ergey Brin wears Google Glass glasses at an announcement for the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences at Genentech Hall on UCSF’s Mission Bay campus in San Francisco, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013.

Live chat replay: Glass journalism and teaching when we don’t have all the answers

Robert Hernandez, one of Web journalism’s earliest, most influential innovators, joined us for a live chat Wednesday on Google Glass and a class he will be leading in the fall on “Glass journalism.”

Robert Hernandez

Hernandez teaches at the USC Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism as assistant professor of professional practice. He took questions on Google Glass as an emerging tool for newsgathering and storytelling. He also discussed how educators can grapple with a subject that generates more questions than answers — one of the challenges in teaching new technologies and evolving concepts.

This chat was a lead-up to Teachapalooza, Poynter’s college educator seminar scheduled for June 20-22 at our St. Petersburg institute. Hernandez will be among the teaching faculty. The deadline to register is Friday, May 16.

You can replay this chat at any time and visit www.poynter.org/chats to find an archive of all past chats.

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Monday, May 12, 2014

pyramid_small

The Pyramid of Journalism Competence: what journalists need to know

What does a journalist need to know?

What defines “competence” in journalism?

When you graduate from a journalism school, what should you know how to do?

In the digital age, the answers to those questions are more important than ever. For more than three decades now, they have been near the center of conversation and debate at Poynter. Before we could figure out what to teach, we needed to understand – in the public interest – what journalists needed to learn.

This process was energized in 1997 by a call to action from Tom Rosenstiel, one of the leaders of a group called the Committee of Concerned Journalists. Over the next two years, the committee conducted “21 public forums attended by 3,000 people and involving testimony from more than 300 journalists,” according to the book “The Elements of Journalism” by Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach.

Poynter was asked to conduct one of those forums on a most challenging topic: What does it mean to be a competent journalist? And so we did.

In preparation for this conference on Feb. 26, 1998, the Poynter faculty, under my direction, built an edifice we came to call the Pyramid of Competence. This structure comprised 10 blocks. The cornerstones were news judgment and reporting. The foundation also included language and analysis. The central stone was technology, between audio-visual knowledge and numeracy. Closer to the top were civic and cultural literacy. At the apex was ethics.

The pyramid has had an interesting history, inside and outside the institute. Its most serious consideration came from the accrediting council of AEJMC. At a time when the standards for accreditation were under review, leaders such as Trevor Brown, dean at Indiana University, thought the ideas behind the pyramid would lead to a clearer articulation of educational “outcomes,” what students should expect to get out of a journalism education.

Much has changed in the world of journalism since the pyramid was constructed. New media platforms have been invented; business models have collapsed; arguments about who is a journalist abound. Pyramids may be tombs for dead kings, but they have a way of hanging around – for a long time.

What you are about to experience is the most up-to-date version of the Pyramid of Competence. It contains 10 sections, one for each of the competencies. It begins with a description and a definition, followed by a list of imagined courses that could impart that competency, topped off with an example of an essay that could be used to cultivate that area of journalistic knowledge.

You will find in these descriptions language that, we hope, is contemporary, including words such as “curation,” “aggregation,” and “data visualization,” language that was not part of journalism study when the pyramid was first created.

There were some key questions that were not resolved when the pyramid was built — and that remain unresolved. The big question is this: How many of these competencies should reside in any individual journalist? Or is it possible and desirable to imagine that these competencies can reside across a news organization, expressed in the work of specialists? In short, should the writer of the story also know how to develop an algorithm of data analysis and also be able to design a page?

Our tentative answer (perhaps I should restate that as “my” tentative answer) is that versatility is one of the most important virtues in contemporary journalism. That does not mean that the journalist need be an expert in all these areas. But it requires the journalist to be able to converse with colleagues in these areas across disciplines and “without an accent.” Competence is not a synonym for expertise.

We invite you to climb the Pyramid of Competence. Let us know how the world of journalism looks when you reach the top.

* * * * *

News Judgment

This competence resides in every academic discipline but is made manifest in powerful ways in the study and practice of journalism.

On any given day – or minute – the journalist (especially the editor) sorts through the events and concerns of the moment, hoping to determine which of them deserves the special attention of general and particular audiences.

Decisions on what to publish are based on two broad categories, expressed here in the form of questions:

• Is it important?

• Is it interesting?

There are, of course, important things that may not be interesting – a fluctuation in the money supply. Interesting things – celebrity divorces – may not be important. But on many days, the two categories will converge:

• The attacks of 9/11.

• The oil spill in the Gulf.

• The collapse of the economy in 2008.

• The election of the first African-American president.

• The rate of suicide of soldiers returned from war.

All these are terribly interesting and crucially important, relevant at some level to every person on the planet. Such stories deserve a standing at the top of the news ladder.

But these choices are obvious. The importance of news is relative. On some days news is slow so that an alligator attack across the state gets more attention than it may deserve. Then there are big news days when stories elbow each other for prominence. A significant tropical storm that hit Tampa Bay in 2001 got much less attention than usual because it happened the week of the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

An editor with rich experience and refined news judgment will be able to see important news that is invisible to others. This is an invaluable civic, democratic, and commercial power. An expert is paying attention.

[News judgment describes the cognitive acts of understanding what matters: what is most important or most interesting. It is exercised in such practices as the generation of story ideas by reporters; by selection and play of stories by news editors; by the curation and aggregation of items on the Internet.]

Courses that would enrich news judgment

• Reporting I & II

• Advanced Reporting

• Editing I & II

• Investigative Reporting

• Computer-Assisted Reporting

• Work on School Publications

• Internships at News Organizations

• Media & Society

• News & Media Literacy

• Understanding Social Networks

An essay to read that would enhance news judgment

“From Politics to Human Interest,” by Helen MacGill Hughes

Reporting and Evidence

If news judgment sits as one cornerstone of the pyramid of competence, reporting serves as the other. In an academic context, reporting represents the gathering, verification, and distribution of evidence.

• Why is the price of gasoline so high?

• Where is the balance between personal privacy and national security?

• What were the root causes for the attacks on America on 9/11?

• Is Apple exploiting Chinese workers?

The answers to these questions cannot be simply asserted. Reporters and other news researchers must go out, gather evidence from reliable sources, check it out, and present it in the public interest.

Journalists of various types learn different methods of hunting and gathering information: documents (such as court records), minutes or notes taken at meetings, chronologies, interviews, public records, direct observation, participant observation, immersion reporting, data analysis, participation in social networks – these are just some of the methods journalists use to gain a meaningful picture of the world.

Science, law, economics, ethnography – each discipline offers a distinctive perspective on what constitutes good evidence. The big word for this in philosophy is “epistemology,” the philosophy of knowing. In journalism the questions might go simply, “How do reporters know?”

Academic study takes this to another level, “How do they KNOW what they know?”

[Reporting and Evidence represent the process and products of research.

The traditional methods of reporting all involve finding things out and checking them out, what Kovach and Rosenstiel describe as a discipline of verification, not assertion. Evidence involves tests of reliability, often based on knowledge of the sources. Reporters gather evidence, which is then tested against the standards of editors. Investigations, often to expose wrongdoing, require different standards of evidence than traditional reporting. Forms of evidence are gathered by photographers and documentary videographers, and, most recently, by computer-assisted and data-management efforts. Since standards of evidence differ in various disciplines, knowledge of a field outside of journalism – law, economics, biology – enrich all acts of reporting.]

