Give the students credit.
They were handed an ambitious goal and, when I lost my nerve and pulled the plug on their journalism project, “The New Bullying,” they plugged it back in and made it work.
The advanced reporting class at Michigan State University’s School of Journalism is expected to go in-depth and produce multimedia content for the Web. A topic emerged in December 2011, when Michigan became the 48th state to adopt an anti-bullying law for schools. The law set a six-month deadline for public districts to adopt or update their policies.
When the class met on Jan. 9, 17 juniors and seniors were asked whether they had ever published a book. None had.
The challenge was to build a website about bullying and turn that into a book. The book was to be available in print and digital forms, and we had to complete it before classes ended in April.
Of course, we had help. My former Detroit Free Press colleague David Crumm and his business partner, John Hile, run a small, forward-thinking publishing company called David Crumm Media, LLC. The duo, who publish books and the online magazine ReadtheSpirit.com, offered to take us on as an experiment.
Our learning objectives were to assess what readers wanted to know about bullying, fulfill that with multimedia content, and publish it on a variety of platforms. I have learned through a couple books that I published with Crumm and Hile that people expect websites to be free but will pay for books — even when they share the same content.
How we found our focus
The class met Monday and Wednesday mornings, with a lab on Monday nights. On our first day, we brainstormed bullying on sticky notes, grouped our words and phrases and voted. Hile visited our class and put our ideas through the keyword analysis tool Market Samurai.
This showed us terms that were getting hits on Google, but that there weren’t many results for. These would be our sweet spots. We were initially going to focus on those words and phrases — which would have made for a boring project — but we caught a break.
One of our guest speakers had a schedule conflict and asked if he could come in sooner than the date we had picked. The speaker was Kevin Epling, a national anti-bullying activist whose son Matt had taken his own life after having been bullied. Michigan’s new law is known as “Matt’s Law.” Epling is founder and co-director of Bully Police USA. He and his wife, Tammy, both came to our class.
They said it took a long time to pass Michigan’s anti-bullying law because many adults do not understand how bullying has changed; it is not the bullying they experienced as kids. This gave us our journalistic angle — to find out how bullying had changed. We began calling the project “The New Bullying.”
The keyword story assignments were trashed and, at Hile’s direction, we built eight entry pages that we hoped would come up high in searches on phrases like “bullying statistics,” “hazing definition” and “social exclusion.” Those pages are on the site, but they are not near the top. Their sole job is to attract readers, provide them with some quick answers and link to the journalism on the site.
Guest speakers — including opposing state senators, a clinical instructor from MSU’s School of Social Work, a lawyer and a retired sheriff — helped us find stories. Students interviewed people in person and by phone or email. They made videos, photos, graphics and a sharp book cover.
Developing a Web presence
On Feb. 13, we began posting to the WordPress site we had created. We used more sticky notes and a chart to make sure we were hitting all our keywords, even though we weren’t writing directly to them. Satisfied that we had covered those areas, we pivoted, rearranging the content into the order it would take in book form.
Student Lynn Bentley, who wrote about bullycide and school violence, wasn’t sure how news stories written for a website would translate into a book.
“To me, people don’t buy books that simply collect news stories,” Bentley said. “I believed that our stories would, in the end, need to be broader, more detailed and would need to offer readers not just the news about bullying but solutions for changing, stopping or coping with bullying. I wasn’t convinced that we would have enough time to do the required editing, and I had a difficult time writing my stories since I tried to mesh the two types of writing.”
Although we did address solutions, we took a non-traditional route when creating “The New Bullying.” As Bentley noted, traditional books are linear from beginning to end, but this book was organized after the parts had been written. We built the website chronologically but reordered everything by topic when we pivoted to the book.
The idea for stringing content chunks from a blog into book form came from marketer Seth Godin, who regularly turned his blog posts into books that sell — even though all the content is free on the Web. Since we had 17 writers, that seemed to give us a speed advantage.
A lesson in time management, perseverance
As the students reported, wrote and produced, the clock ticked. I started to chicken out. We were not going to make it.
Soon, we would have to switch over to almost all editing, and we did not have enough content. I had not done enough homework on Hile’s home-brew of Extensible Markup Language to feel confident enough that we could tag our content to print simultaneously on all those platforms. I worried about some of the things Bentley had worried about. How could this be a book?
On March 19, I pulled the plug. I apologized for not asking the students whether they even wanted to publish a book and said that this had been too ambitious. Embarrassed, I told journalism school Director Lucinda Davenport that I had to stop the project. I told Crumm and Hile that we couldn’t get it done on time. The experiment, I said, had failed, and it wasn’t the students’ fault.
I told them we could settle for a good website. We would meet individually during our next class period to talk about how they were doing with their grades and, after that, we would reboot as a normal class for the final month of the semester.
The students wouldn’t have it. In our one-on-one meetings, several students said that they did not want to give up on the book.
Seth Beifel said he thought he could learn to produce books on the MSU Library’s new Espresso Book Machine I had told the class about. He had read some of the documentation.
Dmitri Barvinok, a junior, told me he had dabbled with XML and thought he could make a Kindle book. “Everything worked about as well as could be expected,” he recalled, “but I think we had trouble getting organized and starting, which makes sense given the unprecedented scope of the project.”
That had been my mistake. We had started with an end product in mind and a schedule, but I had not planned out the process in enough detail to be confident about our path.
Finally, my students made me listen to them, instead of the other way around. On March 26, I apologized to the class again. This time, I asked them to decide what we would do. They voted. They wanted to make a book.
Creating the book, spreading the word about it
When I told Crumm that the students had overruled me and that we would do a stripped-down version of a book, he said he and Hile wanted back in. My nerves had cost us a week.
Leslie Tilson, who had taken the lead on the cover, had to get it fired up again. Stories that had stalled were back on. We turned classes into editing sessions and we wrote chapter headings. Some good videos were produced, including a gallery of nine in which Allen Martin asked middle-school students about bullying.
Hile came back to the class and went into detail about XML tagging and how it helps content come out on multiple platforms — including platforms that have not been invented.
And they got their book done.
“I would say the part of the book that did not work as well was the reason the book turned out so well — that is the diversity of those who put the book together,” Beifel said. “We had designers, editors, writers, photographers, video editors who all have different personalities and interests.”
“The New Bullying” was for sale as a $9.95 Nook download on Barnes & Noble on April 19. Within days, it was available for Amazon’s Kindle. We ordered 40 print copies. I downloaded “The New Bullying” into the Kindle apps on my iPhone and iPad, and we passed the book around during our last week of class. It is up on Google Play. It is in iTunes. The print books were mailed to their authors.
It had taken 101 days for the first version to come out. We could have had a book-signing party if I had listened more and worried less.
The students created a marketing team, and two were soon on the Michigan Radio Network to talk about it. University press relations picked up their press release and the project was on TV and the AP. (You can watch a video about the book here.)
“The idea of publishing a book as a class was crazy,” Beifel said. “Who could imagine 17 20ish-year-old students writing a book that actually means something? Thinking back, I know it can be done and that there is no one way to write a book.”
But it may be that 20ish-year-old people are exactly what we need; this kind of publishing appeals to many of them.
When I asked Barvinok whether this changed the way he thinks about journalism, he responded, “Not really. Journalism is about taking information and putting it out for the public to consume. Many books have been published in this style, though not necessarily by journalists or journalism classes.”
Barvinok, who wrote some good stories and worked with Hile on the XML tagging, has a new part-time job, by the way. Crumm and Hile hired him.