Tag Archives: birmingham city university

Moving away from ‘the story’: 5 roles of an online investigations team

In almost a decade of teaching online journalism I repeatedly come up against the same two problems:

  • people who are so wedded to the idea of the self-contained ‘story’ that they struggle to create journalism outside of that (e.g. the journalism of linking, liveblogging, updating, explaining, or saying what they don’t know);
  • and people stuck in the habit of churning out easy-win articles rather than investing a longer-term effort in something of depth.

Until now I’ve addressed these problems largely through teaching and individual feedback. But for the next 3 months I’ll be trying a new way of organising students that hopes to address those two problems. As always, I thought I’d share it here to see what you think.

Roles in a team: moving from churnalism to depth

Here’s what I’m trying (for context: this is on an undergraduate module at Birmingham City University):

Students are allocated one of 5 roles within a group, investigating a particular public interest question. They investigate that for 6 weeks, at which point they are rotated to a different role and a new investigation (I’m weighing up whether to have some sort of job interview at that point).

The group format allows – I hope – for something interesting to happen: students are not under pressure to deliver ‘stories’, but instead blog about their investigation, as explained below. They are still learning newsgathering techniques, and production techniques, but the team structure makes these explicitly different to those that they would learn elsewhere.

The hope is that it will be much more difficult for them to just transfer print-style stories online, or to reach for he-said/she-said sources to fill the space between ads. With only one story to focus on, students should be forced to engage more, to do deeper and deeper into an issue, and to be more creative in how they communicate what they find out.

(It’s interesting to note that at least one news organisation is attempting something similar with a restructuring late last year)

Only one member of the team is primarily concerned with the story, and that is the editor:

The Editor (ED)

It is the editor’s role to identify what exactly the story is that the team is pursuing, and plan how the resources of the team should be best employed in pursuing that. It will help if they form the story as a hypothesis to be tested by the team gathering evidence – following Mark Lee Hunter’s story based inquiry method (PDF).

Qualities needed and developed by the editor include:

  • A nose for a story
  • Project management skills
  • Newswriting – the ability to communicate a story effectively
This post on Poynter is a good introduction to the personal skills needed for the role.

The Community Manager (CM)

The community manager’s focus is on the communities affected by the story being pursued. They should be engaging regularly with those communities – contributing to forums, having conversations with members on Twitter; following updates on Facebook; attending real world events; commenting on blogs or photo/video sharing sites, and so on.

They are the two-way channel between that community and the news team: feeding leads from the community to the editor, and taking a lead from the editor in finding contacts from the community (experts, case studies, witnesses).

Qualities needed and developed by the community manager include:

  • Interpersonal skills – the ability to listen to and communicate with different people
  • A nose for a story
  • Contacts in the community
  • Social network research skills – the ability to find sources and communities online

6 steps to get started in community management can be found in this follow-up post.

The Data Journalist (DJ)

While the community manager is focused on people, the data journalist is focused on documentation: datasets, reports, documents, regulations, and anything that frames the story being pursued.

It is their role to find that documentation – and to make sense of it. This is a key role because stories often come from signs being ignored (data) or regulations being ignored (documents).

Qualities needed and developed by the data journalist include:

  • Research skills – advanced online search and use of libraries
  • Analysis skills – such as using spreadsheets
  • Ability to decipher jargon – often by accessing experts (the CM can help)

Here’s a step by step on how to get started as a data journalist.

The Multimedia Journalist (MMJ)

The multimedia journalist is focused on the sights, sounds and people that bring a story to life. In an investigation, these will typically be the ‘victims’ and the ‘targets’.

They will film interviews with case studies; organise podcasts where various parties play the story out; collect galleries of images to illustrate the reality behind the words.

They will work closely with the CM as their roles can overlap, especially when accessing sources. The difference is that the CM is concerned with a larger quantity of interactions and information; the MM is concerned with quality: much fewer interactions and richer detail.