Courses that would enrich reporting and evidence

• Reporting I & II

• Public Service Reporting

• Fact-Checking and Verification

• Computer-Assisted Reporting

• Scientific Method

• Ethnography

• Rules of Evidence

• Philosophy of Knowledge

• Quantitative Methods

An essay to read that would enhance reporting and evidence

“Getting the Story in Vietnam,” by David Halberstam

Language and Storytelling

The pyramid of journalism competence is built upon a foundation. One of its blocks is the effective use of language to express reports, stories, and other appropriate forms of communication.

Canadian scholar Stuart Adam argues that, at heart, journalists are a type of author, the work existing on a spectrum that extends from the civic to the literary. Competent journalists exhibit versatility in this area, demonstrating the capacity to write in different genres and for different media – long or short, fast or slow – for a variety of audiences and platforms.

A key distinction is between reports and stories. At the heart of journalism remains the neutral, unbiased report, still grounded in the traditional questions of who, what, when, where, why, and how. Using what semanticist S.I. Hayakawa termed “unloaded” language, the reporter sorts through the evidence to provide audiences with good information in the public interest.

The yang to the yin of the report is the story. The product of story is not information, but experience, and the effect is not just actionable knowledge, but empathy. This is created by the transformation of elements of reporting into narrative, so that who becomes character, what becomes scenic action, when becomes chronology, where becomes setting, why (always the most difficult) becomes motive, and how becomes how it happened.

There are forms of reportage and narrative that are expressed via other media and methods (we’ll get to these). But the written word on the page is the basis for all others.

[Language and Storytelling come to the journalist through normal intellectual development, but are enhanced by the practice of authorship, the study of language (including a foreign language), experimentation with a variety of narrative strategies in multiple genres across media platforms.]

Courses that would enrich language and storytelling

• Elements of Language

• Latin

• Composition I & II

• Surveys of English and American Literature

• Poetry

• Advanced Reporting

• Nonfiction Narrative

• Theories of Narrative

• Foreign Language

An essay to read that would enhance language and storytelling

“Politics and the English Language,” by George Orwell

Analysis and Interpretation

To quote the 1947 Hutchins Commission report, “It is no longer enough to report the fact truthfully. It is now necessary to report the truth about the fact.” Context, meaning, trends, relationships, tensions all must appear on the radar screen of the discerning journalist. Some scoops are conceptual.

“Critical thinking” has become too vague a concept to describe this capacity. This form of literacy falls somewhere between analysis and interpretation and is often conveyed in arguments, commentary, opinion, and investigative reporting.

• How does a sexual abuse scandal at Penn State University resemble the one inside the Catholic Church?

• In what sense has global economics given us a “flat” world?

• Can the events of 9/11/2001 really be traced back to political and religious forces in Egypt, dating back to 1948?

The ability to see such questions, to analyze them and derive meaning from them, comes from the exercise of cognitive muscles toned in the gymnasia of traditional academic disciplines, from studies as diverse as evolutionary biology to anthropology to calculus to world literature.

Formal journalism study that is too narrow (with too many courses specifically about journalism) may result in short-term gains at the expense of long-term progress in a career. The aspiring journalist needs the enrichment of the Arts, Humanities, and Sciences; it is from those deep wells that the competent journalist can draw.

[Analysis and Interpretation describe the ability of the journalist to make sense of the often jumbled and chaotic movements of the day. In a deadline story or in a book, the journalist gains audience and credibility when he or she can discern trends, patterns, a higher or deeper level of meaning. This has no agreed-up name, but comes under phrases such as “sense-making,” “gaining altitude,” “conceptual scoops,” and “collateral journalism.”]

Courses that would enrich analysis and interpretation

• Myth and Literature

• History of Science

• Abnormal Psychology

• Quantum Physics

• Principles of Economy

• Art Appreciation

• Technology and Society

An essay to read that would enhance analysis and interpretation

“The Dark Continent of American Journalism,” by James W. Carey

Numeracy

Innumeracy can be as bad as illiteracy in a profession – especially one such as journalism that describes its members as watchdogs in the public interest. Corruption of power – by banks or governments – often involves the abuse of numbers. The ability to work with numbers – especially for those with a natural word orientation – enriches reporting capacity exponentially.

[If you do not know the meaning of the metaphor “exponential,” you may have some work to do.]

Let’s take the case of the young reporter who asks a state commissioner of education why the budget for pre-school education was cut last year. Read more

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Wednesday, Apr. 09, 2014

core skills report cover

Journalism needs the right skills to survive

Despite the economic imperatives facing the media industry, professional journalists lag behind educators and others in rating the importance of multimedia and other digital storytelling skills.

That finding is the result of new research from The Poynter Institute, which shows a wide divergence between professionals and educators in their thinking on the importance of core journalism skills, especially those skills that are essential for mastering new methods of gathering and delivering news and information. It is unclear whether educators are putting too much emphasis on these skills or whether professionals have a different perspective given their day-to-day work.

The Core Skills for the Future of Journalism report, released today, raises the puzzling question as to why the professionals who responded to the survey don’t rate the importance of multimedia skills in today’s visual, multiplatform media landscape as highly as educators, students and independent journalists.

Educators who responded also value knowledge about the business of media and the larger media landscape much higher than journalists working in media organizations. And, to a greater degree than professionals, educators appear to recognize the value of key newsgathering skills that have become more essential in the digital age, such as the ability to analyze and synthesize large amounts of data.

Poynter’s Future of Journalism Competencies survey identified 37 key skills or attributes and knowledge areas. The survey asked professionals, educators and students to rate the importance of those skills, attributes and knowledge areas for beginning journalists as they look toward careers in the digital and mobile age.

The report can be downloaded from here. On Thursday, April 10, co-authors Howard Finberg and Lauren Klinger discussed the findings in a webinar sponsored by the Knight Foundation. The replay is available free for viewing.

Professionals at media organizations rated the importance of all of the multimedia skills much lower than did educators, students and even independent or freelance journalists. The difference is striking.
For example, few would argue that video skills are set to decline in importance in the future.

  • Less than half (46 percent) of the professionals who responded said that ability was important to very important
  • Yet more than three-fourths (76 percent of educators) regarded this skill as important to very important

Photography, an essential skill since most reporters today are equipped with smartphones or cameras, is less important to professionals than to educators.

A slightly higher percentage of professionals (53 percent) thought it was important to very important that a journalist have the ability to shoot and edit photographs. However, more than 75 percent of educators in the survey thought photography skills were important to very important.

Given the evolving platforms for journalism — the Web, phones, tablets —  these difference between professionals and educators (and the other groups surveyed) are noteworthy.

The gap may indicate that professionals in media organizations, both staff members and managers, have not fully embraced the importance of digital skills so essential to online and other new forms of journalism. While not all of the core skills surveyed should be emphasized equally when it comes to training today’s beginning journalists, all are important.

As more journalism is produced for the Web, for tablets and for other mobile devices — not just published on them — it is striking that professionals who responded placed relatively little importance upon the skills necessary to shoot video, record audio, take photographs and tell visual stories. There were also gaps in other categories that are important to understanding the global digital media environment, including understanding different cultures and the media landscape.

