Teaching online journalism: classes as a narrative

For the last few years, I’ve had a problem. It’s a problem with deadlines, and momentum. Here’s how it goes:

Every year, students in my undergraduate Online Journalism module run a live news website – Birmingham Recycled. Six weeks into the module, students have to submit a ‘snapshot’ portfolio for the first of 2 assignment deadlines…

And this is where I hit my problem. The standard of work in that first portfolio is typically impressive – most of them have gotten to grips with a range of online platforms, are understanding their area, and appear motivated.

But once they’ve submitted, students hit a lull. Their stellar performance until that point stalls – their momentum, interrupted by the deadline, falters.

In a nutshell, I think they enter a ‘business as usual’ frame of mind.

So this year I’m trying something new.

Here’s what the students have been doing until this point:

  • In week 1, students set up their newsgathering infrastructure: Google Reader to subscribe to feeds; Delicious to bookmark useful webpages; and Twitter to tweet them and anything else.
  • In week 2 students set up their reporter’s blog – also integrated with Twitter and Delicious.
  • In week 3 they are introduced to the news site (Birmingham Recycled), assigned to a section, and in some cases appointed Editor.
  • They continue to write for the site for the following 3 weeks as they also cover UGC and podcasting.

This is what I’ve changed:

  • In week 7, after their deadline has passed, we shake things up. 2 new teams are formed: an elections team, and an investigations team.
  • This leaves the previous section teams rather thin, so we merge the 10 website section teams into 4.
  • Each of these teams gets a new editor (as the previous editors have generally been ‘promoted’ to the new elections or investigations teams).
  • And the class I teach that week is about computer assisted reporting (CAR) and Freedom of Information (FOI).
  • Students are told that they don’t have to be in the investigations team to do an investigation, and there is still scope for ‘career development’ within the group: editors can be demoted or moved sideways; correspondents can be re-assigned or promoted. In other words, there’s a career structure there (as an aside, this year I introduced a new criterion to the assignment brief: 10% of a student’s marks are now given for ‘professional context’ – how well they have communicated with others in their team, reliability and regularity of contributions).

And here’s why:

  • The shake-up, I hope, gives new impetus to the group. Almost half of the group get new roles with new challenges to grow and improve.
  • The rest are now in new, mixed, teams with new editors and a wider range of topics that they can cover.
  • They’ve been taught a new set of skills which takes them back to the first stage of journalism: newsgathering.

I’ve no idea whether it will work, but so far the signs are good. The investigations team appear excited about the possibilities of their role – and students who are not in that team have already been sending out FOI requests. The elections team are swotting up on their constituencies, and the new editors are getting to grips with their new roles. With an Easter break coming up to interrupt them, it will be interesting to see whether this does address the recurring momentum problem…

3 thoughts on “Teaching online journalism: classes as a narrative

  1. Pingback: links for 2010-03-29 « Onlinejournalismtest's Blog

  2. Joseph Stashko

    As an undergrad student, it’s a slightly different situation to your MA course, but I agree.

    Deadlines create a buzzing sense of immediacy, to get things done, and to go out and find stories. Once the assignment is done, as you said, there is a lull.

    While one needs to take a break from time to time, the very nature of being a journalist is always having one eye to what’s over the horizon, in my opinion.

  3. Pingback: What a difference a year makes for #onlinejournalism « Natalie Adcock’s Blog

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