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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