Tom Huang, Sunday and enterprise editor of The Dallas Morning News, in an email about the survey’s results, argued that perhaps professionals are weighing traditional skills and digital skills carefully:

So while I recognize the importance of digital skills, if I had to choose, I’d first choose journalists with “traditional” skills and then train them on digital skills, rather than the other way around. I think the point of the survey, though, is that we shouldn’t have to choose. New journalists should come equipped with a whole host of skills, both traditional and digital.

Perhaps, given the drumbeat about educators not “going digital” over the past three years from various individuals, including the report’s co-author Howard Finberg and the Knight Foundation’s Eric Newton, the finding that educators are becoming more digital-savvy should not be surprising.

Sue Burzynski Bullard, associate professor of journalism at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and former managing editor of The Detroit News, said she wasn’t surprised that educators rated digital skills highly in the survey.

“After the 2012 call for change in journalism education,” she wrote in an email, “the debate among educators about what journalism graduates need to know got louder. It became harder to ignore the need for change. Most educators would say it’s important that our students understand digital skills and multimedia storytelling if they’re going to find jobs in today’s journalism world. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean every journalism professor is ready or willing to incorporate those skills into their classes yet. That’s still evolving. And in some cases, it’s still a battle.”

It is important to remember that saying a skill is important, which was our survey question, is not the same as using or teaching that skill. However, the first step in doing something new is to acknowledge its importance.

Karen Magnuson, editor and vice president/news at the Democrat and Chronicle Media Group [Rochester, N.Y.], expressed in an email that she is skeptical about whether these skills are being taught:

Educators may think all of those things are important but the results coming out of colleges are very mixed. My personal experience with journalism grads is that they fall into one of two categories:  solid writers/reporters with limited digital skill sets or multimedia journalists who are great with video but don’t understand how to work a beat or dig much deeper than what’s given in a press release or press conference.  Both types are problematic in today’s newsrooms.  We need it all!

However, it appears that educators have listened to the debate about the need to change, at least enough to acknowledge the importance of new skills. But the question remains what professionals are hearing when it comes to the need to change what they do. And whether there is a disconnect between the staff members, as represented in the survey, and the senior management at various newspaper companies who are pushing their organizations to change.

During the past 10 years, the media industry has seen the decline of the specialist and the corresponding rise of the generalist. It started in the broadcast industry with “one-man band” journalism, where the reporter is also the camera person and sound engineer, and it has spread to print publications. Print journalists are routinely expected to take pictures and record sound bites and even video to complement their text-based stories so that those stories make compelling content for digital platforms.

If professionals need another indicator that the workplace is changing, they only have to consider the disappearance of journalism jobs. Print media have lost 16,000 jobs in the past decade, a drop of almost 30 percent, according to the American Society of News Editors, reported in the Pew State of the News Media 2014 report. The survivors are expected to take on new digital-focused tasks. In the same time frame, Pew estimates that about 5,000 new journalism jobs have been created — in digital-only news outlets.

It seems obvious that digital skills are essential for any journalist who wants to succeed in the 21st century.

Thus a discussion about skills is part of the larger debate about the future of journalism education. During the past two years, academics, foundation leaders and professionals have expressed a wide range of opinions about whether journalism education can be saved — and even whether a journalism degree is valuable.

Two Poynter studies on the topic showed an enormous gulf between professionals and professors about the value of a journalism degree. The first survey was conducted in 2012 as research for a speech I gave at a 20th anniversary celebration for the European Journalism Centre. That survey had responses from more than 2,000 professionals and educators.

The second study, the State of Journalism Education 2013, showed:

  • 96 percent of those who identified themselves as educators believed that a journalism degree was very important to extremely important when it came to understanding the value of journalism
  • Editors and those who worked in journalism had a less favorable opinion, with only 57 percent of professionals saying that a degree was very important to extremely important

Future of Journalism Competencies survey results

Our new research report is based on the Future of Journalism Competencies survey, which was conducted in late 2013 and early 2014. The survey received more than 2,900 responses from media organization professionals, independent or freelance journalists, educators and students. The participation breakdown was:

  • Professionals: 1,124, 39 percent; 425 participants identified themselves as managers or senior editors
  • Educators: 996 participants, 34 percent
  • Independent journalists: 356, 12 percent
  • Students or recent grads: 426, 15 percent

Survey participants were asked to indicate the importance of 37 different skills and attributes for a “beginning journalist as he/she looks toward his/her career in the digital/mobile age.” The 37 skills were derived from two academic papers, one by Nico Drok and the other by Michael Opgenhaffen and his co-authors.

The survey used a five-point scale, with one labeled “not at all important” and five labeled “very important.” The skills were grouped into four different categories:

  • Knowledge, attitudes and personal features or values had 19 skills
  • Newsgathering had 7 skills
  • Basic news production had 6 skills
  • Technical or multimedia production had 5 skills

This example is representative of how we asked survey questions: At your organization, what newsgathering skills do you think beginning journalists need to have? Rate the following newsgathering skills from Not at All Important to Very Important. We used similar wording for the general attitudes, news production and multimedia topics.

Results from the Core Skills for the Future of Journalism show alignment between professionals and educators on the traditional and foundational attitudes and skills needed for beginning journalists — and divergence when it comes to those abilities essential for today’s journalism. Some of the report’s highlights are described in the next sections.

Knowledge, attitudes and personal features

Nearly all of the participants surveyed agreed on some essential skills and traits for today’s journalists. The number-one rated skill was “accuracy,” followed by “curiosity.”

  • Professionals rated “accuracy” at 96 percent as important to very important; educators rated this skill at 99 percent
  • Educators rated “curiosity” at 98 percent as important to very important; professionals rated this attribute at 93 percent

The top-10 skills lists of both professional and educator survey participants included most of the same skills, although the order varied. Of the skills that didn’t make both top-10 lists, only two (“storytelling” and “master interview techniques”) diverged by more than a few percentage points.

However, significant differences were found between professionals and educators when it came to rating other knowledge, attitudes and personal features. For example:

  • Three-quarters (76 percent) of educators said that “knowledge of other cultures” is important to very important; only half (52 percent) of professionals agreed
  • The gap was a little narrower when it came to “knowledge of government,” with almost 70 percent of professionals rating this as important to very important versus 83 percent of educators

Both of these knowledge questions raise essential issues around effective coverage of institutions and communities. With the increasing diversity of the United States population, having some understanding of other cultures would make for more effective journalism — journalism where more individuals would see themselves within the stories being covered.

Aly Colón, former director of standards and practices at NBC News and now the Knight Chair for Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University, believes that the issue might be one of focus rather than importance. Colón wrote in an email that:

“In general, professionals focus on what they do daily, and educators focus on what they see emerging: the practical versus the prescient.

“In newsrooms dominated by white males and fighting to survive, craft skills may trump cultural knowledge. And the decline of minority journalists, who lost jobs or sought employment elsewhere, leaves today’s shrinking newsrooms without advocates for expanding cultural knowledge. Educators, however, may see increasing cultural diversification in their classrooms and in their research. They recognize their students will enter a more multicultural world and need to learn about other cultures if they hope to provide more complete coverage of their communities.”

However, that doesn’t explain the fact that the gap between professionals and educators cut across a range of skills, including essential digital skills.

Skills for innovation

Today’s media landscape is littered with failed attempts at innovation. Traditional publications and broadcast stations struggle to find new audiences, as well as new approaches, for journalism that is increasingly affected by technology. In addition, many staff members are asked to think about ways to create new products that have both journalistic merit and revenue potential. Yet, professionals in our survey did not see knowledge about the business of media as important.

