proving easy.
This week also saw the first verbal warnings for not posting to the website or to the blogs. Attendance and punctuality, however, was excellent.
Meanwhile, students were learning about user generated content with not one but two guests from the news industry – Tim Hood of Yoosk and Jo Geary, who is managing a bloggers project at the Birmingham Post.
The class workshop was to not only browse Flickr for images to go with a news story of theirs, but also to approach the photographer to clear copyright and find out the story behind it. Once again, this was about engaging with the community, not just taking from them.
The week we chose to go public turned out to be a great one for our field: the Greenpeace airport protest opened the week; then came the earthquake which one student stayed up all night to report on; and finally more airport protestors climbed onto the roof of the Houses of Parliament.
In under four weeks from a standing start and with no prior experience in the field or with the technology, 16 students have produced the beginnings of a sound news operation across three platforms (Twitter, blogs and website) and three stages of the 21st century newsroom (alert, draft and article). It will be interesting to see what they do in the next few months as we tackle podcasting, video, interactivity and other ideas.