Tag Archives: journalism education

The 3 forces changing journalism education – and why we’re ignoring 2 of them (part 1)

On Monday I spoke about the future of journalism education at the EJC’s 20th anniversary event. It strikes me that while most of the discussion around journalism education centres on changes in the ‘news industry’, there are other significant forces which are too often overlooked.

In a series of posts this week I want to try to map out three areas where journalism education is facing changes and how they’re being tackled – or, in most cases, not.

Continue reading

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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. Continue reading

Experiments in online journalism

Last month the first submissions by students on the MA in Online Journalism landed on my desk. I had set two assignments. The first was a standard portfolio of online journalism work as part of an ongoing, live news project. But the second was explicitly branded ‘Experimental Portfolio‘ – you can see the brief here. I wanted students to have a space to fail. I had no idea how brave they would be, or how successful. The results, thankfully, surpassed any expectations I had. They included:

There are a range of things that I found positive about the results. Firstly, the sheer variety – students seemed to either instinctively or explicitly choose areas distinct from each other. The resulting reservoir of knowledge and experience, then, has huge promise for moving into the second and final parts of the MA, providing a foundation to learn from each other. Continue reading

Teaching blogging: the Social Media Treasure Hunt (#bsmth #snowbrum)

Today I’m trying an experiment with a group of students on my undergraduate Online Journalism module – a ‘Social Media Treasure Hunt’ on their patch: Birmingham.

The students are all reporters who will, next week, be reporting for the environmental news website Birmingham Recycled. Last week they set up their systems – RSS reader, Delicious, and Twitter – and this week they are setting up their blogs. They’ve already had the lecture about the theory – now comes the practice. But instead of the usual workshop-in-a-computer-room, I’m taking them into their community.

This year I’ve made a significant change to how I teach blogging. The focus is explicitly on social capital, and ideas of sharing their processes. So here’s what I wanted to do:

  • Get them meeting people in person rather than virtually – a much more effective way of building social capital
  • Get them away from a desk. It seems to me that most people approach online journalism as a deskbound job – actually, it opens up enormous opportunities for production on the move: moblogging, liveblogging, photoblogging (one student has already tried all 3 in one go).
  • Get them to open their eyes, ears and noses. These students have spent 18 months learning how to be journalists – looking for angles, structuring a story. Now I’m asking them to unlearn some of that when they approach a blog: put out unfinished material; observations; raw material. Sharing – not processing. That can be a hard habit to get into.

Oh, and of course I want to make it fun and engaging. So…

The Social Media Treasure Hunt

At 9am this morning a group of around 15* 7 students will gather at Coffee Lounge in Birmingham city centre. They all have phones with web packages and/or laptops with wifi. I will make sure they are all set up with a blog, and are able to post to it from their phone or laptop.

They will then be given, in pairs:

  • A map of wifi coverage in Birmingham
  • A name
  • The rules of the game

The rules of the game

  1. You have been given the name of a person with a social media presence in Birmingham (e.g. blogs, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, Facebook etc.).
  2. You must find a way to contact that person, and arrange to meet them as soon as possible, today.
  3. When you meet them, you must find out about them – then ask them to name another person in Birmingham that they think it would be useful for you (as an environmental reporter) to meet. (If you are unable to meet any person, contact @paulbradshaw for a new name)
  4. From the beginning of this process you must keep your eyes, ears and noses alert – and comment on what you see/hear/smell…
  5. …As you travel, you must generate as much content as possible on social media – tweet; take and upload pictures; bookmark webpages; record or stream video or audio; and of course: write blog posts containing all of the above. The purpose of this hunt is to share as much as possible – experiences, insights, opinions, questions – so that others can get to know the city – and you – through your senses.
  6. Tag everything that you do #bsmth (Birmingham Social Media Treasure Hunt) – and follow all the other material using that tag.
  7. You cannot ‘hunt’ a person who is already being – or has been – hunted by someone else.
  8. Points are awarded as follows:
    1. 100 points for meeting someone named;
    2. 50 points for meeting and finding out about someone else;
    3. 20 points for every blog post;
    4. 5 points for every other piece of valid* social media generated.
    5. *Material generated to ‘game’ the contest (e.g. flooding with meaningless material) will not be counted

Winners will receive a prize of non-monetary value…

So that’s the Social Media Treasure Hunt – I’ll blog about the results in due course. Meanwhile, you can of course follow the tag on social media…

*UPDATE: We had a couple inches of snow overnight, which disrupted transport (yeah, I know – just a couple of inches) and prevented around half of the students from taking part, so I adapted by starting a second meme, #snowbrum, for those who were housebound. This was overseen by Birmingham Recycled’s editor, Natalie Adcock, and I’ll blog about that in due course too.