  • More than a third of professionals in the survey (38 percent) said “having knowledge of the business of media” was important to very important
  • But far more — 61 percent — educators said business knowledge was important to very important
  • Students, at 71 percent, and independent journalists at 64 percent, agreed with educators, saying that business understanding was important to very important

Related to understanding the business is “understanding the media landscape.” This ability helps media professionals recognize the importance of emerging media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook — and anticipate the next Twitter and Facebook. Read more

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Wednesday, Mar. 05, 2014

Christopher Callahan, dean of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications, at the downtown campus of Arizona State University Friday, Nov. 14, 2008 in Phoenix.  (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

How journalism schools can innovate by teaching tech reporting

Almost every journalism school either has or intends to revisit what they teach. Even before Knight Foundation’s Eric Newton led the call for a reformation of journalism schools, the momentum was clear: there was going to be educational disruption, and every school needed to position itself as the J-school of the future.

In recent years, much of what has happened falls into two categories: bringing “entrepreneurship into the curriculum” or using the “teaching hospital” metaphor. Both have merits. And the recent Knight education challenge fund administered through ONA is a great way to continue to push boundaries. And in that vein, I want to offer a third option, one that I haven’t seen widely adopted but that I think could bear fruit.

Your J-school should have a technology reporting class.

My personal story: I started out as a technology reporter. It was after the first dot-com bust and before the full rise of Web 2.0. Because I was reporting about new technologies, it was inevitable that I became engaged in online communities and tools. How can you report on an industry if you don’t understand how people in that industry are communicating? How can you report on a cultural shift if you don’t fully understand how it engages people?

When I started as a technology reporter I wasn’t @Digidave. In fact, before 2003 I was not very tech-savvy. But if you’re a motivated reporter you learn the nuances, the details. You study quickly. Creating my first blog was an occupational requirement.

When he taught new media at Columbia’s J-school, Sree Sreenivasan would talk about “new media skill set, and new media mind set.” The former can be taught: learning Photoshop, photography, video, etc. But the latter must be absorbed. That’s the real trick of building technology journalism into a school’s curriculum.

Technology isn’t something students should learn because “it’s the future.” Students can learn about technology because it will be their beat and they want to be good reporters. When students aren’t even paying attention, they’ll begin to understand the power of technology, the richness of the industry and the culture of the community.

For the traditionalists: Have no fear, it’s still reporting! A tech reporting class isn’t about gadgets and gizmos and “whosits and whatsits galore.” It’s about reporting and writing. Unlike most “teaching hospital” classes, the topic is around an industry rather than a geography. But it’s an exciting industry that has giants like Google/Facebook as well as new upstarts run by people not much older than your students.

Tech reporting requires desk reporting, but it is done best with old-fashioned boots on the ground, making sources, calling, following up, etc. You want students to learn how to report and write. They can do that while on the tech beat.

For the small J-school: You probably want to bring entrepreneurship and technology into your curriculum but maybe you haven’t been able to attract the high-profile journo-preneurs-coders. Maybe the multimillion-dollar foundation grant to fund the new innovation building is out of reach. Starting a technology beat class isn’t.

Tech beats aren’t limited to San Francisco. There are hubs in Los Angeles, New York, Austin, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Boston, Charleston, Seattle and more. There are plenty of technology hubs beyond the obvious. Where’s your J-school? Where’s your closest tech hub?

Technology needs better coverage. Tech reporting for the most part is weak. There are great examples out there, but the preponderance of technology coverage stems from sources that are part of the industry itself. I’m not just talking about the fact that the major technology blogs take VC money. Those conflicts can be disclosed and navigated. Rather, it’s the sense that the very existence of tech blogs depends on the success of the technology industry as a whole. If the tech industry doesn’t have a massive consumer base of people buying gadgets or using web products, then the tech blogs have no market either.

A university tech reporting class is sheltered from market realities. It can do enterprise reporting from a unique angle. It’s an angle I think could be refreshing.

David Cohn is director of news at Circa and a member of Poynter’s adjunct faculty. Previously he worked on some of the first endeavors exploring crowdsourcing and crowdfunding in journalism. You can find him on Twitter at @digidave.

Related training: Core Skills for the 21st Century Journalist Read more

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Wednesday, Dec. 04, 2013

Chat

What students need to know about code and data viz

A stunning amount of data is available to journalists these days, and it is growing exponentially. Not surprisingly, the need for data journalists is expanding as well.

Data-driven journalism is a diverse field that involves interpreting data, developing programming code, and creating databases, maps, charts and other visualizations. Some of the skills required take considerable study. But we often overlook the complexity of data journalism and leave our young journalists without the knowledge they need to succeed.

What should students know about code and data visualizations? What skills should be taught to best prepare them for jobs in data-driven journalism?

Northwestern University Medill School professor Jeremy Gilbert, University of Southern California Annenberg School professor Robert Hernandez, ringleader of For Journalism Dave Stanton and I got together to discuss the tremendous possibilities at the intersection of data, technology and news. Our live chat focused on what educators need to teach and students should learn to succeed in computational journalism.

Replay this chat to see the resources we all shared. Find our archives at www.poynter.org/chats.

To ask a question, please use the comment box below.
Read more

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Monday, Nov. 04, 2013

The Daily Bruin's reporting on the struggle of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in Malawi to gain health care was supported by the Bridget O'Brien Scholarship Foundation. (DaiyBruin.com)

UCLA reporting honors photojournalist’s memory

In their last year of college, a reporter and photographer spent 24 days in Malawi conducting interviews and taking photographs to create an ambitious newspaper report about a sensitive human-rights story. But to pay for the trip, they didn’t have to hit the lottery or save money by sleeping in their cars.

Presented by the Daily Bruin, UCLA’s student paper, “In the Shadows” is a story of vulnerability, isolation and prejudice. Homosexuality is illegal and stigmatized in Malawi, so all the people who 2013 UCLA graduates Sonali Kohli interviewed and Blaine Ohigashi photographed had to remain anonymous. The three-chapter story details the challenges Malawi’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community faces in getting health care, including HIV prevention and treatment, and obtaining mental-health and addiction services.

Kohli and Ohigashi owe their opportunity to pursue such an ambitious story to the Bridget O’Brien Scholarship Foundation. O’Brien, who died in 2007, was a former staffer at the Bruin, where she worked primarily as a photojournalist. Kelly Rayburn, a board member of the foundation who knew O’Brien in high school and worked with her at the Bruin, said in a phone interview that “she inspired people to tell stories in a variety of different ways. She did everything at the Bruin. She was the photo editor, she was a copy editor, she wrote news stories — she just did everything.”

Nearing her graduation in 2003, O’Brien knew she wanted to travel. She started saving money and thinking about stories she could pursue.

“She was basically living in her truck and on people’s couches to save money to travel,” recalled Rayburn. “Over the winter break, we got this email from her — it kind of came out of the blue, but it was what you’d expect from her. She was always going from one adventure to another.”

The email is reproduced on the foundation’s website. In it, O’Brien thanked her friends for allowing her to sleep on their couches and in their extra beds so that she only had to spend five nights in her truck to save cash.

“I’m leaving in about 20 minutes to drive to the San Francisco airport and get on a plane to Nicaragua,” she wrote. “Sudden, yes. Random, yes. Malaria-ridden, yes.”

