Thinking of doing your student project online? Here are 5 mistakes to avoid

Journalism courses often expect students to spend a large part of their final year or semester producing an independent project. Here, for those about to embark on such a project online, or putting together a proposal for one, I list some common pitfalls to watch out for…

1. The volunteer pitfall: contributor-driven websites

An increasing number of students are basing their projects on work for websites which rely on unpaid content. These websites can be useful for building experience, contacts and exposure in the first year of an undergraduate journalism course – but as the basis for a final project they can lead to a number of problems.

The most common is a false sense of professionalism, often encouraged by nominal job titles. For example:

“I started writing for the website in February and was offered the role of New Music Editor a mere month later”

“I thought it would be a good platform to build my career from. They said that the work i produce would get noticed by people like BBC.”

That title might be useful for a CV – but it doesn’t mean you can write, research or meet the other requirements of your course. And if people say it’s good for your career ask them for specific examples of contributors and their work on the site which led to employment (rather than contributors whose work elsewhere got them a job).

Likewise, just because content is published (online or in print) it doesn’t mean it’s of professional quality, or even created within a professional context.

It is important to look critically at your role here and whether it is giving you the broad range of skills and experience you need for paid employment as a journalist.

Some key questions to ask in this case include the following:

  1. Does your role include any responsibility, such as managing contributors, dealing with clients, or hitting deadlines?
  2. Are you actively managed by someone else, i.e. are you given briefs, or deadlines? Does the site provide style guides? Is your content subedited and changed? This question is key: if your content is published with few or no changes then you should ask yourself whether you are improving as a writer, or just filling someone else’s webspace.
  3. Are you doing original reporting or just opinion with some secondary research?
  4. Are you writing a variety of formats? Or is it just a space for reviews, interviews, etc?

Which brings me on to the next pitfall…

2. The format pitfall: review-based or single-format portfolios

Employability in journalism means flexibility: the ability to write in a range of formats for a range of audiences – not just the formats you enjoy writing in (or the audiences you socialise with).

This is the difference between professional and unpaid work.

Reviews are a great example of this: people love writing reviews. Amazon is full of them: thousands and thousands of people writing them for free. Music and games websites are full of them. Sport websites are full of unpaid match reports. The fashion and tech blogosphere is full of reviews written for the sheer joy of it. TripAdvisor taps into travellers’ desire to share their experiences. You get the picture.

So ask yourself this: what employer is really looking to pay someone to only write reviews for them in those areas?

Answer: no employer. This is why entire sites can be built on the labour of volunteers who are willing to write reviews for free.

So if you want to get paid employment as a journalist, don’t create a portfolio of reviews.

Or indeed other poorly valued formats, like the Q&A interview.

If you are planning to produce a portfolio of interviews which consist of questions and answers it basically means “I plan to email some questions to a bunch of people and copy and paste what I get back”.

The Q&A format says nothing about your abilities as a writer, and gives you no opportunity to impress. If you’re going to do interviews, do them to impress.

Opinion pieces are a third format that should be avoided. Again, no employers is looking for opinion columnists fresh out of university. They want journalists who can research, who can speak to people, and who can write succinctly and clearly.

Opinion pieces are a great excuse to avoid doing any of these things, and one of the worst formats to choose to showcase your journalism skills.

A good portfolio should instead showcase the range of skills you have as a journalist, from straight, short news pieces to colourful interviews, engaging original features and insightful investigations. And hell, throw in a sharp-tongued review if you like – but not a whole book of them.

3. The ‘showcase’ pitfall: not thinking about the platform

This pitfall is all about confusing publishing as an editorial and commercial process with publishing as a technical process.

To find out which one you’re talking about, ask the following questions:

  1. Are you writing for the web, or just publishing onto it?
  2. Do you have a style guide which would make it possible for anyone to write for this site and all those pieces to be identifiably from it?
  3. Do you have a profile of a typical user?
  4. Who is your competition, and how are you different?
  5. How would your site make money? Now, what about if (when) advertising wasn’t enough?
  6. Have you researched best practice on that platform? That is, what makes a commercially successful website publisher/YouTube channel/podcast/social media account?

When these questions aren’t asked, you get articles written for print but published online; material which indulge the writer’s interests and time without considering the time or interests of the audience; and material which duplicates what’s already done much better by others.

The difference between writing for others (the traditional approach in print and broadcast) and running your own site is that you need to consider elements of publishing which might otherwise be handled by others. It is not just about the journalism.

Even where you are writing for another site, they might be making the same mistakes, so it’s worth asking the same questions of them, too. Otherwise you end up paying for them.

Oh, and if you’re using Wix then you need to stop right now and start again. It’s just not professional.

4. The social media pitfall: not thinking about distribution

Regardless of whether you run your own site or write for another, journalists are now expected to think about distribution as well as production.

There should be some consideration of how your work reaches an audience, and the role you play in that.

If you’re running your own site these are the questions to ask:

  1. Are you running social media accounts before the website goes live?
  2. Are you planning to ‘launch’ the website near the project deadline?
  3. Do you have a social media strategy?
  4. Does that strategy have any more detail than ‘setting up a Facebook page/Twitter account and linking to my stuff’?
  5. Are you thinking about search engine optimisation?

Social media accounts should be set up early. You should treat your personal social media accounts as part of the professional publishing operation too. The last thing they should be is an afterthought.

Remember that writing for Twitter, or Facebook, is an art just as writing headlines for magazines is. You need to work on it, and research it.

Likewise, writing search engine-friendly headlines is an art, and very different to writing headlines which play well in print.

The website should be launched as early as possible, to give you time to publish on an ongoing basis for a considerable period of time.

This will give you an opportunity to build an audience and demonstrate an understanding of distribution. It is the beginning of the project, not the end.

You should have a social media strategy. This should be as detailed as any content strategy, i.e. have lots of content ideas and research into audiences and competitors.

Your strategy is what you do with your Twitter account/Facebook page etc. – not whether you have one or not.

Think about why people follow these accounts, Like updates, and so on. There’s lots of research already out there to draw on.

5. The analytics pitfall: not testing what works

Following on from social media and search engine optimisation, it’s important for any online project to have some sort of understanding of analytics: where are your users coming from – search, social media, or direct traffic? What search terms do they use? What sort of content do they read more? When?

This should inform your site as it develops. You may find that tweeting links works best when you directly name someone featured in the article, and Facebook updates get more Likes when there’s an image. You may find weekends are surprisingly good times to publish, and Monday are terrible.

Analytics is a continuation of the audience research you based the initial project idea on: it’s the difference between what people say they want and do (surveys; focus groups) and what they actually do. These are valuable insights that any employer will be interested in.

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2 thoughts on “Thinking of doing your student project online? Here are 5 mistakes to avoid

  1. Pingback: Miriah Ludtke | What’s Going on in the Journalism World?

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