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:

5 thoughts on “Universities without walls

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