USA Today had hired her to cover a story about fair-trade coffee, she said, so she was heading out with a purpose. Her story was published in the Bruin, with her photographs appearing in USA Today. In October 2007, while on tour with her husband and his band, O’Brien was killed in a car accident when a deer ran onto the Ohio Turnpike, her father Kevin O’Brien said in an email.

After Bridget’s death, her friends and family wanted to find a way people could honor her memory besides sending flowers, Kevin O’Brien said. Rayburn and his wife Sarah, who had also worked at the Bruin and known Bridget, suggested a scholarship and offered to work out the logistics.

“The scholarship foundation in Bridget’s name allows us to keep her spirit alive by providing funding and resources not normally available at college publications, and by encouraging and allowing other student journalists to pursue their passion,” O’Brien said, adding that the support of the Bruin’s editors and adviser “help assure the reporting is carried out responsibly and to a high ethical standard.”

The teams are selected by an advisory board that includes Bridget O’Brien’s former Bruin colleagues, friends and her parents, said Tyson Evans, a board member who’s now deputy editor for interactive news at The New York Times.

Many Bruin staffers plan their application for the O’Brien scholarship far in advance. Ohigashi said he started thinking about a project when photo editor Maya Sugarman and her partner Matt Stevens went to Cameroon on the 2010 scholarship. In a phone interview, Ohigashi said he and Kohli first decided what issue they wanted to cover, then looked at countries in which LGBT rights was a pressing issue and to which UCLA had a connection. (In Malawi, UCLA works with Partners in Hope Medical Center to conduct research and provide free HIV/AIDS care.)

The scholarship committee chose Kohli and Ohigashi’s project because the team was clearly committed to the Bruin and because the proposal that became “In the Shadows” matched the scholarship’s mission, Rayburn said — “something with global reach and local consequence.”

Bridget O’Brien made it her mission to report on such stories, and her friends and family have now made it theirs to ensure other students have the same opportunities that she created for herself.

“We wanted to give other people the same opportunity without them having to spend a quarter in their truck,” Rayburn said. Read more

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Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013

searchlights_small

Journalism textbooks have seen their future and it is digital

An animated, thickly illustrated website freckled with hyperlinks doesn’t say “textbook” the way a musty hardcover does. But Eric Newton wants you to see “Searchlights and Sunglasses: Field Notes from the Digital Age of Journalism” as a model for what the textbooks of the future could be.

“There isn’t a name for what it is,” Newton, journalist and senior adviser to the Knight Foundation president, said in a phone interview. “It’s a digital book and a teaching tool – an HTML5 website designed in parallax so you have that 3D immersion. We call it a demonstration project.”

Eric Newton, journalist and senior adviser to the Knight Foundation president, leads a Poynter Institute/NewsU webinar, “Six Things Educators Can Do Right Now to Go Digital,” on Oct. 28.

The combination of Newton’s observations about the state of journalism and journalism education (much of which has been previously published on the Knight Foundation’s blog and in various other places) and assignments, links, and discussion questions that make up the “learning layer” will be available free of charge starting today.

Newton’s central messages are that journalism and journalism educators must prioritize digital innovation not only in curricula but also in curricular delivery; that we must let go of those things we used to do and realize that, like a riding in a recliner on a rollercoaster, adapting to the digital age may be a little scary but we may as well get comfortable with it. Change is inevitable.

“Psychologically, it’s always been okay for the news to change every minute, that’s fine,” Newton said. “But when it comes to how we do it, that’s uncomfortable.”

“Searchlights and Sunglasses” is meant as a proof of concept. “How can you call for digital change in a printed book form?” Newton asked. “It didn’t seem right.”

For those who need or want a hard copy, the site offers three download options, and each page, save the videos and animations, of course, can be printed. Not everyone has access to the bandwidth or technology it takes to really explore “Searchlights and Sunglasses,” but printing the PDFs, including the “learning layer,” which is nearly a hundred pages longer than the core of the book, would result in a stack of over 500 pages.

The “learning layer” activities, assignments, vocabulary terms, discussion questions, examples and links were created and curated by the “team of graduate students, researchers and educators” selected by the University of Missouri’s Reynolds Institute for Journalism, according to the acknowledgments section of “Searchlights and Sunglasses.”

“Searchlights and Sunglasses” is revolutionary, Newton said, in that it is “designed to be able to be updated hourly or weekly or monthly rather than annually or every five years.”

For the time being, Newton and his team will update it, until PBS MediaShift takes it over, he said. PBS MediaShift will make sure that its links and resources stay up-to-date and connected to what’s going on in the social and mobile world of news and at the forefront of the movement to bring journalism education into the digital age.

Newton estimates that “maybe 20 percent” of schools have truly tried to innovate and in “Searchlights and Sunglasses” he pleads with those who haven’t changed the way they think to see the light.

“If the news community doesn’t adapt, we may lose an entire century of professional journalism development,” Newton warns in the text. “The watchdog tradition, the courage, the ethics — all of it — will be as useful as a flashlight in Miami’s bright summer sun.”

Calling the project a demonstration and a model doesn’t necessarily mean that Newton or Knight wants every textbook to be parallax-scrolling, HTML5, multi-layered, or 500-plus pages.

There are countless ways to publish content online and to make it interactive, Newton said, and “Searchlights and Sunglasses” is just one example of how it can be done. The platform and the programming aren’t miraculous, he said.

“The hard part is getting into people’s heads with an image, an idea, that sparks a different way of looking at things – when it’s suddenly okay to be uncertain about the future and it’s okay to be in a culture of continuous change.”

For someone looking to produce a tool like this for the first time, the key is to “surround yourself with talented digital natives who want to tell stories,” Newton said in an email. “In my case, that was our creative director, Eric Schoenborn, who took the idea and made it real.” Innovation for the digital age doesn’t have to be expensive and shouldn’t feel impossible, he added.

“Overcomplicating change is what people do to avoid change,” he said. “We did it in the easiest way that was available to us – for somebody else it will be even easier.”

“Searchlights and Sunglasses” is one of three digital initiatives unveiled by the Knight Foundation. Read more about today’s announcements.

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Wednesday, Oct. 09, 2013

Serious student working with a computer

Journalism program takes lessons from teaching hospitals

What’s happening in journalism education sounds eerily like what’s happened to the newspaper industry over the last decade-and-a-half: While the talk in academia is of adjuncts and buyouts instead of freelancers and layoffs, professors are hearing more and more that commentators predict serious trouble for the journalism degree.

Meanwhile, every year for the last seven years, a small paper in Anniston, Ala., has been able to afford to devote six to eight reporters to yearlong, multimedia enterprise stories. And the University of Alabama boasts a job-placement rate above 90 percent for its community-journalism students.

How have these young Alabama reporters bucked grim trends in journalism? By following a model of education patterned after teaching hospitals.

The Alabama model

This fall, seven students began their master’s coursework in Alabama’s community-journalism program. They’ll graduate in July after completing two semesters of coursework, a yearlong group enterprise story, a yearlong multimedia feature project, writing countless local news stories and completing a three-month, full-time newsroom internship.

At first glance, the program doesn’t look all that different from what you’d expect from a journalism masters program.