Qualities needed and developed by the MMJ include:

  • Ability to find sources: experts, witnesses, case studies
  • Technical skills: composition; filming or recording; editing
  • Planning: pre-interviewing, research, booking kit 

The Curation Journalist (CJ)

(This was called Network Aggregator in an earlier version of this post) The CJ is the person who keeps the site ticking over while the rest of the team is working on the bigger story.

They publish regular links to related stories around the country. They are also the person who provides the wider context of that story: what else is happening in that field or around that issue; are similar issues arising in other places around the country. Typical content includes backgrounders, explainers, and updates from around the world.

This is the least demanding of the roles, so they should also be available to support other members of the team when required, following up minor leads on related stories. They should not be ‘just linking’, but getting original stories too, particularly by ‘joining the dots’ on information coming in.

Qualities needed and developed by the CJ include:

  • Information management – following as many feeds, newsletters and other relevant soures of information
  • Wide range of contacts – speaking to the usual suspects regularly to get a feel for the pulse of the issue/sector
  • Ability to turn around copy quickly

There’s a post on 7 ways to follow a field as a network aggregator (or any other journalist) on Help Me Investigate.

And here’s a post on ‘How to be a network journalist‘.

Examples of network aggregation in action:

  • Blogs like Created In Birmingham regularly round up the latest links to events and other reports in their field. See also The Guardian’s PDA Newsbucket.
  • John Grayson’s post on G4S uses a topical issue as the angle into a detailed backgrounder on the company with copious links to charity reports, politicians’ statements, articles in the media, research projects, and more.
  • This post by Diary of a Benefit Scrounger is the most creative and powerful example I’ve yet seen. It combines dozens of links to stories of treatment of benefit claimants and protestors, and to detail on various welfare schemes, to compile a first-person ‘story’.

Publish regular pieces that come together in a larger story

If this works, I’m hoping students will produce different types of content on their way to that ‘big story’, as follows:

  • Linkblogging – simple posts that link to related articles elsewhere with a key quote (rather than wasting resources rewriting them)
  • Profiles of key community members
  • Backgrounders and explainers on key issues
  • Interviews with experts, case studies and witnesses, published individually first, then edited together later
  • Aggregation and curation – pulling together a gallery of images, for example; or key tweets on an issue; or key facts on a particular area (who, what, where, when, how); or rounding up an event or discussion
  • Datablogging – finding and publishing key datasets and documents and translating them/pulling out key points for a wider audience.
  • The story so far – taking users on a journey of what facts have been discovered, and what remains to be done.

You can read more on the expectations of each role in this document. And there’s a diagram indicating how group members might interact below:

Investigations team flowchart

Investigations team flowchart

What will make the difference is how disciplined the editor is in ensuring that their team keeps moving towards the ultimate aim, and that they can combine the different parts into a significant whole.

UPDATE: A commenter has asked about the end result. Here’s how it’s explained to students:

“At an identified point, the Editor will need to organise his or her team to bring those ingredients into that bigger story – and it may be told in different ways, for example:

  • A longform text narrative with links to the source material and embedded multimedia
  • An edited multimedia package with links to source material in the accompanying description
  • A map made with Google Maps, Fusion Tables or another tool, where pins include images or video, and links to each story”

If you’ve any suggestions or experiences on how this might work better, I’d very much welcome them.

Communities of practice: teaching students to learn in networks

One of the problems in teaching online journalism is that what you teach today may be out of date by the time the student graduates.

This is not just a technological problem (current services stop running; new ones emerge that you haven’t taught; new versions of languages and software are released) but also a problem of medium: genres such as audio slideshows, mapping, mashups, infographics and liveblogging have yet to settle down into an established ‘formula’.

In short, I don’t believe it’s wise to simply ‘teach online journalism’. You have to combine basic principles as they are now with an understanding of how to continue to learn the medium as it develops.