Are there too many journalism courses?

I took a phonecall recently from a journalist writing an article on the increase in journalism degrees. The question – are there too many? – is one of those that recur every so often, so I thought I would lay out some of the thinking behind it and why I think the question itself is flawed.

What and who are journalism degrees for?

The first problem with the question is the implicit assumption about what journalism degrees are for; that journalism courses exist ‘to train people to enter the news industry’. If the news industry is shedding jobs, the question suggests, why should we have so many journalism degrees?

But journalism degrees do not exist just to train people to enter the news industry. This is the difference between ‘education’ and ‘training’. Off the top of my head, here are just some of the things I think they do. Feel free to add more:

  1. Build core academic skills such as research, conceptual knowledge and critical skills
  2. Build practical skills such as communication, research, and production
  3. Develop creative skills
  4. Develop project management skills
  5. Develop teamworking skills and the ability to work on initiative
  6. Build a critical understanding of news processes and relationships of power
  7. Provide space to explore how journalism and publishing is, and might be, different (particularly important when it is in crisis)
  8. Allow people to find out whether they want to work in the news industry
  9. Allow students to achieve a degree in an area they find challenging and fulfilling
  10. And yes, to train people to enter the news industry
  11. And the PR industry
  12. And any industry that involves professional communication

There are a huge range of journalism courses – from those that are purely theoretical with no practical work, to those that are almost entirely practical, and those that have a mix of both. Ultimately, there are a lot of journalism courses because there are a lot of people who want to study journalism, and their motivations are as varied as the courses themselves – for many it is simply ‘something I am good at’. If it was simply to ‘get a job’ then they could do a training course for much less.

Journalism is not the same as ‘the news industry’

A second assumption underlying the question is that journalism and news publishing are the same. They are not. I’ll save the ‘What is journalism?’ discussion for another time, but if we can agree that it is more complex than ‘working for The Sun’ and closer to ‘finding information and crafting it into meaningful narratives’ then that’s the point I want to make. And jobs requiring the skill of journalism are not limited to ‘the news industry’.

While mainstream broadcasters and publishers are shedding jobs, you see, other areas are recruiting. AOL has increased its journalists from 500 to 3000; Microsoft has entered the arena with MSN Local; there are in-house and business-to-business magazines; the hugely-expanding area of SEO is hiring content creators; and any company that doesn’t pay an SEO company is realising it needs to produce regular content for that website it paid for.

In an article in the latest issue of The Journalist, Vivien Sandt puts it well when she points out a number of job ads for journalists: “The skills required do not differ substantially from those of a sub-editor or journalist. But none of the advertisers is a traditional media company.”

The biggest problem with journalism degrees is not that there are too many, it is that too many of them are ignoring these parts of the media ecology.

‘Disappointed’ students

Assumption number 3 underlying the question of ‘too many journalism degrees’ similarly involves employability, but from a supply perspective rather than that of demand.

‘Students come into journalism degrees expecting jobs in publishing,’ it runs. ‘And there are no jobs.’

Notwithstanding the points I’ve made above about jobs, there are some other points to be made here. I’m sure that most people studying drama hope to become actors; that most people studying art hope to work in the creative industries; even that many people studying English Literature hope to become writers.

Not all of them will. Shit happens. Some people are not very good; some people don’t try very hard; some people are just coasting along on the path of least resistance – we can’t design that out of our education system without excluding those that work hard, who are talented and dedicated and want to achieve great things. A degree isn’t the promise of a beautiful career – it is the promise of an opportunity for personal development which relies on your own commitment and ability as much as that of the lecturers, support staff and university.

The philosophy industry is pretty dead right now, but I don’t hear people saying ‘There are too many Philosophy degrees’.

Citizen journalism and investigative reporting: from journalism schools to retirement communities

The myriad numbers of citizen journalism sites that pop up everyday seem to suggest that the media can fulfill the purposes of democracy by merely offering their audiences a forum to express themselves.

However, to tap into its full potential, participatory journalism should try to do something in addition to what mainstream reporting already does – such as expanding source diversity, shifting focus to neglected sections of the population, or pursuing different angles and perspectives on a story. If not, it is not doing much more than using its readers as a form of cheap labor, and perhaps laying off journalists while it’s at it.