“We know we have to teach communication theory, ethics, media law, and we do,” said Jennifer Greer, the chair of the University of Alabama’s journalism department, in a phone interview. But she added that Alabama’s journalism program always has an eye on its mission of improving community journalism: “We might think about agenda-setting as ‘What does it mean to set the agenda in your community?’ ”

What is unusual about this one-year journalism masters program is that it combines on-campus coursework with a full-time residency in a newsroom. 2012 graduate Ana Rodriguez said the Alabama program shows that a master’s in journalism doesn’t have to neglect hands-on journalism or theory but can combine both elements.

“That helped me and my class get just as comfortable writing a story as we were sharing it on social media,” Rodriguez said in a phone interview. “We had that same desire to use all the social-media things we are taught, and get out in the community, using traditional journalism skills.”

Community-journalism students complete in-depth, multimedia stories on an array of topics important to various communities they belong to or are interested in. They work on individual projects and contribute to a group project under the supervision of their professors and staff at The Anniston Star.

Rodriguez, now a reporter for AL.com, chose to do her masters project on HB 56, the immigration law Alabama passed in 2011, which opponents called the nation’s toughest.

“I didn’t want to get into the nitty-gritty of ‘This is what this law does,’ ” she said. “I wanted to go out and tell the stories of the people who were going to be affected. And I went out to try my best to tell the story through writing, through photography.”

While she was working on “They Are Us,” Rodriguez said, her professors encouraged her to immerse herself in the community. She attended a Spanish-language Catholic mass and met people who introduced her to friends, family and neighbors who had stories of trying to fit into American culture, dealing with domestic violence, and coping with fear in their own communities.

A number of student projects have attracted attention, Greer said. “Air War,” a group project in which students worked with Anniston Star reporters to collect and analyze documents from Birmingham, Ala., television stations during campaign season, won first place in investigative reporting in the 2012 Alabama Associated Press Managing Editor awards, Greer noted — the third straight year the award went to work done by community-journalism students at the Star.

Sara Falligant’s work on “Piper Place,” a collection of multimedia stories about a community mental-health facility, got an honorable mention in the Society for News Design’s 25th annual College News Design Contest. Falligant, a 2013 graduate, now works for the Opelika-Auburn News‎. A history major, she had no prior journalism experience before starting the program, which she said she chose because she knew she needed practical skills and experience in the field right away.

Reached via phone, Falligant said the step-by-step learning process of the program’s first nine months prepared her for the “faster-paced” environment of the Star, where the graduate students “got in pretty deep, pretty quickly” once assigned their beats.

Newspaper mentors

In Alabama’s model, the students are more like fellows or residents than interns, said Tim Lockette, The Anniston Star’s capital and state correspondent and an Alabama adjunct instructor. Editors and staff at the Star mentor the students, but few need much handholding.

“You give people tools to get the job done, you send them out to do it, ideally they rise to the occasion,” Lockette said in a phone interview.

Lockette and Star Editor Bob Davis have embraced the teaching-hospital model of journalism education.

“In a teaching hospital, there’s two big missions,” Davis said in a phone interview. “Like any hospital, you treat sick people. Secondary mission: You take students and teach them how to treat sick people.”

This is the program’s eighth year, and its structure has changed somewhat since the beginning, Greer said. At the outset, the program had students part-time in the Star newsroom and part-time at the university.

That meant the students were always “pulled in two different directions” between coursework and reporting, Greer said, a problem exacerbated by the two-hour drive between Anniston and Tuscaloosa. Now, instead of commuting, the students spend three months embedded in the newsroom and nine months taking graduate courses and working piece by piece on longer, in-depth projects.

The program was initially funded by a grant from the Knight Foundation but is now self-sustaining, Greer said. Students work as teaching assistants and receive stipends during the school year and get paychecks from the Star during their time at the newspaper.

Alabama’s graduate experiment hasn’t come at the expense of its undergraduates. The new Digital Media Center at Bryant-Denny Stadium will open its doors in 2014, housing the university’s WVUA-TV, Crimson Tide Productions and the Center for Public Television and Radio. The center will give undergraduates hands-on experience similar to what their graduate student counterparts get in Anniston.

“Departments are working on plans to move classes over into the real-world newsrooms,” Greer said.

The teaching-hospital model and a focus on community journalism aren’t the only ways to shake up journalism education, but the Alabama graduates are passionate about the program’s promise.

“I hope that other journalism programs and papers realize that the only way we can sustain journalism is to make ourselves the experts in our community,” Rodriguez said. Journalists, she added, should be “people that people can talk to, that they want to talk to.”

Advice from Alabama

Here are 10 pieces of advice for journalism educators that Alabama’s university and newsroom mentors have accumulated over nearly a decade of working with the teaching-hospital model:

  • Find the right people. Not all professors are going to want to be in the newsroom, so find the ones who will love the role, Greer said.
  • Like the newsroom, the academy has its turf wars. You can get buy-in for a project by pitching it the right way, Greer said, such as emphasizing that resources for one project are good for the entire department. At the Star, Davis recalled the need to “prepare everyone in your newsroom for what might be a different model.” When the program began, Davis said, some in the newsroom worried it would jeopardize their jobs. “It took a long time to just say, ‘No, that’s not what’s going to happen.’ ”
  • Plan for the student’s whole career. At Alabama, graduate students work on small pieces of a larger project over multiple semesters, picking up skills that help them in the newsroom. Greer sees that as more effective and integrated than “cramming it all into one class,” adding that this model has led to some of the most impactful investigative stories and “showpieces” produced.
  • Be open to changing what you teach, even while teaching the same courses. Students “look through scholarly stuff and theory” and study how that relates to community, Lockette said, adding that “they use that in the way they build their website — how news media actually works in their community.”
  • Be open to changing who teaches in your program. Many tenured professors have worked in newsrooms, Greer said, and the department makes an effort to bring professional voices into the classroom through in-person and Skype visits from prominent journalists across the world.
  • Be open to changing how you teach. Alabama’s undergraduate program has two fully online classes, but relies mostly on what Greer calls a “hybrid delivery model.” But, she said, the university knows more online efforts will come, “because that’s the way the world is going.” Also, Greer said, the program has moved away from trying to teach skills in one or two classes and towards building a skill-set through smaller projects that students incorporate into their masters projects.
  • Be clear about your expectations. “Ours is a complex program,” said graduate program director Wilson Lowrey in a phone interview, adding that it’s important to have an “explanation for the students, have sufficient material that explains things to them, effective orientations, one-on-one conversations.”
  • Don’t get caught up in the latest tech tools for storytelling – technology is changing so quickly that it can feel impossible to keep up. Instead, Lowrey said, “you have to teach them to fish rather than give them fish. … We want [students] to come up with their own solutions, innovate, and critically assess what they’re doing.”
  • Be open to collaborations with other departments. The community-journalism students work with students in the computer-based honors program, Lowrey said, and this collaboration has meant higher-quality work than the community-journalism students could produce on their own.
  • Reporters and editors should remember to be inspirational as well as instructional. “I think of journalism as a calling – you’re spreading the good word,” Davis said, adding: “Be prepared to tell them why you do what you do and why it’s important. We all are in a process of learning about this profession.”

Related: Journalism schools need to adapt or risk becoming irrelevant | Rebooting journalism education means constant state of change | Knight report on training shows journalists want technology, multimedia, data skills

Related training: Six Things Educators Can Do Right Now To Go Digital (NewsU) Read more

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Wednesday, Sep. 18, 2013

SONY DSC

How editing processes are evolving at college-media outlets

A guest lecturer told my students last month that one of things he was most excited about in his new job covering Ohio State athletics was working with editors again.