This year I set MA Online Journalism students at Birmingham City University an assignment which attempts to do this.

It’s called ‘Communities of Practice’ (the brief is here). The results are in, and they are very encouraging. Here’s what emerged:

Continue reading

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.

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:

The New Online Journalists #4: Kasper Sorensen

As part of an ongoing series on recent graduates who have gone into online journalism, Sonderborg portal web editor Kasper Sorensen talks about what got him the job, what it involves, and where it might go next. (Disclosure: I taught Kasper)

As with most jobs, experience is always a problem for new graduates. Everyone has a degree, but what sets you apart is your experience. I was lucky enough to study in an environment where engagement with the professionals in my area was a priority. We were encouraged to share our work outside the walls of the university and make it available for everyone to see/use.

Doing that in my first year with web design, meant that I got web design jobs all the way through university to support my studies, and most importantly, honour my skills in the area.

Birmingham City University was actively engaging in the local web scene. This helped in two ways: students always knew what was going on, and in most cases, teachers and lecturers would attend the same events, so students didn’t feel like the odd one out in a room full of professionals.

Attending these meetups, conferences etc. and sharing my experiences online on blogs, Twitter, Facebook etc. led to having two jobs lined up after I finished my studies: one in Birmingham working as an editor at BeVocal.org.uk and the other one in Denmark writing a book for the Danish School of Journalism. Continue reading

BCU’s ‘Trinity Mirror Student Online Journalist of the Year 2008’ – Azeem Ahmad

Before the year ends please allow me to publicly congratulate Azeem Ahmad on winning the Birmingham City University ‘Student Online Journalist of the Year’ award, sponsored by Trinity Mirror.

Azeem graduated this year from the journalism degree. For his final year project he worked as the Web Editor for ENO (Environmental News Online), along with Editor Rachael Wilson.

Azeem built the site from scratch using open source content management system Joomla, a raft of plugins, and even survived a hacker attack. But more importantly, he has probably grasped the workings of a networked environment better than any other student, using Twitter particularly effectively, building RSS mashups, learning about search engine optimisation, and exploring the vagaries of online communities. With Rachael he managed a team of second year journalism students as they learned online journalism on the job – the first time I’d tried such a model, which seemed to work very well.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Azeem’s blog entries and seeing the problems he faced in building and maintaining the site both technically and editorially. But, unsurprisingly in the current environment, Azeem has not yet landed a permanent journalism job and so is not blogging as often these days. I’m hoping that changes in ’09. Good luck, Azeem.

JEEcamp live coverage – take part from your desktop

If you’ve not been able to attend JEEcamp, you can still take part online. We will be running live coverage at JournalismEnterprise.com – and taking your questions and comments.

We’ll be using CoverItLive, which allows users to post comments, chatroom-style, and we’ll be incorporating these into the event itself.

Here’s how it (should) work: there will be five topics being discussed during the event: funding; business models; online news models; legals; and building audiences and community.

Each topic will have a correspondent attached – a journalism student from Birmingham City University who will be reporting what’s being discusse, but also feeding back any comments or questions from people following JEEcamp online.

That’s all assuming the wifi works, of course…

JEEcamp already has a fantastic mix of people from the news and tech industries – with people coming from as far away as Latvia, Sweden, Spain and South Korea too.

To join in online go to http://journalismenterprise.com/jeecamp-live-coverage/ from 9am till 4pm GMT on Friday March 14 (to convert to your own time zone use this converter)

Ahead of the event you can also add to the event wiki at http://jeecamp.pbwiki.com – in particular any questions under the themes being discussed (http://jeecamp.pbwiki.com/topics)

And finally, there’s an aggregator blog at www.jeecamp.com for anything tagged ‘jeecamp’ on WordPress, Flickr, YouTube, or Delicious (also search results for ‘jeecamp’ on Twitter, Google Blog Search and Technorati).

Look forward to meeting you (virtually)…