Citizen journalism is hardly beneficial when it merely propagates the flaws of traditional reporting. Huffington Post’s Off the Bus produced many stories on the US Presidential campaign last year – but the one we remember most vividly is Mayhill Fowler’s reporting of Barack Obama’s “bitter” comment – the story that put gotcha journalism from mainstream reporters to shame.

The paucity of good investigative reporting through citizen journalism is not surprising, considering the amount of effort such stories require from news organizations in terms of coordination and oversight. Perhaps, most importantly, they require a huge time investment from the audience. While people might be easily persuaded to relay food-item prices from their grocery bills, they are less likely to pursue public officials or make trips to government offices to retrieve information.

Which is why magazines like The Nation are allowing their audiences simpler methods to contribute to significant news stories. With its “Ask the President” feature, the weekly is encouraging readers to pose questions for the Obama administration’s upcoming press conferences. Queries that receive the most votes will get asked by Nation journalists, pending agreement from the White House. This is perhaps the digital equivalent of newspapers inviting their readers to town hall meetings to question public officials.

News organizations are also trying to encourage investigative journalism “from the desk.” With the amount of interactive tools available online, it is perhaps easiest to get readers to contribute through their computers since they already spend several hours in front of them. National news stories especially lend themselves well to this form of reporting.

The nonprofit investigative journalism site Propublica hopes to analyze Barack Obama’s stimulus package by encouraging audience contributions. Data and documents will be available on the site, and readers will be encouraged to offer ideas for stories and topics of newsworthy content. Details of how distributed reporting will be implemented have not been worked out yet, but as Senior Editor Eric Umansky reasons, the breadth of the stimulus projects and their potential effects are so huge that there simply are not enough traditional journalists to cover the subject. But with the help of citizen reporters all around the country, Propublica can do a better job of reporting on all angles of the story. When you recall that the same idea allowed Talking Points Memo to break the news about the Bush administration’s firing of eight US attorneys in late 2007, it is easy to be optimistic about Propublica’s venture.

Another idea that is gaining popularity is the coupling of journalism school projects to citizen reporting. In this fast-changing media world where every citizen is a reporter, students of journalism should be specifically trained to tap into the vast talent available in the community, writes Elizabeth Zwerling. That is exactly what the Annenberg School for Communication in Los Angeles is attempting to do with its hyperlocal news site, Intersections.

The project is shining the spotlight on the less privileged classes that mainstream media has long ignored with its profit-centered interest in affluent communities. Online journalism often reproduces this censorship of omission because of the inherent digital divide. Students at the Annenberg School, however, are being trained to report on hyperlocal issues affecting urban LA communities. Local residents, many of whom include working class immigrants, work with students to transmit their photos, videos and stories through cell phones.

Sites such as Texas Watchdog, on the other hand, are implementing programs to train civilians to become watchdogs of the government; the program teaches citizens to access and review public documents, among other things.

Another potential goldmine for citizen journalism at the hyperlocal level appears to be populations of retired individuals, who have both the time and inclination to perform watchdogging functions for their communities, as Jack Driscoll found with Rye Reflections, a user-generated site run by retirees in a small community in New Hampshire. The drastic reduction in local news reporting by newspapers that have cut down their resources and budgets has meant that citizens are willing to take up the slack. This sort of community reporting offers people intellectual and social stimulation while fulfilling civic needs, according to Driscoll.

In addition, retired professionals can often lend their specific expertise to investigative news stories, as former engineers and lawyers in the community of Fort Myers, Florida proved during the News-Press’ investigation of a local utility company. However, Driscoll does not succumb to the rosy-eyed view that this sort of reporting can replace hardcore investigative journalism at the national or international level, or in specialized fields like science and medicine.

It’s little surprise then that the much talked-about Huffington Post Investigative Fund hopes to tap into the expertise of seasoned journalists to kick-start its investigative reporting exercise. Down the road, it will harness the power of its citizen volunteers. As Jay Rosen, who will serve as a senior advisor on the project, writes, “the best approach is to have no orthodoxy and to support very traditional investigative reporting by paid pros who are good at it, as well as teams of pros and amateurs, students working with masters of the craft, crowdsourced investigations, and perhaps other methods.”

A tall order to be sure. But news organizations need to quickly find ways to compensate for the dearth of resources and personnel in order to continue to perform in-depth investigative reporting, lest journalism may become completely irrelevant.