Thinking I’d misunderstood him, I asked if his stories were edited before being published online.

The answer was no.

This was a recent alumnus working for an online-only outlet that required dozens of stories per month, but I was still surprised. Surprised, but also reminded of an exchange with the sports editor during my first summer as adviser for The Lantern. He had been posting content — often well-done stories and commentaries — without anyone else on staff seeing it first.

As adviser, that made no sense to me for journalistic and legal reasons. The more editors involved the better, for everything from copy-editing to fact-checking. There’s also the fact that in this learning environment the only way to get better at editing is to edit.

After some initial pushback, the Lantern editors and I agreed on a minimum of two edits for everything, even in breaking-news situations and even if an editor is producing the content. For print, there are always at least five edits on every piece and often more, and at least one page proof, with two common.

I reached out to a half-dozen college-media outlets to see how their editing processes differ between online and print, including the number of edits and personnel involved. For the most part, print processes were similar, though many are works in progress. Online editing ranged from no editors required to two or more, while multimedia elements often received fewer edits than traditional print pieces. (For a look at how college-media outlets can work to prevent plagiarism and fabrication, this Poynter piece is excellent.)

Print edits extensive, evolving

George Washington University in Washington, D.C. saw its twice-weekly paper become a weekly earlier this month. Cory Weinberg, editor-in-chief at The GW Hatchet, said that conversion has given his staff even more time to edit print pieces.

Typically, the section editor takes first read for a day or two, then the managing editor and Weinberg take a look, all before production. During production, those three edit again, along with a copy editor. Once stories are on the page, the copy chief, managing editor and editor-in-chief all edit again, Weinberg said in a phone interview.

At the University of Kansas, everything starts with a section editor who reviews stories for style, structure and bigger-picture issues, said Trevor Graff, editor-in-chief of The University Daily Kansan, in a phone interview. The article then goes to the copy chief to assign to a copy editor for a comprehensive edit, including AP style and grammar. After that, it’s back to the copy chief for a cursory look and then to the design desk for laying out on the page. The issue is printed on 11×17 paper for page proofs.

As editor-in-chief, Graff doesn’t need to see all articles before publication. He said he takes on the bigger stories, which often cover more-sensitive subjects. One recent example was a story about students from Syria that had obvious political and religious tensions.

“It’s on me to coach reporters and editors through the tougher situations,” Graff said.

The biggest change at the Daily Kansan this year is that the same copy editor takes the story through the whole process. Last year, there were different people copy-editing, writing headlines and photo cutlines.

“We did that to enhance consistency and make sure the copy editors assigned the story can see every element of the story,” Graff said. “We missed some headlines last year.”

Brittany Horn, editor-in-chief of The Daily Collegian at Penn State University, said in a phone interview that the process is similar there: She doesn’t edit all stories, but focuses on the most important and potentially controversial ones. The managing editor and copy chief read everything before publication.

The Opinion section is different, however: Only that section’s editor and Horn read the columns before publication. The Daily Collegian also recently debuted two sex columns written anonymously. For those, the paper’s adviser and Horn are the only advance readers.

Casey Fabris, editor-in-chief of The Daily Orange at Syracuse University, said in a phone interview that all print stories get at least six edits — including her own — before publication. It’s a similar set-up here at The Lantern, where the process begins with the section and copy editors and ends with the editor-in-chief, managing editor for content and the copy chief, all of whom read everything before publication. Stories are often proofed twice on the page.

Online, multimedia editing standards vary

While there are deep, structured print-editing procedures at these college-media outlets, the online-editing workflow varies, especially for breaking news.

At Syracuse and Ohio State, all online articles get at least two reads. Once the item is posted, editors will look again to ensure no obvious copy-editing or other issues exist. Here at Ohio State, a multimedia editor and two assistants are responsible for the editing and quality of the video content. The Lantern photo editor and assistant work on individual shots and slideshows, while captions get at least two additional edits.

Fabris said The Daily Orange created a video-editor position this spring, with that editor shooting much of his own content but also helping edit other submissions. The managing editor and Fabris look at those video packages as well, she said.

At Penn State, Horn said reads by at least two editors is standard for online articles, but major breaking news could be done with one edit, though that rarely happens. If editors are geographically spread out, they edit via an email chain.

Sam Stites, editor-in-chief of the University of Oregon’s Emerald Media Group, said the staff tries to be strict, “but in breaking-news situations sometimes only two pairs of eyes (reporter, editor) see the story before it’s published online,” with a copy-edit after posting.

“We actually have been playing with a new feature that sends a status update to the next editor, copy editor or manager whenever the status of a story is changed on our website,” Stites said via email. “This allows us to be notified when we need to look at something for quick editing.”

Graff said for online stories it’s “not as many eyes, but more-experienced eyes,” as the staff attempts to recreate the print workflow without the traditional structure. Stories rarely go out with only one edit because the Kansas paper has a handful of paid reporters who are supposed to be on call.

The photo editor in Kansas plays the same role as any section editor, working to select the best sports and news images to illustrate that day’s stories. The copy editor assigned to the story also can see those images while editing, Graff said. The photo editor reads captions for online-only shots, while any cutlines in print go through the normal editing process.

Weinberg said only four people have online-publishing power at the GW Hatchet; it’s OK for one of those top editors to post something and then have it read online by other editors. Typically, the section editor and then the managing editor or Weinberg reads a news article before it’s posted. They are trying to determine where a copy editor should fit in that process.

Weinberg said he thinks the balancing act between prioritizing stories and “absolute, minute carefulness” is a struggle for many college newspapers, adding that “we are still trying to figure out the right balance, the right mix.”

Weinberg also said the Hatchet staff realizes the need to quickly put structure around the online editing process before a major gaffe forces the issue.

That’s smart — while these college-media leaders are some of the most-talented journalists in the country, everyone needs an editor. It may sound great to work without one, but like the recent Ohio State alum who spoke to my class said, you miss editors when they’re gone. They force you to get better. Read more

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Wednesday, Sep. 11, 2013

2013 Cover

University of Oregon students embrace iPad-only publication, challenge traditional storytelling methods

Nathan Wallner is punching me in the face.

Again and again, the mixed martial arts fighter jukes, jives and aims jabs directly at my jawbone. Or so it seems, thanks to an eye-opening, interactive reading experience courtesy of OR Magazine.

Conceived and assembled each spring by upperclassmen at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication, OR is the first and most prominent student publication produced exclusively for the iPad. It’s also one of the most innovative student-media and journalism-education initiatives in the U.S., an effort that seeks to “challenge the traditional approach to classroom instruction” and pioneer new methods of content production.

Or, as a student staffer on the magazine put it last year, “I really feel like I’m working for The Daily Prophet from Harry Potter.”

The Wild West of a learning curve

The reader’s journey with OR doesn’t begin in a cupboard under the stairs but in the iTunes store on the iPad. A little patience is required – depending on your connection, downloading an issue can take about 20 minutes. And navigation is an interactive adventure in its own right, involving horizontal and vertical scrolling, occasional rotating, tapping at various speeds and levels of intensity, and uncovering the multimedia extras waiting to be digested.

As I discovered, those extras can pack a punch.

For example, the video of the MMA’s Wallner delivering digital blows at the screen is a teaser for a profile focused on “the interiority of the fighter’s mind, what it feels like to step into the cage and get beaten up or beat somebody up in front of a lot of people.”

