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.


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.


20 thoughts on “Teaching community-based journalism

  1. Bart Brouwers

    It is one (very important) step to get your students to understand the importance of thinking in communities. To get the traditional newsrooms of legacy media companies this far is yet another ballgame.

  2. Carmen Kong

    Thanks Paul – I’m one of the Cityhacks that you’re teaching and I’m getting to understand more and more your motivation and reason behind these assignments. I think, for trainee journalists like myself, in the beginning, these projects seem so confusing and even too long-term for us to achieve. We have a couple of months to really understand the concept and hence execute our idea. At our stage of career/study, it’s very easy to fall into this trap of “having something flashy” to show your employers or the outside world, just to get a job, when, hopefully, you are allowed the time and the space to develop investigations and contribute to the “community issues” that you care about. Community building takes an enormous amount of time to see results. And that’s something that you have, and we should, addressed.

    So maybe instead of creating/developing a new community all together, it is more advisable to ask students to join an already existing community, since many are involved in something outside the journo department, and use those instead. So we feel that we’re developing our online journalism skills, while enriching other areas of our knowledge and life. That might be less of a head-scratching, wall-punching idea for journo students in the future.

      1. Investigative student

        But for our group blog we have a choice of ‘data journalism’ or ‘video journalism’. Neither of which I have any experience in or interest in blogging about. Seems to miss the point of a blog, and many others feel the same.

        Having said that, I don’t think the tasks themselves are irrelevant – but I do think they’re too much for a 10-credit module. In another 10-credit module we had to write one 1000-word assignment, whereas for this we have to write 10 blogposts each (conservatively 4000 words total), one 1500-word community strategy, and part of a 1500-word blog evaluation.

        I wasn’t there today, but understand some of the problem was to do with the way Paul sometimes throws a lot of tools out there and doesn’t talk through them particularly. Maybe that’s something for the labs, but there’s a very good point there. It’s essentially a practical subject being taught academically. It’s all very well saying ‘you’ve just got to go off and try it yourself’ but it’s easy to forget how overwhelming it can all be.

        I actually sympathise quite a bit with Paul, because teaching a couple of hundred students all at different levels of ability is very difficult, and he’s been a nice guy whenever I’ve spoken to him. But I don’t feel the module’s really worked for many of the students at all this year.

        (sorry for the tangent, this is my contribution to the discussion on the course.)

      2. Investigative student

        And incidentally, the idea that most of the students are still ‘elitist’ about journalism strikes me as way off the mark and not a little patronising.

      3. Paul Bradshaw

        As for being off the mark on elitism, I obviously didn’t use that word, and I wouldn’t agree with it. But the glamorous/paternalist attitude does prevail – there’s a direct quote there which illustrates it. I’ve since started to wonder whether this is because most students want to work on national newspapers and broadcasters and consumer magazines, where the concept of community seems less relevant (it isn’t, of course: a political journalist will be part of the Westminster community; a fashion journalist will be part of that scene; and reporters like The Guardian’s Paul Lewis have broken huge stories by engaging with communities online).

        I also want to address the ‘point of a blog’ which you mention earlier. The point of a blog is not necessarily to write about what you already know – it is to document what you find out when you investigate something new. That is of course a huge part of journalism – particularly online journalism – you will regularly be asked to write about things you are not interested in.

      4. Paul Bradshaw

        A 10 credit module should take 100 hours to complete according to academic regulations. I can only assume that your 1000 word assignment requires a lot of research. 60 of the hours on this module should be spent on the group blog – I’ve laid out how that might work out in practice. 10 blogs posts = 6 hours per post average, which doesn’t sound unreasonable.

        You’re right that I tend to present you with lots of options in the lecture, and then you explore some practically in the labs, and in your own time. This is because different students will find different tools useful. But I can see it might not be appropriate for students who are new to the subject, so I’m going to just teach a few options in more detail in the next session and see how that goes.

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  6. Patrick Gower

    “We are so precious about ‘our’ journalism, it seems, that we will do anything but let other people into it.”

    As a graduate of the City MA newspaper course last year, this point rang so true. The course is so competitive and so short that everybody strives for the short term achievements that can only be measured in bylines and placements.

    This assignment is clearly encouraging original thought and innovation. It’s about developing tools to find news over the long term – methods that graduates from NoSweat courses won’t be taught. The best journalists, in my opinion, are all leading voices within niche communities. They are immersed and aggregate the differing thoughts and stories from within a group and present them in the form of journalism.

    I know from my time on the course that it’s easy to get distracted (especially during these months) by applications to grad schemes. The number of bullet points under the ‘experience’ section on the applications shouldn’t create a short term thought process. Everybody is on the course to learn how to be better journalists than those coming out of the numerous other journo factories in the UK – I think the skills this module is looking to foster will make the difference.

    1. Georgia Graham

      I completely agree with Patrick. (I was on Newspaper journalism last year too)

      Last year we were treated to long lectures filled with conceptual terms about the wonders of ‘convergence’ online, abstract venn diagrams that seemed to have no value to our day-to-day news gathering and constant apps suggestions for phones 90% of us didn’t own.

      Using online community tools to your advantage, rather than obsessing over the latest innnovation or buzz words, is how I wish we had been taught online journalism last year as I have spent much of the last 8 months teaching myself.

      Working at such a local level (I am a reporter on the Ham&High) in a big city like London means that my work online is basically a constantly evolving community strategy aimed at reaching new people and finding new stories without alientating the stalwarts who actually buy the paper.

      Contacts I meet online through social networks take as much work to develop as those I meet for a coffee every couple of weeks, and rightly so. Now I am as likley to be direct messaged a story as I am to find one on my voicemail but it took 8 months of online activity, attendence at tweet ups and interection with local influences. issues and organisations to build up.

      As Patrick says, young journalists need to be able to stand out in a newsroom, and that comes from stories not buzz words.

  7. Victoria

    I don’t know the full story of what has gone on today, but I’ve read with interest the debate and I have to say that, based on my understanding, I don’t agree with the City hacks questioning the importance of community journalism.
    I’ve never been taught by Paul Bradshaw, but the assignments he teaches seem pretty relevant to an up-to-date journalism course.
    Citing my own experience, 18 months ago I moved to a capital city newspaper and I knew nobody. I started by setting up several social networking accounts and worked from there. If I hadn’t communicated – first online and then in person – with my community, there is no way I would be able to contribute to the kind of conversations or get the exclusive stories I’ve experienced. You might get one story from an initial meeting with somebody in your sphere, but it will most probably stop there.
    No doubt several of you are heading straight to national newspapers but, even if that is the case, contacts don’t often just fall your way. A lot of the time they’re built on personal conversation, integration and experience of whatever area/specialism you’re involved in and are passionate about. Whether community refers to a specialist area, or a location, I’d say it’s pretty important to get involved.

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  10. Sarah Booker

    “Know your patch” was my mantra many years ago when I was a student reporter. It was advice from a news editor who was a brilliant journalist (are you out there Jim Smith?).
    Online communities are a great way to know your patch, whether geographical or niche.
    A prime example of a journalist working with a community to improve the documentary about NHS food on Dispatches today (Monday, February 21).
    Mark Sparrow joined message boards and Facebook groups for the Cystic Fibrosis community. I doubt his documentary would have been as rich without the input from that community and the two men I assume he found there who featured on the programme.
    After taking a look at the assignment I think it’s a useful exercise designed to make students think about reaching a community, interacting with it, finding and telling stories. It’s what Mark Sparrow did.
    It is what journalists do.

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