March 31, 2020

Welcome to Alma Matters, a regularly updated feature on Poynter.org to assist educators with online teaching and help student media organizations with resources during the COVID-19 shutdown.

Struggling and need advice? Have a tip or tool you want to share with others? Email me at ballen@poynter.org.

Reminder: All News University self-directed courses and webinars are free until May 31. Use the discount code 20college100 

Look it up!

If you left your AP Stylebook behind when campuses closed, the AP is offering temporary free licenses to students and teachers. Click here for more details.

No time for jokes

April Fools’ Day jokes or satire issues are not an uncommon practice for student newspapers across the country. I asked David Swartzlander, associate professor of practice in journalism and adviser to The Doane Owl at Doane University in Crete, Nebraska, what he expected from remote college journalists this year.

“I normally oppose them (joke issues) because students spend all year trying to convince the college community that they are trustworthy and transparent, then blow it all in one issue,” he said. “Professional news organizations don’t do that. If we’re trying to teach students to be professionals, shouldn’t we mirror what the pros do at least in terms of satire? In addition, satire is difficult to write well, even for experienced writers.”

He also expressed concern, though unlikely, about libel suits.

“So, in general, I oppose them,” he said — especially in light of COVID-19.

“I understand we all could use a laugh — or several dozen laughs — but when you’re trying to inform the public about a deadly disease … I don’t think the news columns are the place to try to elicit chuckles. To me, we should play it straight.”

But, he added, “I think my students are going to do just that, but now that we’re publishing daily online, who knows what will happen? After all, I advise. I don’t censor.”

The former College Media Association president also had high praise for his students, who operate their news company without the support of a journalism school.

“(They) are busting their asses on this story. I am super proud of them.”

Story idea corner

I’m hearing from professors who need inspiration on ideas that students can execute from their bedrooms and dining rooms. Here’s help:

  • The University of South Florida raised $78,000 in three days to support students who find themselves without housing or food, the Tampa Bay Times reported. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that many universities canceled or pivoted their annual giving days. Did yours?
    •  Is anyone from your university collecting money? Are they officially part of the school or a separate entity like the university foundation or a GoFundMe? In other words, who’s handing out the cash and how? How do students qualify?
    • How much has been raised?
  • Study abroad: Where were spring semester students, and where are they now? What has happened to them since coming home? Did they have to quarantine? Will they get credit for their hours? How has this experience affected them (look especially for students from hard-hit places like Italy)? Students at Indiana University are already all over it.

Meeting coverage without meeting?

Charged with covering the city council or the county election board, but all that’s available is a livestream? Here are tips from Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida and the former director of the Student Press Law Center (yes, I know I’m double-dipping because I featured him last time, but he’s really smart and he talks so pretty).

“Whenever possible, you cover a government meeting in-person and face-to-face. If you watch it remotely, you invariably miss something happening off-camera or off-microphone. You miss the audience reaction, you miss who’s walking in and out, you miss opportunities to grab people in the hallways and in the parking lot. Sometimes it’s journalistically important to be able to say what the audience looks like. If it’s a school board meeting about busing kids for racial integration, what’s the racial makeup of the spectators? The turnout may give you a sense of how strongly the community feels. That said, you have to use whatever the best available method is. If the board members are all video-conferencing from their homes, then by all means, you join that video conference. Ideally if you’ve worked the beat, you have cell phone contacts for the key stakeholders, and you can try to replicate those hallway conversations remotely.”

Do drop in

Here’s a Google doc, prepped by the Society for News Design and friends, of professionals who are available for free drop-in teaching for professors who still need some help bridging that yawning divide between in-class and online. We previously told you about the one from the Institute for Nonprofit News — it has doubled in offerings since last week. Know of others? Let me know! Let’s build a database of databases together!

Here’s one for film footage

A Big List of Sources and Ideas for Found / Archival Digital Moving Image Collections is an 11-page (at time of publication) “crowd-sourced, collaborative, ongoing list of U.S. and international sources of accessible / online digital moving image material.”

Multimedia students and professors, dive in!

Fighting words

The College Media Association has drafted a letter to schools that have or seek to shutter their student media programs while campuses are closed in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. Come on, administrators. That’s like telling the firefighting academy cadets not to put out a burning building because there’s a shelter in place order. This is exactly when they learn best how to do ethical, responsible journalism — better yet, they can do it from their kitchen tables while sheltering in place.

CMA also has a coronavirus resource roundup page designed just for student media with loads of links.

Remember, send me your questions, ideas, solutions, tips, recipes and spoiler endings to movies I won’t watch … I’ll try to help as much as I can in a future column! Hit me up at ballen@poynter.org or on Twitter, @barbara_allen_.

Until then, stay away!

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Barbara Allen is the director of college programming for Poynter. Prior to that, she served as managing editor of Poynter.org. She spent two decades in…
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