The multimedia package, titled “How to Be a Badass,” includes video, a photo slideshow, and a write-up about how Wallner balances a brutal MMA training regimen with university classes and work as a bouncer. At one point, an image of Wallner in mid-punch is meshed seamlessly with time-lapse video of his own shadow sparring against a wall. While he remains still in the foreground, his shadow can be scrolled into action, fighting on, a metaphor for how omnipresent MMA is in his life.

The main feature by Ben Kendall concludes with a glimpse inside the sport’s famed cage, recounting a bout pitting Wallner against a hometown favorite. To win the fight, Wallner unleashes a “flurry of left-right combinations,” a left hook, and a chokehold known as the guillotine. He earns a championship medal and belt, while losing a filling. As Wallner puts it, “The whole experience is kind of a rollercoaster in your mind.”

Which isn’t a bad description of how OR came to be.

Soon after Apple’s Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad in late January 2010, Ed Madison jump-started a course on the tablet’s emerging technology.

Ed Madison

At the time, Madison, a veteran journalist and a founding producer of CNN, was a UO journalism teaching fellow and doctoral candidate. He put together the 400-level invite-only lab class – called Mobile Media Production – with advertising professor Deborah Morrison. After receiving approval from School of Journalism and Communication dean Tim Gleason, it premiered only two months after the Jobs announcement.

“The class started and iPads weren’t even in the stores yet,” said Madison, now an assistant professor and media partnerships manager at the university. “We had no textbooks or anything. We created it as an experimental course.”

The experiment centered on not running from what Madison called “the wild west in terms of our learning curve.” Instead, they embraced it.

“It’s really a question of how do we define what teaching is,” Madison said. “Is teaching that I’m supposed to be in front of the room, have all the answers, and show you something that I have mastered? Or is teaching an exploration I do together with students? I think the students are more interested in the exploration.”

With iPads barely out of their boxes during that first course, students explored apps. They collaborated with several Portland-based media companies to develop app prototypes, including one for a gardening book that sought to enable users to learn more about plant life.

The experience planted the seeds for OR Magazine, which was created in spring 2011 during the course’s second go-round. As Madison put it, “If that [first] year was about apps, 2011 was about publishing.”

The 2011 cover.

Part of the beta

Since 2011, the course has also been about student control, based on a philosophy Madison advocates: “Empower leaders to be leaders.”

For each spring course, he recruits upperclassmen with a variety of skills, including reporting, copy editing, photography, videography and design. During the first weekly session, the students vie for various staff positions, and are voted in by their peers. They then make all the decisions about the thematic concept and specific content of each issue, with Madison, Morrison, and a number of experts on and off campus advising, evaluating, and teaching along the way.

“Our strength was in guiding from the sidelines, as opposed to the kind of front-of-the-room instruction that was more traditional,” Madison said in late 2011, roughly five months after students published the first edition of OR. “That by no means was meant to indicate this was a free-for-all. It’s important to have a structure in place to allow us to achieve.”

Along with structure, timing has been essential to the course’s success. Madison has repeatedly scheduled the class for 8 a.m. on Fridays, as a means of weeding out the less motivated. That bit of timing was engineered on purpose, but the timing of the most significant game-changer for the class was serendipitous.

Six weeks before the spring 2011 term began at UO, Adobe debuted its Digital Publishing Suite (DPS), which enables the creation of a more interactive, tablet-specific audience experience.

Madison read about the software and contacted Adobe staffers, asking if they could provide DPS to students prior to its public release so they could put together a magazine for the iPad. Adobe said yes, making UO’s students, in Madison’s words, “part of the beta.”

At the time, Adobe didn’t even have an instruction manual for DPS. The company asked the students to report back on anything they stumbled across that needed fixing or expanding.

While working on the magazine, students only had access to DPS for the final five weeks of the 10-week term. Functions accessible one day were suddenly gone or shifted the next. And the software was available in a single computer lab that was free solely on weekends and after 4 p.m. on weekdays.

The students soldiered on. “It’s not ‘Oh, I threw it together [at] midnight before it was due because it was just a grade,’ ” said Scott Landis, the issue’s co-editor-in-chief. “This was truly about being professionals and producing something we can be proud of and that can make a difference and change the way people view magazines, and the university.”

Bells and whistles

The first OR magazine aimed to inform readers about UO’s many accomplishments beyond what most people associate with the school – think football, Phil Knight and Nike.

A play button on that first cover brings readers to a black-and-white video depicting a campus library. On screen, a bespectacled student is slowly pushing a cart of books when a hardback title on a nearby shelf grabs his attention.

Once opened, the book flings the student – and by extension the viewer – down a colorful rabbit hole displaying many facets of the university. The images that speed by in time-lapse fashion – and against a techno-beat – appear through a tilt-shift filter. The Adobe After Effects editing option blurs and hyper-focuses certain parts of the photos, suffusing the whole proceedings with what video editor Scott Uyeda called “a figurine movement look.”

On the pages that follow, similar innovations accompany features on campus glass-blowing workshops, the school’s world-class zebrafish breeding facility, the ultimate Frisbee team, and UO professors studying Congolese apes and quantum physics.

But nothing is presented for innovation’s sake. Madison and the students describe a constant tension between experimenting with what is possible and doing what is best for the content and audience.

In a video interview conducted this spring, OR staffer Melanie Burke said that “the temptation to make everything spin and flip and turn and mirror and rotate and pop alive when you touch it is really, really strong because it’s cool and it’s new and we’ve never been able to do this kind of thing before.”

But according to Madison, “just because we have all of these bells and whistles doesn’t mean we want to gratuitously use them.”

The team tries to keep the final file size of each digital issue small enough that readers won’t become frustrated by a long download and give up before giving it a look. They also work to stay true to their editorial vision.

“We’ve had situations where we had video shot for something and went ‘You know what, this is really better told with a slideshow,’” Madison said. “Or ‘This is more oriented around the visuals instead of a lot of copy.’ It’s kind of letting the integrity of the story drive how we go about telling it.”

Dare to adventure

One last decision that has been integral to OR’s success is upending what Madison calls “the old paradigm of workflow, where a person writes an article and maybe a photographer comes out with them and then they turn things over to a design team and the design team decides how to visualize the story and how the page is going to be laid out.”

With OR, everyone is involved in every inch of story planning and execution – the brainstorming, reporting, editing, imagery, multimedia, layout, and interactivity. For this spring’s issue, this collaboration produced a set of gear guides linked to stories on Oregon kayakers, mountaineers, and mountain bikers.

The guides include head-to-toe visual rundowns of what these athletes wear and employ while paddling, pedaling, and climbing. The OR crew interacted from the get-go on the content, visual concept, and background research. They communicated throughout the subsequent reporting, including while staffers gathered audio of the adventure junkies explaining each piece of clothing and equipment. They coordinated a professional photo shoot. And they dabbled with the look and interactive elements of the final layouts, which display the supplies on their own and also attached to the individuals describing their utility.

“It’s a process that is somewhat organic, but everyone’s involved,” Madison said. “It’s not sort of handing it down a conveyor belt, if you will.”

In that spirit, one of the teaser headlines featured on the cover of the spring issue could apply to the magazine itself and the students and faculty members behind it: “Thrillseekers: Those who dare to adventure where others won’t.”

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